Peatland and other wetlands are a critical natural resource which lock up twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests. They provide habitat for many valuable species and act as natural buffers for flooding. Restoration and long-term conservation requires shared best practices and careful monitoring.
Why peat needs saving
Bogs and mires form peat when plants cannot decompose completely. Healthy peatland forms a natural carbon sink and supports unique biodiversity and water quality. It’s considered to be healthy when it is actively accumulating peat. Active bogs are a priority habitat under the Habitats Directive, which means they are considered important in terms of conservation.
When water tables in peatlands fall too low and vegetation is damaged, previously trapped carbon dioxide starts to be released by the peat exposed to oxygen. And as it further dries, the partially decomposed peat can no longer absorb water – leaving the habitat fundamentally altered.
Damage to peatlands can be reversed if restoration measures are correctly put in place and monitored over a long time. The University of Helsinki estimates that rewetting peatlands can reduce carbon emissions globally by 84% (see more figures in the presentation [pdf]).
“Are you interested in twinning?”
Pennine PeatLIFE in the UK and Hydrology LIFE in Finland are 2 examples of the numerous LIFE projects working to restore this priority habitat. While the landscapes differ in each country, conservationists are combining their experiences of working on similar strategies. Paul Leadbitter, Peatland programme manager from the North Pennines AONB Partnership, explains how the projects got together.
“We were asked by Eurosite if we would be interested in twinning with another LIFE project in the EU. It seemed a great way to disseminate our work outside the UK, and we thought that with the Finnish project there was plenty we could do to work together.”
“As well as restoring peatland habitat in almost 100 Natura 2000 areas, we develop methods for remotely monitoring restoration outcomes and understanding the benefits that restoration can provide for society. Twinning has helped us a lot with this”, added Tuomas Haapalehto, Hydrology LIFE project manager from Metsähallitus.
Differences can be opportunities
In the course of their meetings, both projects found that while there are differences on the ground, shared approaches can be developed.
Restoration depends on the extent to which a peatland is damaged. In the Pennines, damage is not overly extensive but there are large areas of exposed peat. The Pennine PeatLIFE team are using thick layers of sphagnum rich heather brash to cover bare peat sites to help the site re-vegetate. This gives the moss a real head start to recovery in the harsh climate of Northern England.
While the project area in the north of England is characterised by blanket bog systems, peatlands in Finland are relatively flat. Many are naturally tree-covered, and coverage has usually increased because of drainage for forestry.
Hydrology LIFE is therefore focusing on reversing diminishing water levels, including removing tree coverage from peatlands and finding ways to better manage and connect waterways. Restoration is carried out by filling ditches with peat and removing excess tree stand where necessary. The project also tracks ecological impacts of restoration over a period of 10-15 years. This is significant since monitoring typically covers only the first few years of restoration – not long enough to estimate any positive ecological impacts.
Drones are used by both projects to document the state of peatlands before, during, and after restoration. Sites are mapped, geo-referenced and then revisited after a period of time. Increasingly, it’s possible to use digital elevation tools overlaid with a water flow modelling tool and to assess where restoration efforts should focus. This is proving invaluable as a way to plan interventions with dams in order to improve the hydrological structure of the terrain.
Land ownership is another point of comparison between the 2 countries. In the UK Pennines, much of the land is privately owned, often as grouse-moor, while Finnish Natura 2000 areas are most often under the stewardship of public authorities. In both cases, finding ways to encourage restoration projects is critical.
The UK Peatland Code is one method. The code is a voluntary standard for peatland projects who want to market the climate benefits of restoration. Restoration may be able to be financed through carbon credits via the Peatland Code. Pennine
PeatLIFE has been involved since the beginning of its development, and the Hydrology LIFE team also recognise its potential. “Can we quantify and prove that restoration is economically viable? Can we stop the massive carbon leak from damaged peatlands? We’re testing the code to the limit so as to answer these questions,” said Mr Leadbitter.
Support from EU lawmakers
EU legislation from May 2018 requires countries to include emissions from land in their carbon quotas. This should bring greater weight to restoration efforts and get both private and public authorities more on board.