Making progress on peatland: £8m visionary project at Great Fen in Cambridgeshire is launched
Caroline Fitton, of the Wildlife Trust in Cambridgeshire, explains how 'paludiculture’ is being introduced.
Excitement is high at the Great Fen in north Cambridgeshire as a visionary partnership project, Peatland Progress: A New Vision for the Fens, led by the Wildlife Trust for Beds, Cambs and Northants, has now officially been launched.
The project was awarded more than £8million earlier this year by The National Lottery Heritage Fund Heritage Horizon programme, and is tackling really big issues: climate change; loss of biodiversity; getting people closer to nature; health and wellbeing, especially mental health.
A new land purchase, Speechly’s Farm, is enabling the next big step, uniting the Great Fen’s northern and southern halves, creating a sustainable, wildlife-filled, working wet landscape. In this 120-hectare area, a new model of agricultural production, wet farming - or paludiculture - with crops such as typha bulrush and sphagnum moss, will be expanded, building on successful three-year trials.
Typha has many applications including lightweight insulation and filling for clothing; sphagnum moss is a growing medium capable of retaining 20 times its dry weight in water. This work will inform and inspire both conservation and farming practice on peat soils across the UK and further afield, with the new wet landscape preventing the loss of peat soils and locking in carbon dioxide.
A recent development has seen sphagnum being planted in a new way.
Lorna Parker, Great Fen restoration manager, explains: “This is the beginning of the next phase of crop testing - at our high water table growing beds we are exploring ways to upscale moss growing for use on larger areas in the expansion of our paludiculture trials.
“In collaboration with experts in Lower Saxony, fragments of moss were spread by hand over a prepared area, then covered with a mulch of local straw, before being pressed down to ensure contact with the soil. The benefits of using this propagation method allows coverage of a much larger area than using individual plugs, along with the speed of spreading versus digging holes and planting.
“We hope that in future, farmers will adopt this method at scale using existing farm machinery. The decades ahead could see home-grown moss replace imported peat compost, reduce the loss of peat soils on lowland farmland and become part of the mosaic of crops and land use across the Fens.”
Further work has begun, bringing together scientists, academics, business people and land managers to explore the possibilities of this new farming system and its new crops. Partnerships include experts in wet farming at the University of East London, and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, world leaders in climate change science, measuring greenhouse gases and gathering data to explore and demonstrate how wet farming locks in carbon dioxide.
The project is also bringing people closer to nature to reap its benefits for health and wellbeing. A new people-friendly landscape will be created in the centre of the Great Fen, enabling people to experience nature in close-up, and links are established with local community-based groups such as the Young People’s Counselling Service (YPCS) in Yaxley, to create nature-based interventions and programmes supporting young people experiencing mental health issues and their families, giving them the confidence to know that small changes can make a big difference, bringing hope for the future.
Kate Carver, Great Fen project manager, says: “Peatland Progress is enabling us to build on our successes of farming innovations and research, elevating the Great Fen from being a landscape transforming access to wildlife in the local area, to a forward-looking place which impacts on, inspires and brings genuine improvement to the lives of people.”
Eilish McGuinness, chief executive of The National Lottery Heritage Fund, says: “Peatlands Progress is a truly ambitious and visionary project; the scheme is pioneering, leading the way to champion large-scale, long-term, innovative solutions to climate change and nature’s crises, with people at the core.”
Jack Clough, from the University of East London, adds: “This provides a rare opportunity with the space and funding to expand research into wetland friendly farming. It’s hugely exciting as this nature-based solution offers real ecosystem benefits through carbon emission reductions, biodiversity gain and water chemistry improvements.
“Wet farming also opens opportunities to develop new products and markets in areas such as bio-based building materials, peat replacement and much more. This comes at the perfect time, as wet farming is in its infancy here in the UK, so will have a huge positive impact as a demonstration project.”
Dr Ross Morrison, biometeorologist at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, notes: “Peatlands capture and store large amounts of atmospheric carbon, playing an important role in regulating the carbon and water cycles and global climate. Large areas of peatland have been degraded by economic activity, especially drainage for agriculture and forestry, causing these carbon dense ecosystems to release large quantities of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, contributing to climate warming.
“Wet farming has the potential to deliver multiple benefits and ecosystem services. However, the scientific evidence base for paludiculture in the UK is currently limited, so we look forward to generating new data on how this emerging land use will impact greenhouse gas emissions, regional hydrology and biodiversity in lowland peatland environments.”
Explaining the involvement of YPCS, chair Alison Graham says: “YPCS are first and foremost a charity that provides counselling but if we can achieve other gains in this exciting partnership with the Wildlife Trust, and engage young people in the natural world by igniting a passion for conservation and open horizons to hope and the future, then we are part of a very rich intervention indeed.’’