Planting a wet flannel on the landscape beyond Sheffield

Sphagnum moss trial planting at Nether Hey, above Howden Reservoir: a set of moss 'plugs' being unwrapped
Sphagnum moss trial planting at Nether Hey, above Howden Reservoir: a set of moss 'plugs' being unwrapped
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Peak District bogs returned to pre-Anthropocene condition 8,000 years ago

Bog watchers have to think long term. Ted Talbot considers his counterparts 2,000 years into an optimistic future, looking back at the world’s mud as it was in the early 21st century.

Sphagnum moss trial planting at Nether Hey, above Howden Reservoir: Kait Jones and Helen Tuck from the National Trust with moss plugs

Sphagnum moss trial planting at Nether Hey, above Howden Reservoir: Kait Jones and Helen Tuck from the National Trust with moss plugs

“In their core soil samples they’d find plastic and chicken bones across the globe, and I imagine them thinking, what was that all about?”

We live in the Anthropocene, a geological period named after humans as the most important influence on the climate and environment, said Ted, part of the Moors for the Future Partnership team trying to restore miles of peat polluted by the industrial revolutions in Manchester and West Yorkshire.

Ted, countryside manager of the National Trust in the Peak District, said an Anthropocene soil sample from the Dark Peak would include shire horse bones, bog oak, and then a 200-year period of black acid soil with very few plants, up until the start of this century.

At which point Moors for the Future scientists decided it was time for a ‘green revolution.’

Sphagnum moss trial planting at Nether Hey, above Howden Reservoir: planting in one of the cut sections of heather

Sphagnum moss trial planting at Nether Hey, above Howden Reservoir: planting in one of the cut sections of heather

“We call it slime,” said Richard Vink, his hands full of a revolting green gloop made in a lab from tiny fragments of sphagnum moss.

Spraying the phlegm-like substance cloned from local moorland mosses onto eroded peat moors (or using it to coat special gel beads containing sphagnum and other plant varieties like cotton grass) will help return the moors of the northern Peak District to something like their pre-Anthropocene condition 8,000 years ago.

“It’s a clone army of sphagnum to combat peat erosion,” said Ted, suggesting the task ahead bears resemblance to the early Star Wars films.

It’s all a little more complicated than that, of course. “What we’re doing is species diversification,” said Richard, National Trust project officer for the peat restoration work.

Sphagnum moss trial planting at Nether Hey, above Howden Reservoir: Richard Vink with some of the 'slime' gel used to coat moss pellets

Sphagnum moss trial planting at Nether Hey, above Howden Reservoir: Richard Vink with some of the 'slime' gel used to coat moss pellets

“It’s about restoring the balance of nature on the moors into a good diverse habitat that supports wildlife, and encouraging peat to do what healthy peat does: sequester carbon, help provide clean water to the people below, and reduce flooding. It’s all linked.”

Teams of volunteers and staff have been trialling different ways to regrow sphagnum moss on the moors: there’s the slime and pellets, or planting tiny moss plugs grown in a lab from original Peak varieties.

Richard’s team also help the moss grow by cutting stretches of heather with a special flail, which also helps slow the spread of fires (often started by picnickers’ barbecues). Gaps in bushy heather give emergency teams more time to extinguish moorland fires.

Burning is a traditional method of managing heather for grouse, who eat tips of young heather bushes.

Although burning can reduce fire spread, it also dries out the peat and damages or kills other surface plants.

Heather evolved to cope with moorland fires, but conservationists now want other species to thrive too.

“Burning is good for heather, but not for anything else,” said Chris Wood, an ecologist at the trust.

“We’re not wanting to get rid of the heather, it’s a really important part of the moors, we just don’t want quite so much of it.”

Adding a layer of lime helps de-acidify the peat so temporary nurse grass crops can shelter returning moorland plants like cotton grass and bilberries, while building thousands of small dams holds more rain on the moors. Wetter moorland keeps heather in check, as well as reducing fire risk.

Chris poetically describes sphagnum moss as ‘like a wet flannel on the landscape’.

“The water falls from the sky, and if we’ve got that flannel, whatever falls is held there.”

The trials are all part of a MoorLIFE 2020 EU grant, which will show conservationists how best to grow their moss flannel to soak our moorland back to how it lived before the industrial revolution.

“Soil samplers looking at the years after 2000 will see an interesting layer of lime, and then the pre-industrial peat and plants returning,” said Ted. “Around the world there’s a significant amount of effort and funding going into trying to restore a healthy natural environment, and to be able to do that on your own doorstep fills a lot of us with great heart.”

Visit Moors for the future for details.