Moors the pity

On the first anniversary of last year’s devastating moorland fires Roger Ratcliffe reports on repairs to the scorched heather-clad uplands and hears about concern for their future

Hero image

Roughly 11.5 million people live around the Pennine hills. Many can see them from their homes even if they have to go upstairs and look out the window or stand on a chair at the end of the garden.

This year, moorland fires have become a frighteningly regular occurrence again

But these heather-clad uplands are far more than a scenic backdrop. They supply water for kitchen taps and provide open spaces where people go for a breath of fresh air. And vitally, peat underneath the heather soaks up carbon from the atmosphere and helps to slow down or prevent climate change. Beneath the moors of the northern Peak District alone it is estimated that there are already
20 million tons of carbon.

It is a landscape to which everyone in the north is intimately attached, believes Chris Dean, who is leading a vast operation to restore the moors from wildfires and pollution damage. But even before the latest fires the moors were in bad shape, he says. “It is our rainforest issue in the UK. People should be worried about what is happening to our moorland.”

His Moors for the Future project has logged over 400 wildfires on the moors between Sheffield and Manchester since 1976. But the most destructive fires for a generation began on 24 June last year when tinder-dry grass caught fire on Saddleworth Moor and spread for five miles despite the efforts of fire brigades from seven counties, over 100 soldiers, hundreds more volunteers and a water-bombing RAF helicopter.

Dozens of houses were evacuated, three schools closed, and after apocalyptic pictures of blazes had dominated the media for four days yet another large wildfire broke out on the West Pennine Moors between Bolton and Darwen. It is believed that many of the fires were started deliberately.

This year, moorland fires have become a frighteningly regular occurrence, again ripping across Saddleworth Moor but also burning a large area of Marsden Moor to the west of Huddersfield and swathes of Yorkshire’s famous Ilkley Moor.

Repair work on many of the fire-ravaged areas has yet to start, and on others it is painfully slow. Some of the most damaged moors are expected to take decades to recover because the underlying peat has been so severely burned it will not support new growth.

Much of the moorland was already in poor condition because of two main problems. The main one is that the landscape has suffered gradual degradation by airborne pollutants falling as so-called acid rain from as long ago as Victorian times. The factories and mills of the industrial revolution pumped out coal smoke over a 200 year period, says Dean, and the moors are continuing to pay a high price for it.

“The smoke carried with it things like cadmium, lead, copper, zinc and god knows what else, and it’s still found in quite large quantities in some of the peat soils. As a result the conditions up there are acidic – the acidity of lemon juice in many places – and nothing will germinate in it.”

The other big problem is that climate change is drying out moors that were already over-drained by channels being cut to create more grazing land for sheep and to promote heather growth for grouse shooting. This has resulted in rainfall on thousands of acres of Pennine moorland quickly running off into the valleys, leaving the moors tinder-dry and more susceptible to wildfires.

It is being tackled by a huge repair programme by Moors for the Future, which is run by the Peak District National Park Authority and funded by £10.5 million of EU money, with another £3.5 million provided by Yorkshire Water, United Utilities and Severn Trent, since damaged moorland creates more particles in water for them to remove.

To repair the moors from pollution damage and make them less susceptible to wildfires, the moors are being “rewetted” with a plant called sphagnum moss, which creates a habitat known as blanket bog. This has two particularly useful benefits. One is that it has the ability to retain rainwater like a sponge, and the other is that rather than growing upwards it spreads horizontally and can eventually cover substantial areas of moor with water-bearing vegetation. Besides soaking up carbon from the atmosphere it also plays an important role in flood prevention by keeping rainfall on the moors rather than letting it quickly run into valleys.

The sphagnum moss being planted across the Pennines is specially grown in the form of plug plants by a horticultural contractor in Lincolnshire. In an ideal world it would have been harvested on Pennine moors that were in good condition, but there’s not enough available to cover the damaged areas.

Rewetting the moors with blanket bog is a vast operation, and between August and November last year alone Moors for the Future put in one million spaghnum plug plants, each one costing £1. “It’s all done by hand,” Dean says. “So people have bent down with a dibber a million times, dug a little hole and put in a plant, then measured two paces and put in another one.”

In the whole of 2018 they planted 837 hectares – an area of about 1000 football pitches. But areas in which the wildfires burned into the peat will be harder to rewet because there is no vegetation to anchor the plants. These more severely damaged moors have to be prepared by a helicopter spraying seeds of what is known as nurse grass in the hope that they will propagate, then adding a layer of heather brash cut from other moors that are in good condition. This acts as a mulch to enrich and insultate the peat soil.

The Saddleworth Moor fires have been particularly destructive to the RSPB’s 10,000-acre Dovestone Nature Reserve, up the valley from Stalybridge. There are comparatively minor fires every year, says the site manager Kate Hanley, but every decade or so there’s a big one. Last year’s blaze burned about 500 acres of the reserve and there was another bad fire in February. “It’s distressing when you see it happening again,” she sighs. “We put a lot of time and work into the moor and it costs money to put out.”

The fires are particularly destructive to wildlife in spring and summer. The reserve’s main bird species are nesting waders like golden plover, dunlin and curlew, and they all depend on crane flies – also known as daddy longlegs – for themselves and their chicks. But they can be wiped out by fire and smoke.

