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Giving peat a chance: The Wildlife Trust’s paludiculture project at Great Fen

Peatland restoration is proven as being vital for mitigating climate crisis – a trial project in the Fens is seeking to restore lowland peat, lock in carbon and provide a new model for farming in and on peatland areas, writes Caroline Fitton, of the Wildlife Trust in Cambridgeshire.

Lorna Parker and Kate Carver. Picture: Anna Hill
Lorna Parker and Kate Carver. Picture: Anna Hill

In a broad package of nature announcements made by the government last week, the England Peat Action Plan sets out to reverse the decline in the state of peatlands, with a promise to invest in restoration.

The prime importance of peatlands to bring substantial carbon storage benefits in the fight against climate change is now increasingly recognised.

Peatlands cover only three per cent of the world’s land surface but hold 25 per cent of the global soil carbon, making them the world’s most effective carbon stores holding. However, if drained, they excessively emit carbon rather than storing it due to decomposition of organic matter. In the UK peatlands are one of the most precious wildlife habitats, capable of storing huge amounts of carbon, but over 80 per cent of them are in poor condition.

The three year Water Works project being run by the Wildlife Trust at the Great Fen is about to start several months of sphagnum moss planting, the final piece in a jigsaw of pioneering paludiculture or wet farming.

Wet farming weather station. Picture: Caroline Fitton
Wet farming weather station. Picture: Caroline Fitton

Paludiculture is the productive use of wet peatlands; a land management technique to cultivate commercially interesting crops on wet or rewetted peatlands under conditions that maintain the peat body, facilitate peat accumulation and sustain the ecosystem services associated with natural peatlands. A large part of this project is working with local farmers, food producers and landowners to create and test this new way of farming and to share any lessons learned along the way.

During the last two years special planting beds have been created, with novel crops, reed and bulrush (typha) already planted – these have culinary and medicinal uses as well as lightweight insulation board for building work.

Working with project partners climate change experts at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) are gathering site-specific data to measure carbon capture or loss within the trial plots.

Kate Carver, Great Fen project manager, said: “It’s been a long and frustrating winter and spring, but now with lockdown restrictions lifting, the Water Works team is able to get back on site and move into the next exciting stage of our project, which will be to prepare the paludiculture beds and plant out the sphagnum moss, some 150,000 sphagnum propagules.

“We plan to start planting this in July and will be welcoming back our many supporters who helped plant our wet farming crops last year. Over the winter project partner UKCEH has continued its climate change monitoring, the Wildlife Trust monitoring wildlife and water quality, and as we move into summer the University of East London will be monitoring peat surface levels and the peat water table.”

Wet farming plugs. Picture: Caroline Fitton (47445191)
Wet farming plugs. Picture: Caroline Fitton (47445191)

The UKCEH data will be important for creating an evidence base for lowland peat carbon trading in the future. A weather-monitoring station and carbon-flux chambers are allowing readings to be obtained both from soil and the atmosphere. One of the main aims of the Great Fen is to manage the new and restored wetlands in ways that mitigate the effects of climate change and help adapt to it. Through the often-complex process of managing drainage and holding higher water levels in the peat soils, it is possible to reduce carbon loss vastly in comparison with the surrounding farmed land.

The UKCEH’s flux chambers are exploring whether it is possible to reach net-zero carbon loss from the newly created habitats.

However, the carbon footprint of fen farming is so large and climate crisis so pressing that it's being aimed to do more than just prevent carbon loss within the footprint of the Great Fen project: presenting farmers with new ways to protect and manage peat soils, which can be rolled out widely beyond the project area and, as well as reducing losses, perhaps offer ing opportunities to sequester carbon too.

Over the last couple of weeks, a new set of monitoring equipment has been used at the project site by University of London’s (UEL) Jack Clough, using the IUCN UK Peatland programmes Eyes on the Bog monitoring scheme, which UEL helped develop. The Eyes on the Bog method is designed to provide a low tech, yet scientifically robust and repeatable approach to long-term peatland monitoring using a mix of surface level markers and rust rods.

Visit www.iucn-uk-peatlandprogramme.org/get-involved/eyes-bog and www.greatfen.org.uk/big-ideas/wet-farming.

Nationally The Wildlife Trusts have been calling for a ban on selling peat in compost before the UK hosts the global climate conference COP26 in Glasgow in November this year.

CEO of the national Wildlife Trusts and Cambridge resident Craig Bennett says: “Today we face a twin nature and climate emergency – these crises are entirely interlinked and one cannot be tackled without addressing the other. The time for procrastination is over and greater urgency is needed on all fronts. The UK hosts the global climate conference COP26 in Glasgow in November this year and speed is vital: now is the time to accelerate nature’s recovery – for wildlife, for people and for the climate.”

The Wildlife Trusts petition calling on the immediate ban of peat in horticultural use has so far received 30,000 signatures https://e-activist.com/page/79378/petition/1.

Wild Big Breakfast - June 1

Big Wild Breakfast. Picture: Wildlife Trust
Big Wild Breakfast. Picture: Wildlife Trust

For anyone taking part in the trust's 30 Days Wild initiative do share outdoor breakfast images with the trust on their social media channels (@wildlifebcn ).

Trust staff will be getting outdoors for a Big Wild Breakfast in the garden on 1 June to kickstart 30 Days Wild. If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that people need more nature in their lives and much more of it on their own doorstep.

There’s a huge public appetite for more contact with nature – from wilder community spaces and urban meadows alive with wildflowers and native grasses to healthier hedgerows, hedgehog superhighways and glorious nature-friendly gardens. It's not to late to sign up and take part www.wildlifebcn.org/30DaysWild

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