Peat surveying, 19/03/18

If you follow me on Twitter a) I’m so very sorry and b) you’ll know I started a new job at the end of January. I stepped away from 12 years with Natural England to take up a very peat focussed role (I’ll get to why peat is important soon). I’m still in communications, but now I’m a jack-of-all-comms-trades for Yorkshire Peat Partnership (new website on the way), Pennine PeatLIFE (new website under construction) and the IUCN UK Peat Programme (not started that new website yet). Gosh that’s a lot of peat. Why not take a few moments to come up with your own compeating priorities pun?

When it comes to peat habitat in the uplands, we’re talking blanket bog. Healthy blanket bog is mainly composed of bog vegetation fed by rain or snow and so is nutrient poor and acidic. As the vegetation dies, it doesn’t decompose and instead forms peat – Sphagnum mosses are the key species for this. In good condition, blanket bog:

  • filters water before it gets into our supply, reducing the cost of drinking water
  • stores carbon; despite occupying just 3% of the Earth’s land surface, peatlands are our largest carbon store on land.
  • slows the flow of rainwater across the hillsides, helping to reduce flooding
  • provides habitat for some really amazing wildlife.

In poor condition, it discolours water (meaning our drinking water costs more), releases COinto the atmosphere, does nothing to impede the flow of water and is not much to live on (if you’re a critter) or look at (if you’re a walker).

YPP and PPL are both very much about restoring degraded peat across the Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors, North Pennines and Forest of Bowland. If you’re familiar with any of these areas, you’ll know that means the uplands.

The snow across January, February and March has made the uplands pretty hard to get to and, even assuming you can get there, the blanket bog is under several feet of snow. This has set back work schedules and we need to get everything done before the bird breeding season starts. For me, this means two days helping my new colleagues survey peat bogs. As well as an opportunity to get up onto the tops, this was a chance to find out what the rest of the team does while I’m building websites.

Thus the 19th of March finds me in the back of a Toyota Hilux, Jenny and Chris in the front, winding its way up onto the fells in the Forest of Bowland. I’ve never been here before, so it’s also a chance to both see some new hills and to look at familiar hills (the Dales) from a completely new angle.

IMG_1890

Tools of the trade – depth poles and GPS mapper.

We park up and boot up. It’s bright, but very cold. There’s a dusting of snow on the tops and the wind has teeth. We collect our survey equipment – depth poles and handheld GPS units – and Jenny and I follow Chris to the survey site. Away to the west, Morecambe Bay glitters in the low sun. And how often do you get to describe Morecambe Bay as glittering?

Red grouse whir over the heather as we cut across the flank of one fell to drop onto a track. We gradually curve back uphill and roughly north east until I’m staring over the broad valley (Lonsdale?) that holds the A65. The southern fringe of the Yorkshire Dales, white in the distance, stares back. It’s not quite clear enough for me to work out which bit of my regular stomping ground it is. In any case, we’ve too much to do in Lancashire for me to spend much time gazing at Yorkshire.

This is a wild landscape, in as much as any landscape in England can be said to be truly wild. We are on a plateau, peat sat on what I assume to be water-impermeable bedrock geology – possibly gritstone¹. We are surrounded by heather, sphagnum and cotton grass (though heather dominates on this site). The moor is ribboned with gullies and, in places, expanses of bare peat.

Chris sets  out to survey peat on one side of a small valley and I assist Jenny on the other. We are working a series of transects – testing peat depth and surveying vegetation every 100m – and also surveying any erosion features we come across on each transect. It may not surprise you, gentle reader, to find that I am doing the donkey work. I’m measuring peat depth with a pole that screws together in sections, and Jenny is examining the flora and the erosion features.

We find our first survey spot using GPS – these units are accurate to within one metre. Now for some donkey work. I stab through the peat surface with a pole section. This is harder than it sounds – there is a thin layer of cotton grass over the peat and the peat itself is frozen at the surface. Once you’re past the surface, resistance is variable but, in places, quite substantial. The pole vanishes down to the last 10cm marker. I screw in the next section and continue. Once the pole hits mineral soil (peat is organic), it will go no further and we can thus gauge the depth of the peat. In this instance, it’s 1.6m – about 5’2″ in pounds, shillings and pence.