Alan Wright of Lancashire Wildlife Trust believes it will take 10 or even 15 years for fire-damaged moors to recover. “In the meantime,” he says, “we need to have a proper conversation with some of the landowners about how the moors are managed, if not to keep them wet with blanket bog then at least to create buffer zones which will stop these fires spreading so quickly.”

Main image: Fighting fires on Pennine peat moorland (Moors for the Future Partnership)

Bog standards

Helen Earnshaw’s arduous work volunteering to restore lowland bog is rewarded with the sight of the first brimstone butterfly of the year

Looking over Pestfurlong Moss in the unexpected February sunshine you could be fooled into thinking you are miles from anywhere. Only the sound of traffic on the M62 is a reminder I am a stone’s throw from civilisation.

The site, at the heart of Gorse Covert Mounds near Warrington, might look like nothing more than a patch of grass surrounded by woodland on three sides. But Pestfurlong Moss is a rare fragment of 10,000-year-old lowland raised peat bog that is an important stepping stone habitat to the larger mosslands nearby, Risley Moss to the west and Holcroft moss to the east, which allows wildlife to move easily through the urban landscape.

An enormous 97 per cent of North West peatland sites have already been lost after years of extraction for commercial horticulture, for draining and for development. There has been drying and damage from over-grazing and loss to development. Protecting the mosslands that remain is crucial in the fight against global warming because they reduce the levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

And that is exactly what has been happening at Pestfurlong Moss. The three days of tree felling that are about to take place is the last phase in major restoration work by the Carbon Landscape and the Woodland Trust. The Carbon Landscape is a five-year National Lottery Heritage Fund project, working in Wigan, Warrington and Salford to restore derelict landscapes – many damaged by our industrial past – and increase access to expanding green areas in south Lancashire.

The felling halts the encroachment of silver birch onto the mossland, which damages this sensitive habitat. Purple moor grass is already colonising this area and it is hoped that other bog species will follow once a small number of trees has been removed.

Although the trees were coming down relatively easily, it’s hard going as our protective clothing makes it incredibly warm. Sitting on a log trying to cool down and catch my breath, something yellow flitters past: my first brimstone butterfly of the year. It is a thrill as I didn’t see any brimstones in 2018 and it, like us, is enjoying the strong afternoon sunshine. Pestfurlong Moss is an important refuge for wildlife such as the black darter dragonfly, great crested newt and willow tit, all of which are under threat because of habitat loss.

After three days, all the marked trees are felled and logged, the brash material has been removed off the mossland and turned into habitat piles or pulled deeper into the woodland to be used for den building.  This site has already had 30 plastic piling and peat dam structures constructed, and a 140m plygene and peat bund to prevent water loss, which will lead to the rewetting of the mossland. A new path and flight of steps have also been created to improve access to the site while encouraging visitors to keep off the sensitive habitat.

“Through the recent rewetting of Pestfurlong Moss we are turning back the clock to a greener time in our natural heritage, before the industrial age,” says Tony da Silva, landscape restoration officer. “Rewetting mosslands has so many benefits, including environmental benefits. A functioning bog will actively clean the air we breathe and water we drink, wildlife unique to this habitat is given the chance to thrive and people can also benefit through the spiritual and recreational aspects that this rare natural habitat has to offer.”

The impact of the work can already be seen on site as water levels have risen. Jump up and down on the mossland and you can feel the ground move beneath your feet. The bog pools are filled with water and a carpet of sphagnum – peat forming moss – is starting to form. Over the next couple of years it will become a thriving mossland ecosystem.”

Just over 10 miles away from Pestfurlong, in Salford, Little Woolden Moss is another peatland undergoing transformation. Little Woolden Moss has suffered from years of peat extraction, which only ceased in 2017, and large parts of the site look like a barren wasteland. But the mossland is now under the care of Lancashire Wildlife Trust, lead organisation of the Carbon Landscape, and is slowly healing.

A partnership between Lancashire Wildlife Trust, Defra and Heathrow Funding allowed for restoration work this winter, with 8,000 metres of bunding – retaining wall – created and over 100 ditch blocks inserted to prevent water being lost from the site. The planting of 50,000 plugs has also been a key part of the project.

Led by Carbon Landscape trainees and the Friends of Chat Moss, hare’s-tail and common cotton grass and cross leaved heath have been planted across the site and sphagnum moss has been reintroduced.

We have enjoyed planting in the sunshine but have battled against rain and strong winds with an army of volunteers, and will keep on doing so throughout the year. It’s tiring work but there is plenty of inspiration as the area planted last year is already bursting into life and Little Woolden Moss is a magnificent sea of white and purple.

The fight to save as many fragments of this peatland habitat as possible goes on for Carbon Landscape and its partners, with projects on New Moss Wood and the reintroduction of the Manchester Argus butterfly to the mosslands of Salford all on the horizon.

By spreading the word on the vital role that mosslands are playing in reducing carbon emissions, we can create a greater understanding of just how important these remaining small fragments of peatland are.

Interact: Responses to Moors the pity

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.