For the last eight years work has been continuing in some of the most inaccessible areas of Lancashire, high on the roof of the county.
Its peat uplands are a precious and nationally scarce resource ... but diminishing due to erosion.
Experts from the team at the Bowland AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) are acutely aware of what this habitat offers and what any loss of it means and could mean in the future.
Much partnership work has been continuing to ensure it continues to support biodiversity, provide the right environment for nesting birds – and importantly for some of Lancashire’s flood hit communities, acts as a sponge to help protect lowland areas from sudden flooding.
Those living in the lower areas of the Wyre, Ribble and indeed Calder, know all too well from recent experience how suddenly peaceful waters can swiftly be transformed into raging torrents with destructive flash floods following.
Defensive action includes erecting sandbags and flood barriers. They do not prevent this happening.
By contrast the multi million pound restoration of Lancashire’s peat uplands could make a significant difference by ensuring water is retained on the uplands for longer.
Dr Sarah Robinson, Farming and Wildlife Officer for the AONB said: “We got involved in 2012 on Bleasdale and we’ve been involved in peat restoration somewhere in the AONB every year since. The work happens in the winter time so we’re not disturbing the birds. Peat is important as a habitat for birds, plants and vertebrates. Upland peat is like our version of the tropical rain forest.”
She stresses its scarcity, even though a map of Lancashire’s uplands shows the county is one of its strongholds.
It promotes biodiversity and also acts as a store for carbon dioxide, hence its role lessening the local impact of climate change. Sarah summed up that role, unseen by most Lancastrians as they drive by or skirt the uplands, which include the Abbeystead estate in the north, Bleasdale, extending up round Slaidburn and across to Bowland Knotts and more.
Sarah said: “A peat bog in good condition also helps to mitigate the local flood risk because it slows the flow of water off the fell. One of the consequences of climatic change already in this area is a change in pattern and type of rainfall. We’re getting more intense events and restoring the peat helps slow the flow of the water off the fell in these intense rainfall events. We get much less peaky river flows and that can help to mitigate against things like the Boxing Day floods of 2017.
“We’re working in the headwaters of the Wyre, Lune and Ribble catchment. It’s really pertinent to this area.”
“A peat bog actually captures carbon as sphagnum moss and cotton grass grow. It actually captures carbon in the same way trees do.”
She described how peat is a very rich carbon store, but when vegetation is lost erosion means carbon is lost as silt and into the atmosphere. When fully restored as a properly functioning peat bog it acts as a store again
She added: “They have an intrinsic value as a habitat. They also support a suite of scarce species. There are also a lot of upland birds nesting such as curlew, one of the fastest declining species we’ve got. We’re one of the UK curlew population strongholds.There’s a suite of raptors, hobbits, merlins, harriers, peregrines, all of whom nest in these upland peatland moors.”
How does peat get eroded? Sarah compares the situation to marram grass in sand dunes; if a hole in the carpet of vegetation is created the wind will begin eroding the sand: “It’s the same with upland peat. As soon as there is a hole, because peat is soft, friable and light, it’s very easy to erode once it loses surface vegetation. In the past in the 1900s (Victorian times) there was a lot of air pollution in this area that caused acid rain and that really impacted vegetation and caused these holes. That’s when erosion started more than 100 years ago.”
Add in wild fires, high sheep numbers and “tramping by people” anything that makes a hole in vegetation is then a source of erosion and that’s exacerbated by high rainfall and wind and fros
She said: “It’s estimated that £8.5m of work needs to be done. We’ve done about 10 to 20 per cent of that. It’s a cost effective way of using public funds. We’ve had money from DEFRA, the EU, the Environment Agency, United Utilities, ourselves at the AONB and all the landowners involved.”
The AONB covers some 39,000 acres across Ribble Valley, Wyre and Lancaster, is important for its heather moorland, blanket bog and rare birds and has triple SSSI (site of Special Scientific Interest) designations.
The extensive peat restoration work, which began in 2011 in Bleasdale Fells focusing on Fairsnape Fell and Fiendsdale.
Work followed on the Abbeystead estate near Lancaster including at Brown Syke in Mallowdale.
The uplands are being regenerated using simple sustainable techniques and materials are used. “There are areas where we use wooden dams to slow the flow of water in the gullies.”
Other materials used in the work include coir sausages – coconut husk wrapped in sisal netting helps stem the flow of water, as does wool in sacking: “We like using wool because it’s locally produced so there’s a much smaller carbon footprint which is important. “It’s stuffed inside hessian sacks and used in gullies to slow the flow of water.”
Stone dams made on site and the planting of plug plants of cotton grass are also important initiatives.
For example, cotton grass was planted out by volunteers on the Bleasdale Fells in 2013. Some of the expanding areas of sphagnum moss were relocated to new pools and pat hags were reprofiled to have a less angular edge, so reducing erosion by wind and rain, before having lime applied and the land reseeded.
At Fiendsdale work included path surfacing with flags, subsoil reprofiling, and habitat restoration and application of heather brash and grass seeds.
Sometimes airlifts are needed to bring in supplies, especially if access difficult., In Bleasdale stone flags were air lifted in to improve footpaths.
On Pendle recently police cadets and volunteers helped with such a planting operation. Sarah said “We try and use volunteers on each of the projects. it’s a way of engaging people and increasing understanding the role of peat."
If you want to see peat restoration for yourself there is an opportunity to view a small demonstration site on the summit of Lancashire landmark Pendle Hill.
Sarah, who was delighted to spot a rare green hairstreaked butterfly on Pendle this week, said: "It’s a very sma l demonstration site, much more accessible for people to see.”
She added "One project can have many different positive outcomes, but also the uplands have an incredibly important role in our health and wellbeing and being able to access and be part of these landscapes has a very restorative effect whether you’re a walker or fell runner, a botanist or a paraglider.”