Climate Change: Why Saving The UK’s Peatlands Is Crucial

Fleet Moss from the air. North Pennines AONB/Alistair Lockett

I pull off the highest road in Yorkshire at the somewhat optimistically named Viewpoint. I’m almost 2,000 feet above sea level – high above Wharfedale on one side and Wensleydale on the other, but the only view today is a thick covering of fog mingling with slanting rain driven on a gusty North Easterly wind. The high Dales are often wild and picturesque. Today they’re just wild.
I’m not here to admire pretty views, though. I’ve come to examine an ugly scar on the landscape. Apparently, you can see it from Space, although on a murky day like today you’d be hard pressed to spot it from 50 yards away.
This is Fleet Moss, and its unsightly wounds are a shaming reminder of the damage we’ve been inflicting on some of our planet’s most precious landscapes.
Peat moorland like this plays a crucial role in protecting the environment. It locks in carbon, preventing it from escaping into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change. The UK’s peatlands took thousands of years to form. It’s taken us about 60 years to wreck them.
Fleet Moss has apparently been nicknamed The Somme by conservation workers. It’s a depressingly apt description – a maze of dark craters and trenches, filled with water after heavy rain, the fog swirling around like shell-smoke.
So, what should it look like, and how have we managed to make such a catastrophic mess of it?
If I’d visited Fleet Moss blanket bog in the 1950s I’d have felt a carpet of moorland beneath my boots – springy or soggy, depending on how much it had rained – as I gazed across a colourful array of different varieties of plants and mosses – a rich habitat for a diverse mixture of birds and animals, rather than the odd forlorn meadow pipit flitting around the pitiful shell that’s left today.
There is – or should be, anyway – something intrinsically Yorkshire about peat moorlands. I may curse today’s rain and fog, but it’s this climate that’s created and shaped the landscape. Peat is formed by plants, particularly sphagnum mosses, slowly decomposing in very wet conditions. All you have to do is leave it alone for a thousand years and – hey presto – you’ve got a layer of peat a metre deep.
The problem is that we haven’t left it alone. Instead, we tried to drain this naturally wet environment to make it more productive for agriculture. By digging drainage channels, called grips, across huge areas, we’ve robbed our peatlands of the water they need to survive.
The consequences have been disastrous for peatlands across the UK – and, potentially for us too. The sphagnum mosses have disappeared, exposing the bare peat underneath, which has then been washed away into streams, rivers and lakes. The process has released the carbon that’s been stored there for centuries into the atmosphere, fuelling climate change. And, by messing with a landscape that naturally slowed the flow of water, we’ve increased the risk of flooding in the valleys below.
But this is all pretty insignificant in global terms, isn’t it? Absolutely not. The UK is one of world’s top ten countries in terms of peatland area. We’ve got more than two million hectares of this precious landscape. And, across the world as a whole, peatlands contain more than twice the carbon stored in all the world’s forests.
The good news is – we’re beginning to understand the ecological havoc we’ve wreaked and we’re actually attempting to put it right. The bad news is – it’s a colossally laborious and expensive task. Ten years ago, virtually all of Yorkshire’s 70,000 hectares of blanket bog was in a pretty wrecked state. Since then, work has been carried out to restore around 39% of it. At the current rate of progress, I reckon it could take another 16 years to patch up the remaining scars.
This painstaking restoration work is co-ordinated by the Yorkshire Peat Partnership, which includes official bodies like the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, the Environment Agency, Yorkshire Water, Natural England and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. In an attempt to speed the process up, a fundraising appeal has been launched, called – with a sly nod in the direction of John Lennon – Give Peat A Chance.
Work has just started at some parts of Fleet Moss. Coir logs, made from the outer husks of coconuts, have been placed across some of the channels to stop water running off the moor. It’ll be a fair time, though – and an awful lot of effort – before there’s much visible improvement at this horribly blighted site.
Time to head to another peat bog where restoration work is more advanced. Stake Moss is only a few miles away but, despite satnav and an OS map, I struggle to locate the parking area at the start of the rough track that leads to it. As I drive along the narrow Dales lanes searching for it, I pass a snipe perched on the wall by the side of the road, looking quizzically at me down its long bill. Every cloud (and there’s no shortage of them today) has a silver lining…
I finally find the right track, wait in the car for the heaviest rain to subside, then trudge uphill through the drizzle to Stake Moss. I don’t see a single other human during the three hours or so I spend on the moors. It’s not lonely, though: the cries of lapwings, curlews and oystercatchers echo around as they perform noisy aerobatics to divert attention away from their nests.

Lapwing at Stake Moss

These charismatic wading birds are an integral part of the moorland landscape. We can’t take any of them for granted: curlews and lapwings are both listed as red – giving the highest cause for concern when it comes to UK conservation, while oystercatchers are amber – the next level down. The number of lapwings in England dropped by an alarming 49% between 1987 and 1998. Curlew numbers fell by 30% between 1995 and 2012. The destruction of large swathes of peat moorland habitat, where they’ve bred for centuries, has surely played a part in this.
It’s as foggy at Stake Moss as it was at Fleet Moss – but nowhere near as desolate and gloomy. The restoration work has begun to heal the wounds and encouraged the all-important sphagnum moss to start growing back, peppered in places with tiny white flowers.
Moorland wildlife is clearly benefiting too, especially the waders that thrive in this soggy environment. A repetitive beeping noise floats through the mist – like an electronic alarm going off – and I spot a golden plover running in short bursts, then standing stock still, as though playing hide and seek.
As I head back down the track towards the car – watched from above by circling, diving and screeching lapwings, curlews and oystercatchers – a pair of wheatears race past, flashing their white rumps.

Stake Moss from the air: Yorkshire Peat Partnership/Chris Osbourne

After the nightmarish appearance of Fleet Moss, I’m heartened by what I’ve seen just a few miles away, but I’m wary about being over-optimistic. I’d hate to suggest that you can commit ecological vandalism on a grand scale, then just throw a shedload of money at this terribly scarred landscape and heal its wounds overnight.
We’ve begun to stem the haemorrhage of peat from our moorlands, but let’s not forget that it took thousands of years to form. We need to be in this for the long haul. We need to Give Peat A Chance.

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