Peat - abused, damaged, burned and extracted for centuries - is finally moving up the political agenda. The battle over use of lowland peat for horticulture continues, but the realisation is slowly dawning that upland peat can either be a major force to tackle climate change or, if we get it wrong, a major cause of it.
A recent conference at Bangor University heard the results of a recent International Union for Conservation of Nature UK commission of inquiry and a new publication on international restoration best practice.
"Their importance for wildlife is now widely appreciated, but now there is also a growing appreciation of the crucial role they can play in storing and capturing carbon and thus helping controls levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," said Countryside Council for Wales peatland ecologist Peter Jones. "They can also help regulate both water flow to streams and rivers and also its chemistry."
Moves are meanwhile afoot in Europe to set up accounting rules for the greenhouse gas impacts of farming and forestry, another sign of political interest so, as UK peatlands contain so much of Europe's soil carbon, this country will have to take it seriously.
Blanket and raised bog peatland covers around 23,000km² (9.5%) of the UK, and stores more than 3bn tonnes of carbon. A loss of even 5% would double annual UK emissions, but around 18,000km² is already damaged in some way.
Poor peat management can add significantly to UK emissions, while good management and restoration is perhaps our most potentially significant carbon sink. Unlike trees, whose carbon sequestration reduces after a few decades, well managed peatland can go on taking carbon out of the atmosphere in perpetuity.
But peatland has taken thousands of years to form and is not restored overnight. Most restoration is still in its infancy, the majority less than 10 years old.
"Hydrological processes are taking much longer to recover than expected and ecological processes even longer," says Royal Society for the Protection of Birds senior upland policy officer Pat Thompson.
Bizarrely, however, national policy remains equivocal. The Valuing Nature Network's recent report on UK business opportunities that value and/or protect nature's services rated the Peatland Carbon Code, which offers the possibility of a transparent, viable framework for companies to purchase carbon credits to support restoration of degraded peatlands, as the joint-best opportunity in this field. Yet a complete ban on extracting lowland peat is still awaited and the progress which could and should be happening with upland peat is, as we shall see, seriously at risk, at least in England, following a sharp change in national priorities at DEFRA and Natural England.
Even controlled burning kills Sphagnum and halts carbon sequestration
Recent years have seen a great deal of international work on the carbon balance of peatlands. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and Wetlands International recently published Peatlands - Guidance for Climate Change Mitigation by Conservation, Rehabilitation and Sustainable Use.
"Restoration of peatlands is a low-hanging fruit, and among the most cost-effective options for mitigating climate change," said UN Environment Programme executive director Achim Steiner.
But now the IUCN UK Committee's Peatland Programme has highlighted benefits and promoted restoration. Its 18-month commission of inquiry brought together experts on science, policy and practice and published its final assessment in November 2011. Results are summarised in the box (below), but two conclusions jump out.
One is that drain-blocking - the most widely implemented upland peat restoration - is not as efficient at restoring peat as the two alternative interventions of revegetation and ending burning. The other is that restoring peatland, even where revegetation and rewetting are included, does not necessarily hit food production because that's a site-specific issue.
But things have been going downhill ever since NE published a report called Vital Uplands in November 2009, setting out the value of uplands and their ecosystem services and reassessing links between land management and delivery of four such services. A long-term vision foresaw more woodland on non-peat soils, all peat and blanket bog rewetted and stabilised integration of heather moorland into other habitats.
"In places, some areas such as blanket bog or high altitude heath are ungrazed and unburnt," it predicted.
Modest and ultra-long-term such aspirations might be, but some influential people really don't want to hear such insights, as the row that exploded reveals.
Mosaic burning produces strange visual effects
Politics are heavily involved. The new government elected in 2010, although committed to conservation, places much greater stress on farming and food production. In March 2011, DEFRA's Uplands Policy Review, gave great importance to hill farming and enjoined Natural England to work with "farmers, land managers and other stakeholders" to secure multiple benefits. But although it admitted these include ecosystem services, especially those related to carbon, water and peat, it was curiously equivocal about peat restoration, describing it merely as "of considerable interest".
