All we are saying is give peat a chance…

25 April 2019

Formed over thousands of years, it has taken just six decades to devastate Yorkshire's peatlands. Lyndon Marquis of the Yorkshire Peat Partnership writes about their vital work to give peat a chance. 

What is Yorkshire Peat Partnership?

Yorkshire Peat Partnership is restoring peatlands in the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors National Parks and Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  These landscapes contain around 70,000 hectares of peatland – for context, the Isle of Wight is 38,000 hectares – of which 80% are degraded. Our goal is to restore and conserve upland peat resources in order to ensure the long-term future of these unique and valuable habitats.

How do peatlands form?

Peatlands form over thousands of years. They are the accumulation of layers and layers of slowly decomposing plants, which over time turns into a sort of organic soil we call peat. On average, it takes about 1,000 years to form 1m deep of peat. Peat can only form in very wet conditions, which cause the plants to rot very slowly.

A large proportion of the plants that form peat are sphagnum mosses - a group of around 380 species worldwide. You can find out more about the miracle moss in this blog post.

Sphagnum mosses by Beth Thomas

A shin high forest of sphagnum mosses and cross-leaved heath. Photo credit: Beth Thomas. 

Because the plants don't properly biodegrade when they die, they don't release their carbon (part of the structure of all living things) to the atmosphere. It is trapped within the land and only released if the peatland is disturbed.

Healthy peatlands are wet environments; sphagnum can hold 20 times its weight in water! They're also fully saturated, meaning they can't absorb any more water. Sometimes it is claimed that a peatland will help to 'absorb' rainfall, preventing it from reaching rivers - this is not true. However, the plants and mosses that thrive in the wet habitat help to slow the flow of water across the land, reducing the risk of flash flooding downriver.

Wet peatlands are vital habitatsBlanket bogs are vital habitats for plants such as sundew as well as animals. Photo credit: Jonathan Bliss.

There are lots of plants, mosses and animals that love the wet peatland environment, including round-leaved sundew, cotton grass, curlew, golden plover and field voles.

The peatlands we restore are an upland habitat called blanket bog – you can find out more about that habitat in this blog post and this podcast.

How were our peatlands damaged?

Formed over thousands of years, it has taken just six decades to devastate Yorkshire's peatlands.

Most damage occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, when the government attempted to drain the land to make it more productive for agriculture. Drainage channels, known as grips, were dug across huge areas of peatlands. These grips criss-cross the landscape today.

The grips meant that the peatlands released the water they were previously holding. Rainfall ran off the land into the channels, causing the water table to drop dramatically. Sphagnum and other important peat-forming plants were unable to survive without saturated conditions.

As the plants on the surface of the peatland die, the peat underneath is exposed. This has three major impacts:

  • the carbon stored within the peat is released into the atmosphere
  • the peat is washed into the grips and ends up in our water system
  • Winding channels, called gullies erode into the peat, allowing yet more water to drain from peatland

As water runs into the gullies, it erodes the gullies’ sides making them steeper. This causes the water to flow even more quickly off the peatlands, taking more peat with it, and further increases the rate of erosion.

What is left is huge areas of bare, exposed peat broken up by deep gullies.

How are we restoring our peatlands?

Our restoration work involves blocking the grips and gullies. This retains water on the peatland and allows the habitat to re-saturate. Over 1,700 kilometres of grips and gullies have been blocked by Yorkshire Peat Partnership so far (more than distance from Skipton to St Tropez!).

Greensett Moss from the flank of Whernside. Photo: Lyndon Marquis

Greensett Moss from the flank of Whernside. Photo: Lyndon Marquis

We also plant sphagnum mosses to help revegetate bare areas of peat. These will form peat in the future, as well as helping to slow the flow of water from the peatland when it's saturated, and filter our water. We explore peatland restoration in detail here.

By Lyndon Marquis, 

Yorkshire Peat Partnership

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, is running an appeal to raise funds to help us continue restoring peatlands. You can donate here. Check out our blog and podcast pages to keep up to date with our peatland activities.