Progress for Peatlands
Understanding and protecting England’s peatlands helps both heritage and mitigating climate change.
Peatlands are important for their rich cultural history and their significant environmental and habitat value.
As places where the historic and natural environments are intertwined, caring for and managing peatlands requires close collaboration between the heritage and natural environment sectors.
This article introduces the many facets of peatlands and the issues they face. It then summarises the current developments in national policy aimed at restoring and protecting them.
What are peatlands?
Peatlands are a type of wetland comprising the preserved remains of the plants that once grew. These organic remains are only partly decomposed because the wet conditions slow down decay processes. Peat accumulates upwards, forming layers of deposits that can be up to 10 metres deep and date back 10,000 years. Peatlands can be found both in upland locations such as Dartmoor and the Peak District and in lowland settings like The Fens and the Somerset Levels. However, not all peat deposits are still functioning wetlands: this is particularly the case in lowland peatlands that have been extensively drained for agriculture.
Why are they important?
Peatlands are important for a range of historic environment and cultural reasons, both tangible and intangible. For millennia people have lived on and used peatlands, which therefore preserve evidence not only of past human activities but also of the changing past environments of these cultural landscapes. Most visible are the features at the surface, for example, prehistoric stone circles, hollows left from historical peat cuttings, ruins of industrial and military buildings, to name just a few.
For the rest, we need to ‘dig deeper’ both physically and figuratively. Peat is composed of the remains of plants and other organisms (e.g. pollen and spores, seeds, and insects) which are evidence of past environments and the environmental impact of past human activities (such as farming and burning). The wetness of the peat is also perfect for the preservation of organic artefacts, meaning that peatlands offer unrivalled insights into past lives (e.g. food, tools, clothing and structures) and the people themselves (i.e. bog bodies). Other cultural connections to peatlands are intangible – perceptions of and interactions with peatlands both today and in the past (e.g. the language of peat and peatlands, the uses of peat and Sphagnum moss, and the peat harvesting tools), and how peatlands are represented in art and literature.
Peatlands account for 11% of England’s land surface (Natural England 2010, 2). When peatlands are in good condition, they capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it. Conversely, degraded peatland releases carbon: it is estimated that about 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide are released every year (UK Government 2021, 8). Degradation also threatens the biodiversity of modern peatland habitats, putting the special – sometimes scarce – plants and animals that make up these habitats at risk. Water quality and flood mitigation are also dependent on healthy, functioning peatlands.
Peatlands are the source of a significant amount of drinking water, but where degraded the water is often discoloured and this requires costly treatment to remedy. Healthy, functioning peatlands store water and release it slowly helping mitigate flood risk.
What threatens peatlands?
Peatlands require specific hydrological conditions to form, develop, and maintain their special environment. They are particularly at risk of loss from drying out and burning events (whether natural or anthropogenic). Once the stability and integrity of peat deposits are compromised, they become extremely vulnerable to erosion. Many activities, such as tree planting, agriculture and drainage, can directly result in this. All these activities/interventions are set in the wider context of a changing climate and the projected increase in the incidence of extreme weather events.
Active measures for peatlands that are vulnerable and degrading are known as ‘peat restoration’ works, and can include re-profiling (levelling) peat surfaces or blocking grips (ditches) and gullies to help prevent dewatering and erosion. Whilst such active interventions are necessary and welcome, they have a potential impact on archaeological remains (which needs to be considered throughout); some deposits and remains might be disturbed, but others will ultimately benefit from the restoration process.
What is being done to protect peatlands?
In 2018 the 25 Year Environment Plan (UK Government 2018) committed to both restoring vulnerable peatlands and phasing out the use of peat for horticultural purposes by 2030. Following on from this, in May 2021 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) launched the eagerly-anticipated England Peat Action Plan (UK Government 2021) (previously referred to as the England Peat Strategy). Specifically, this initially sets out a peat restoration target of 35,000 hectares by 2025.
It is supported by the Nature for Climate Peatland Grant Scheme (NCPGS), part of the wider £750 million Defra-funded Nature for Climate grant scheme. The NCPGS has over £50 million to provide as grants to undertake peatland works, either as Restoration grants or Discovery grants. The scheme, administrated by Natural England, is currently funded until 2025.
How is the historic environment covered within this?
Since 2019, as part of the England Peat Action Plan’s formulation, Historic England has worked with Natural England and Defra to articulate and promote the importance of the historic environment of peatlands.
The England Peat Action Plan is a landmark moment for heritage – ensuring that the historic environment is fully considered within conservation-led peat management approaches, particularly restoration projects.
This is ensured as part of the NCPGS where the grant guidance states that “Peatland restoration schemes must deliver long-term protection of historic environment features and palaeoenvironmental remains” in order to secure funding.
As part of this work Historic England is producing documents on peatland heritage. The first of these two on Peatlands and the Historic Environment, in the Historic England Advice and Guidance series, explains their cultural and heritage value. Its publication earlier this year was timed to coincide with the launch of the England Peat Action Plan. The second – a ‘how to’ document setting out consideration of the historic environment when investigating and carrying out projects on peatlands – will follow.
This integrated approach – embedding the historic environment into peatland restoration at the outset and realising its potential opportunities – is key. It has also contributed to raising awareness of the cultural value of peatlands and their importance as a historic environment resource. The COP26 (Conference of the Parties) held in November 2021 will see the Global Peatlands Initiative (GPI)’s ‘Peatland Pavilion’ (in partnership with other organisations) include an event to promote better understanding of the heritage value of peatlands and will feature the recent collaborative work of Natural England and Historic England as an important step in greater global recognition of the varied significance of peatlands.
Protect the historic environment of peatlands so the important evidence of our past can be preserved for the future, and ensure that restoration projects deliver cultural heritage, education and enjoyment, alongside other public goods.
About the authors
Louise Brown, MPhil FSA Scot MCIfA
Historic Environment Senior Adviser with Natural England
Louise’s varied archaeological career includes research excavations in the North Atlantic, training and teaching, community archaeology, and delivering multi-disciplinary benefits to landscapes through her work on two NLHF-funded (National Lottery Heritage Fund) Landscape Partnership Schemes in Nidderdale and the South Pennines. Louise is also an Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Bradford.
Zoë Hazell, MSc PhD MCIfA,
Senior Palaeoecologist with Historic England
Zoë has a Geography background (Quaternary Science), with research experience in the reconstruction of past environments and landscapes. Her multidisciplinary interests mean that she has worked on diverse projects, from the use of peatlands to reconstruct past climatic conditions, to the study of wood use through the identification of archaeological wood/charcoal remains.