"There are, however, a number of delivery challenges: restoration (for example, the blocking of moorland gullies and grips) is expensive, and both public and private funding will be important in delivering peatland restoration on a significant scale," it noted. But certain commercial interests' hostility to NE had simmered for some years and, ominously, they had the new Government's ear. Vital Uplands was plainly the final straw and ministerial pressure began to crash on the quango. A new chief executive and other senior management saw it finally withdraw Vital Uplands early in 2012. In February, NE chairman Poul Christensen went so far as to tell the National Farmers' Union conference that Vital Uplands had "let his organisation down badly".
"We told rather than listened and I'm very sorry how people had received it," he said.
But NE had simply listened to the wrong people. DEFRA's current priority is food production and this includes uplands, however limited their potential. Its director for wildlife, landscape and rural areas Robin Mortimer explained DEFRA's new priorities to the NFU conference.
"The shift in policy within the Uplands Green Food Project is that environmental outcomes cannot be delivered instead of food production - it has to be alongside it," he said. "Too often the trade-offs are not understood and thought through. It's not a case of saying ‘we'll leave the uplands to environmental outcomes only'."
They never were, of course, and it's hard to see why upland farmers should have been particularly upset by an emphasis on things like peat restoration. English uplands' main food product is sheep and, as Mr Christensen said, on a practical level it's about achieving balance.
"If you want to increase food production you need more sheep, but that comes down to local discussions about what stocking should be," he said. "In some places you can increase it, in others you won't be able to, but I'm up for looking at that."
This is supported by the science. One senior academic told BB there is no clear definition of over-grazing and acceptable levels will vary from one place to another; some could take more sheep, some less. And sheep production should pose little deterrent to peat restoration for, while peatlands were historically drained for sheep or commercial forestry, there is no real evidence it actually helped sheep production.
"You can have a range of grazing intensities. It's very dependent on altitude and the vegetation," said the academic.
Rewetted peatlands may also open up possibilities of replacing sheep with some traditional breeds of cattle well suited to upland areas. But while Mr Christensen was addressing the farmers, he let slip who his real audience was.
"Where and how to burn, optimum stocking levels, predator and raptor control - not one of those issues is easy but I feel that Natural England has matured over recent years," he said. "There's no substitute for sitting down and making the most of local expertise and knowledge."
Farmers do sometimes burn heather to encourage young growth for sheep, but they have little interest in predator and raptor control; indeed, some raptors actually reduce farm pests. The people keen on burning moorland and predator and raptor control are not farmers, but the shooting industry.
Shooting is part of the leisure industry and produces negligible amounts of food, but ministers and others are evidently anxious to blur the distinction between it and agriculture.
The shooting industry is an extremely powerful lobby representing some very wealthy and influential land owners and they appear to have the ear of environment minister Richard Benyon. The industry was at the forefront of opposition to Vital Uplands and, while all British raptors are protected species, it was its support which led to DEFRA's recent embarrassing and abortive proposal for controlling buzzard numbers.
"Burning on deep peat wasn't actually the straw that broke the camel's back," says one observer of the upland scene on the demise of Vital Uplands. He says it was farmers' and shooters' traditional antipathy to regulation of any sort. "If you're a land manager, rules can seem onerous."
Hill farmers' dislike of being told what to do by anybody is legendary, but then so is shooting estate managers'.
"The integrated management of moorland by rotational heather burning and carefully balanced sheep grazing has protected our heather moorland for at least the last century," complained the Moorland Association when Vital Uplands was published.
"As a result, much of this rare habitat in England has more recently become protected by law for its unique vegetation and birdlife. To make policy changes that will destroy what is protected now makes no sense."
Shooting has an unshakeable belief in its need to burn moorland, a widespread practice on sporting estates during winter months to produce areas of young heather growth and increase grouse production.
