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Welsh Uplands - Article by Alistair Crowle

I know this might be a little long winded but i found this a interesting read about upland management! i hope some of you find it interesting as well.

Blanket peat is an important store of carbon and this is being released through both natural and made-made processes.  If the research to date is correct, climate change is likely to increase the rate of carbon loss, with potentially serious consequences for society.  Furthermore, it is clear that any form of intensive use of blanket peat results in a loss of carbon is one form or another.

Blanket peat has always been of marginal value as pasture and was really intensively used only when subsidies made drainage and stocking worthwhile.  Lance (1983) has demonstrated that sheep perform better on serially burned than on unburned blanket bog, but given the importance of blanket peat as a habitat in its own right, as well as its role in carbon storage, there would seem to be little justification for continuing this practice.

Some land-managers are of the opinion that without grazing the whole of the uplands would quickly become covered in trees and scrub.  English nature (2003) investigates sites that have been taken out of management, in some cases for up to 50 – 60 years, and it is clear that, in many upland areas, management activities or grazing by livestock could cease without any significant change in tree cover for decades, if not centuries.

Many moorland managers now recognise that artificial drainage channels are one of the mistakes of the past, but some are still opposed to taking remedial action.  The sheer scale of the drainage channels across the uplands, largely funded by the government drainage grants, is such that the only way to tackle the blocking and management required within a sensible time frame is to establish a national restoration scheme.  Fortunately, we now have modelling tools and data which can be used to prioritise the work required and so target resources effectively.

One of the justifications for moorland burning is to reduce the impact of a wildfire.  The irony is that the act of creating a heather monoculture and drying the peat surface in the process increases the likelihood of wildfire causing damage, although it is interesting to note that, in the Peak District, Heather was identified to being the least vulnerable habitat (McMorrow et al. 2005). The heather monoculture is a phenomenon that date only from the period of industrialisation (Chambers et al. 2006).  Before that, a range of plants existed together usually in a wetter state, and, although fire events had taken place previously, heather had not dominated the landscape to the extent now found across large areas of uplands.  In the light of what we know now about the damaging effects of burning on peat, it seems inappropriate to continue to cause damage on the grounds that it may prevent damage at a later point.  The best way to avoid damage by wildfires is to prevent the fire in the first place.  However difficult politically or socially , this means establishing more robust protocols for closing upland areas at times of risk, establishing more novel methods of managing visitors, and putting more resources into having personnel on the ground to patrol vulnerable areas.

In order to safeguard the peat resource, we shall need to restore peat-forming processes.  If we believe that the continual cycle of burning on peat is unsustainable, then somehow the position must be reached where the where the heather is longer dominant and forms part of a wetter, more diverse blanket-peat community.  The blocking of grips (drainage channels) has an important part to play in reducing DOC (dissolved organic carbon) loss (Wallage et al. 2006) and perhaps to some degree in restoring the water table, but it seems that, in order to achieve the restoration of blanket peat, we shall have to rely considerably upon new and innovative techniques.  As part of this process, it is inevitable that we shall have to re-examine our definition of a restored site.

A key question is that of whether degraded peatlands can once again support Sphagnum.  Caporn et al. (2005) revisited sites that had been first investigated in the early 1980s and found the numbers of bryophytes (mosses) recorded on these sites had increased markedly; at Holme Moss, for example, seven species were found in 1983 – 84 and 24 species in 2005, the latter including Sphagnum species that are recognised as being the major peat-formers.  As this work and that of other (e.g. Tallis 1987) show, some sort of recovery is clearly possible, although we do not know the timescale over which it may operate.  The ‘Moors for the Future’ project in the peak district has demonstrated that large areas of bare peat can be re-vegetated and stabilised, albeit with non-natural vegetation, and the next step will be to develop the techniques that allow us actively to promote the decolonisation by Sphagnum of upland sites and to restore these sites to favourable condition.

The great challenge over the next few years will be that of persuading land managers to modify practices so that, at the very least, they are not contributing to the loss of carbon and damage of blanket peat.  This will need to include the important message that people must take responsibility for carrying out actions that can have impacts many miles away.  Increasingly, researchers are starting to turn their attention to catchment-scale experiments, and in the next five years it may be possible to start to quantify more accurately the levels of carbon released by different management activities.  Changes to the law affecting heather and grass burning in England were introduced 1st October 2007, along with a revised heather and grass burning code.  This provides a timely opportunity to address some of the concerns regarding the sustainability of burning blanket peat, as it introduces new protection for ‘carbon rich’ soils.  On the ground, the higher level stewardship agri-environment scheme has options for addressing all of the practices discussed in this article: burning, grazing and drainage.  Provided that the scheme is adequately resourced, it could play a vital role in establishing sustainable management in the uplands.  Whilst some blanket peat may already be a net source of carbon, the appropriate restoration of these sites may turn them into important carbon sinks.

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