Right down at ground level, we (by which I mean Jenny) find Erica tetralix (cross-leaved heath), Calluna vulgaris (ling; the heather not the fish), Eriophorum vaginatum (hare’s tail cotton grass),  Eriophorum angustifolium (common cottongrass), Vaccinium myrtilus (bilberry) Empetrum nigrum (crowberry) and some Sphagnum ssp. (I can’t remember which species, I’m afraid). Fans of the National Vegetation Classification system will recognise this as the M19 community (M for mire). Jenny notes this down and we move on.

En route to our next GPS point, we cross a huge gully. The peat is stripped away right

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Peat hag, with human for scale.

down to the mineral soil – it’s around 1.5 m deep and 4m wide in places. A massive peat hag – a steep erosion feature – looms up. Around the edges, the peat is ribboned by a dendritic (branching) gully system.

 

It’s hard going, this terrain. The heather masks a multitude of sins for your feet: tussocks, gully, holes, even the gradient in places. We weave backwards and forward across the slope, from point to point and across each erosion feature. The wind continues to claw at us. It is nowhere strong enough to knock you from your feet, but it can catch you at an awkward moment – perhaps with all your weight on one leg in a clump of heather – and you’re on your backside. It’s the strongest workout my right leg has had since the accident, so that’s over 3 years now. My word, I’m out of shape. It is, frankly, a relief when we stop for lunch.

In a patch of snow, there are mustelid prints – too far apart to be a weasel, so I assume a stoat. I can’t help but wonder if it’s in its white winter coat. I’ve only ever seen one ermine before, not so very far away at Martin Mere, tearing about on a frozen pond. What a splendid beast.

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Stoat prints in the snow.

We meet up with Chris for lunch over on his side of the valley. He leads us to a comparatively sheltered spot at the bottom of a huge gully. Suddenly out of the wind, it’s almost balmy (provided you’re wearing all the clothes you own). We sit in the sunshine and eat. A raven goes overhead, low enough that  I hear its wings soughing the air, making that odd, soft klonk call. Further down the gully there’s a startled chak-chak-chak and a ring ouzel whips up and vanishes across the heather.

After lunch, we repeat the process on this side of the valley. The deepest peat I measure today is 2.4m (that’s nearly 8 feet). We find a peat pipe, which is pretty much what it says it is – pipe within the peat. I say peat in this post a lot, don’t I? There are various theories about how they form, but nobody knows for sure. Finally, we head back to the Hilux. I am knackered – this has been my hardest day out on the hills since the surgeon gave me permission. Glorious, though, and I’ve learned a lot. Returning westwards, we can see Blackpool Tower away out on Morecambe Bay. And as we drive back down to where the tarmac lurks, a flock of curlew go overhead – twenty or so. A cracking end to a cracking day.

What happens next? Well, a few days later, the site is surveyed from the air with an Unmanned Arial Vehicle and the two surveys are combined. They’re then used to create a work schedule for the site to restore it to functioning blanket bog. I’ll see if I can write a post about that in the future…

If this has whetted your thirst peatlands, why not get out and take a look for yourself? International Bog Day celebrates the beauty of bogs on the 4th Sunday of July – in 2018, that’s the 22nd. Check out the website to see if there’s an event near you.

Thanks to Jenny and Chris for taking me along and sorry if I got any of this wrong.

¹I’ve just checked on the British Geological Survey app on my iPhone – it’s “Pendle Grit Member, Sandstone Interbedded. Sedimentary Bedrock formed approximately 328 to 329 million years ago in the Carboniferous Period.” It lists the superficial geology as “Peat. Superficial Deposits formed up to 3 million years ago in the Quaternary Period.” Splendid – I’ve had this app for years and only just started using it properly¹·¹.

¹·¹Other geology apps are available.

 

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