Article Types Why are our moors so damaged?

Why are our moors so damaged?

Article Types

Human activity and nature's consequences have been damaging the state of our moors for decades. As part of The Climate Project's Let's Plant Moor series, Moors For The Future Partnership Officer Alice Leary takes a look at how the degradation of the moors has a knock-on effect on the nature surrounding us and what's being done to prevent it.

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The health of our waterways, and the wildlife that lives in them, depends on the quality of the water. The health of the high ground where the rain falls and the waterways which receive the run-off from these areas, is being protected and these conservation interventions have a catalogue of benefits felt further downstream.

The moorlands of the Peak District and South Pennines have been described as some of the most degraded in Northern Europe. This is due to their unique geographical position at the time of the Industrial Revolution. In the 1800s, and into the early 20th century, the surrounding towns of Manchester, Sheffield, Bradford and Stoke on Trent were at the heart of Britain’s industrial prosperity. However, the industries they relied on were also creators of massive amounts of pollution. This pollution fell as acid rain in the moorlands, wiping out the layer of vegetation that protected it, and leaving the area covered with blackened, bare peat.

Even beyond the 1950s, when the Clean Air Act began to improve the air quality in the area, this pollution left a legacy of heavy metals in the bare peat, including copper, lead and zinc. Peat is always acidic, but the pollution had caused it’s pH to become similar to that of lemon juice.

The loss of vegetation meant there was nothing to prevent erosion, with rain washing the peat off the hills. This left carbon in the water, staining it brown, and also bringing with it the same chemicals that were present on the moors, making the rivers unfit for drinking water without heavy treatment, or wildlife.

Re-wetting the moors to prevent further damage

Since 2003, Moors for the Future Partnership has been working to bring the moorlands of the Peak District and South Pennines back to life. This work has multiple benefits, beyond simply restoring a once beautiful landscape to its former glory. It enhances habitats, helps reduce the risk of wildfire and tackles climate change.

Peat is carbon-rich. Sphagnum moss – the moss that forms the peat in the Peak District and South Pennines – absorbs carbon to grow and locks this carbon up as it decomposes from its base. See our previous article taking a closer at the plant reversing the fortunes of the Peak District and South Pennine moors. With extreme weather events becoming more common in recent years, this work helps not only as a natural flood management technique, but also as an essential tool in the toolbox at our fingertips against climate change itself.

The Partnership uses cut heather (known as brash) to stabilise the bare peat, and then adds a mix of lime, seed and fertiliser to revegetate the bare peat. Because the peat is so acidic, the lime is needed to balance the pH levels.

Once this has been established, the Partnership is able to revegetate with moorland plants, including the fundamental peat-building plant, sphagnum moss. Sphagnum’s unique root system means that it biodegrades from the bottom up, creating more peat as well as protecting and binding it. Sphagnum can hold up to 20 times its weight in water, so is essential in slowing the flow of water from the moors. It also helps to sieve out impurities from the water, and has naturally antibacterial properties (sphagnum was even used as wound dressing during the First World War).

What should a healthy bog look like?

A healthy blanket bog has a wide range of plants. In addition to sphagnum and heathers, where there is no local seed source, the Partnership plants native moorland plants that have extensive roots to help stabilise the peat, increase the biodiversity of the moors, and provide important habitat and food for a wide range of wildlife. The young plants of each species need particular conditions, their ‘niche’, if they are to survive on the restoration sites. For example, crowberry needs to be planted at the top of a slope, cotton grass needs to be on a flat, wet area, and bilberry and cloudberry should be planted on the tops of peat ‘hags’, higher remnants of still-eroding peat. Even at low densities of one plant per square metre, in the right place, they will cover the peat surface in a few years.

The lack of ‘surface roughness’ (in the form of vegetation) also leads to an increased risk of flooding in the valleys below, something which, with increased extreme weather events due to climate change, has become more of a threat in recent years.

Flood prevention

In areas where erosion has been particularly severe, the rain has cut gullies into the bare peat. This speeds up the flow of water from the uplands, and raises the risk of flooding in the valleys below. Where this occurs, the Partnership builds mini-dams known as gully blocks to slow the flow of the water. These gully blocks can be built from wood, stone, peat, and sometimes plastic, depending on what works best in the environment they’re being constructed. The dams are designed to be naturally leaky so they slow the water, rather than stop it entirely – rather like a series of speed bumps. Over time, silt and peat deposits build up around them, allowing them to blend into the natural landscape around them.

This work is recognised as being important to the improvement of water quality by water companies. Severn Trent, United Utilities and Yorkshire Water are all funding partners in Moors for the Future Partnership. As the water is cleaned before it reaches reservoirs, it saves costly purification work that would, ultimately lead to higher water bills. About 450 million litres of drinking water comes from reservoirs in the Peak District each day.

The quality of water in the area is continually monitored by the Partnership. A recent study of water chemistry in the River Etherow has shown major reductions in acid emissions, falls in non-marine phosphate, chloride and nitrate concentration and an increase in pH (ie a lower acidic content). Alongside this, there was a substantial increase in aquatic macroinvertebrate diversity and the establishment of a range of species that are considered to be sensitive to high levels of acidity.

These invertebrates are important in their own right but they support other wildlife too. At this time of the year, wading birds like dunlin, curlew and golden plover nest on the moors and raise their young. The invertebrates are an essential source of protein for their chicks. Keep a look out for some of the birds that will be feeding on some of these insects at the moment; look for the striking plumage of the male Ring Ouzel – also known as the mountain blackbird, and listen out for the peewit of the lapwing and the warbling call of the curlew.

Healthy peat moors:

  • provide a unique habitat for a wide range of wildlife.
  • absorb and store carbon – peat is the single biggest store of carbon in the UK, storing the equivalent of 20 years of all UK CO2 emissions and keeping it out of the atmosphere.
  • provide good quality drinking water – 70% of our drinking water comes from these landscapes. Damaged peat erodes into the reservoirs so that water companies have to spend more money cleaning the water for consumption.
  • potentially help reduce the risk of flooding.