"Heather is kept young and vigorous by controlled burning, which is carried out by moor keepers who burn small sections carefully on a rotational cycle," says the Association. It says "controlled burning" - sometimes called "mosaic burning" - can leave the peat bed "relatively cool" but, left unburned, heather becomes long and lank, reducing its value for sheep and grouse and increasing the danger of wildfires.
"Very old heather has considerable biomass, and it can burn so fiercely that it sets fire to the peat in which it grows," it says. "Not only can these fires be very difficult to quench, but where the peat is burnt, heather and other seeds are destroyed; plant life is lost; erosion follows, and it can take many years for the ground to recover. Such fires also have a substantial impact on carbon loss and sequestration."
But, as the IUCN work shows, there is little evidence that "cool burning" is compatible with even the initial stages of peatland restoration.
It does show, however, that regular burning shifts the balance of vegetation away from Sphagnum-dominated flora to species which are much poorer at forming peat (and more prone to wildfires).
This is, of course, the shooting industry's objective - it wants the young heather that stimulates grouse production. But Sphagnum growth itself actually forces heather to generate new shoots, meeting this objective to some extent, and Sphagnum-dominated peatlands show markedly superior carbon sequestration and much reduced water discolouration. This is a pretty well water-tight case against burning of peatland and a million miles from the shooting industry's confident certainties.
Its final argument is that rotational burning protects open heather moorland from encroachment by scrub and trees which, it claims, have a negative impact on heather moorland wildlife and which Vital Uplands' policies would have encouraged.
Moorland burning certainly promotes heather monoculture - the "pink desert" that covers much of our uplands (in reality a brown desert for most of the year). This habitat does support a handful of rare species like golden plover, but equally the montane forest and scrub which could begin to appear in some places if burning ended is really scarce and supports other rare species.
The fall-out at Natural England, already under heavy pressure from cuts, has been significant. Not only did it withdraw Vital Uplands, to the intense irritation of many bodies that had contributed, it took the extraordinary step of removing it and supporting documentation from the National Archives website, a bizarre and sinister piece of Stalinist news management.
The changes in policy are astonishing. Upland peat restoration is by far our most potent - and cheapest - way of sequestering upland carbon and offers economically beneficial protection of water supplies and reduced flooding.
It poses little threat to sheep production and replacing sporting interests' burning/young heather growth regime with Sphagnum-dominated flora on deep peat can also promote young heather growth. Game bird numbers have expanded rapidly over the past decade and sporting estate managers remain doggedly devoted to so-called "cool burning" on peat soils, causing carbon loss, water discolouration, damaging reservoirs, exacerbating river flows and doing little or nothing for food production.
"When you use things like fire to manage European protected sites, it's perfectly legitimate to ask if we're getting it right," says Dr Thompson. "No-one's saying shooting for game is necessarily a bad thing, but we question the recent big increase in intensification."
The whole issue of the ecosystem services our land can deliver and how to pay for them is increasingly pressing. Upland peat could do a great deal more to help water quality, flood control, biodiversity and carbon storage, but one small part of the leisure industry's attachment to one of its activities obstructs this.
The favourable hearing it receives in Whitehall is now significantly damaging national policy.
Smoking peatlands are a smoking gun, and it's the shooting industry holding it.
Opportunities for UK Business that Value and/or Protect Nature's Services http://tiny.cc/ijccjw
Peatlands - Guidance for Climate Change Mitigation by Conservation, Rehabilitation and Sustainable Use ttp://tiny.cc/rjccjw
IUCN UK Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands report http://tiny.cc/0jccjw
Vital Uplands http://tiny.cc/8jccjw
A burning question
Spahagnum is preferred for restoration
The IUCN UK Committee's Peatlands and Climate Change records the results of its 18-month research into the issue by experts in science, policy and practice.
The scientific review it commissioned to underpin its inquiry on peatlands noted the scientific evidence base is comparatively small and that carbon fluxes in peatlands are complex. But it concluded the potential for carbon sequestration and storage and climate change resilience is considerable, although work needs to be carefully targeted and money from carbon offsetting or trading may be not be sufficient on its own to provide funding.
