Peatland restoration project turns land into ‘giant sponge’, to draw down carbon and tackle climate crisis

Moorland degraded due to pollution, wildfires and agriculture has been improved, boosting potential for biodiversity and preventing flooding, say conservationists

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Thursday 05 August 2021 00:57
Peatland restoration in West Pennines turns land into ‘giant sponge’

A major conservation scheme designed to restore crucial peat bogs in the north of England has turned Holcombe Moor, near Manchester, into a “giant sponge”, which will help the habitat recover, enabling it to store more carbon and help tackle the climate crisis.

A coalition of local and national conservation organisations spent six months creating almost 3,500 scallops-shaped banks of peat, known as “peat bunds”, which they say will help trap water in pools, instead of it running off the moor.

The project will improve the condition of the peat and enable it to store more carbon, and should also boost bird numbers and reduce flooding downstream, according to The National Trust, who worked on the project alongside the Moors for the Future Partnership, Natural England and the Holcombe Moor Commoners’ Association.

It is thought that interventions may already be having some effect, with the flood-prone communities at the bottom of the moor avoiding damage during Storm Christoph earlier this year.

Maddi Naish, rural surveyor at the National Trust, said: “If you imagine a giant sponge which is covered in thousands of small holes and can hold large quantities of water – that’s what we’re aiming for here.

“The peat bunds stop rainwater rushing across and off the plateau and instead trap it on the moor, allowing special plants to thrive which help the peat to absorb carbon from the air.

“These interventions provide a range of other benefits too, including reducing flooding  downstream, improving water quality and attracting rare wildlife, such as golden plover and dunlin which have declined in recent years.”

She added: “Peatlands only cover a tiny percentage of the world’s land but are superheroes when it comes to storing carbon. We’re just a stone’s throw from a major city so it’s incredible to think we live alongside a habitat that is rarer than rainforest globally, but which contributes so significantly to tackling climate change.”

Holcombe Moor is part of the Stubbins Estate, which was gifted to the National Trust in 1943 by a local mill owner in memory of his son who died in the war.

It is the first area of countryside reached when travelling north out of Manchester and is much-loved by local walkers.

Blanket bog has formed on the moor over 6,000 years leading to an accumulation of peat which is up to three metres deep in places.

But the National Trust said that as in other areas across the UK, the peat has degraded over the last 150 years as a result of pollution from the industrial revolution, as well as moorland fires, erosion and overgrazing.

Combined, these pressures have dried the surface peat and changed the vegetation – making it less suitable for moorland birds, such as the amber-listed dunlin which breeds in the uplands, and increasing the likelihood of flooding downstream.

Dried-out peat can also no longer store carbon in the way that it should, and can switch from being a precious carbon store to an emitter.

But the conservation work aims to reverse this process. Sphagnum plants – which can hold up to eight times their own weight in water – will colonise the pools and create a carpet of moss across the moor.

Aerial view of Halcombe Moor, near Manchester, where thousands of ‘peat bunds’ are visible

“Over time the waterlogged plants will restore the important peat soils beneath, returning the land to its full potential as a tool for tackling climate change,” the trust said.

The project has been funded by Defra and the Environment Agency, and forms part of Moors for the Future Partnership’s ‘Moor Carbon’ initiative.

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: “Peatland restoration at Holcombe Moor is a shining example of innovative action being taken across the country to lock up carbon, store water and provide a home for rare wildlife.

“Ensuring peatlands in the West Pennines are healthy is important not just for local people and wildlife but also in reaching Net Zero by 2050, which is why we supported the Moor Carbon project with funding over the past three years, including Holcombe Moor.

“Protecting habitats like this is at the heart of the government’s peat action plan, which aims to restore at least 35,000 hectares of peatland by the end of this parliament.”