UK peatlands are wild, often remote places. These aren’t the fields and farms that many town dwellers associate with the British countryside, rather areas of bog and mire that may be seldom visited except, perhaps, by the committed enthusiast. Not all look as attractive as they might — all too often peat bogs have suffered extensive damage, either through extraction of material for gardening products or attempts to drain the land for agricultural purposes. But these are important places, providing not only iconic and beautiful habitats for other species, but also vital resources for our own survival.
What have peat bogs got to offer? Our supplies of clean drinking water depend on rainfall in peatlands and they can also be important in mitigating flooding , slowing down the flow of water on its way to urban areas. Highly specialised species that are often rare, threatened or declining live, feed and breed in peatland habitats. From the bog hoverfly to the golden plover and greenshank, many species make their home here.
But another function of peatland bogs has become increasingly evident as a result of our research over the past few years. They act as carbon sinks, locking up large quantities of CO2, but the damage they have suffered results in the release of significant quantities of this greenhouse gas. Restoration projects can, however, help to reverse this and deliver significant climate change benefits. Such an approach ensures that increased biodiversity and human welfare go hand in hand.
The Peatland Programme of the IUCN UK National Committee has already put in place the Peatland Code — a mechanism by which businesses can help fund peatland restoration projects. This is a voluntary standard that quantifies carbon emission reductions of restored peatlands, ensuring that companies have confidence that their funds will return clear carbon benefits in line with their social responsibility aims. This is work that I have been personally involved in at University of Leeds, Birmingham City University and now Newcastle University. Our research demonstrates that, over appropriate timeframes of between 30-100 years, good practice restoration can deliver significant climate mitigation benefits alongside the whole range of habitat benefits for other species.
That’s why I very much welcome the news that the UK Government is launching a new £10 million grant scheme to restore these important habitats. Already our Wildlife Trusts and other organisations within the environmental sector are engaged in projects to rewet mosses, block drainage ditches and reseed areas with the Sphagnum mosses upon which the formation of peat depends. They are helping to establish connectivity within the landscape and strengthen ecological networks. Increased soil moisture encourages craneflies (a key biodiversity indicator), providing vital food for birds – just one example of the interconnectedness of this habitat. Less visible, but equally important, are the microbial communities of fungi, bacteria and algae associated with microhabitats around peatland plants.
If you’ve never visited a peat bog, don’t be put off by the name. Go and have a look at this iconic landscape and ponder the many services it provides for biodiversity and for us. Remember that in this era of climate change we, and that peat bog, need all the help we can get. Restoration and the extra funding just announced could make a difference.
Professor Mark Reed is N8 Professor of Socio-Technical Innovation and Research Lead for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s UK Peatland Programme.