A significant number of restoration schemes have taken place in the UK in recent years and the review concluded that not all modified peatlands are net carbon emitters nor all pristine ones sinks, nor does restoration necessarily shift the balance.
Water companies are now signed up to peat restoration. Loss of peatland carbon to the atmosphere is well known, but losses to the fluvial system can be considerable and water companies spend a fortune removing the brown colouration their customers dislike so much. Healthy peat is also believed to improve water flows downstream and reduce flooding.
United Utilities created its 10-year Sustainable Catchment Management Programme with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 2005 to improve habitats including restoring blanket bogs, primarily to improve raw water quality but also flow regulation which reduces flooding. Discolouration apart, peat settles in reservoirs, increasing methane production and decreasing capacity. The programme plans to revegetate 450ha of bare peat and restore 5,500ha of blanket bog. Other water companies are following suit.
"Upland landscapes deliver lots of things for society," says RSPB senior upland policy officer Pat Thompson. "Vital carbon stores, the landscapes themselves and their importance for access and recreation, drinking water and flood control."
Peat restoration, however, can actually increase emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane and, although restoration is likely to improve carbon sequestration, methane may reduce its potential somewhat, while nitrous oxide fluxes remain under-researched. Despite this, the IUCN concluded its multiple benefits far outweigh the cost of leaving peat damaged, and the sooner intervention takes place, the less it costs.
"Peatland restoration is cost-effective in reducing emissions of carbon to the atmosphere, improving water quality (reducing the costs for drinking water treatment) and conserving biodiversity," it concluded. "Peatland restoration can also help with climate change mitigation and adaptation."
Upland peat can be degraded by drainage for agriculture or forestry while long-term air pollution, particularly in parts of the Pennines, has destroyed vegetation and left it vulnerable to erosion. Damage is also caused by over-grazing, inappropriate management, too much human traffic and burning.
Restoration will always involve healthy vegetation, with Sphagnum moss usually preferred for many reasons, not least its ability to sequester carbon. Big drain or gully blocking projects are underway in several upland areas, but the IUCN review of Peatlands and Climate Change concluded "the most efficient interventions were via revegetation and cessation of burning and the least efficient was drain-blocking".
Everyone now agrees poorly managed burning can severely damage peatland ecology, hydrology and soil processes but the IUCN commission was extremely cautious about "controlled burning" too.
"It has been suggested that ‘cool' burns, under the right controlled conditions, may be compatible with the initial stages of peatland restoration management while rewetting takes place," it noted. "There are few studies on the benefits and practicalities of burning over other techniques such as cutting or layering."
Regular burning, however, destructively shifts the balance from Sphagnum-dominated vegetation to less peat-forming species.
"In bogs with high water tables and ample Sphagnum growth, burning should not be necessary as the growth of Sphagnum forces heather to generate new shoots as the peat builds up," concludes the report. "A number of studies point to the importance of vegetation type being associated with different greenhouse gas balances. Sphagnum dominated vegetation with a high water table is shown to have greenhouse gas benefits over heather dominated deep peat. Thus if management alters the vegetation cover of sites, it is likely to alter the greenhouse gas balance. Studies suggest that there are benefits for carbon budgets from the absence of burning on deep peat compared to burning. The specific impacts of ‘cool' burning over other forms of burning on the overall carbon budget is not yet clear."
So even controlled burning is far from the free lunch the shooting industry claims. The IUCN also warns it can cause loss of carbon through water discolouration.
"Sphagnum and cotton grass dominated vegetation has been associated with the lowest levels of colour," says the IUCN report. "Areas of dominant heather vegetation on deep peat and areas of new burn on deep peat have been associated with increased water colour. Further work is required to determine whether the source of this colour results from the act of burning or subsequent dominance of vascular plants over Sphagnum."
It calls for further work to establish definitive conclusions on burning and a new approach to differentiate peatland types to avoid confusion caused by generic research on "peatlands" and "heather moorland".
IUCN scientific review - http://tiny.cc/d6ccjw
SCaMP programme - http://tiny.cc/k6ccjw