Peatland restoration

31 Dec 2021

Peatlands, also known as blanket bog on our upland catchments, are one of the most valuable ecosystems on the planet. Their benefits to the entire catchment here in the North West should not be underestimated. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature suggests the term ‘peatland’ refers to: “the peat soil and the wetland habitat growing on its surface.” However, the IUCN goes on to state that in the UK there is no formal definition of what a peatland is!

Alongside preserving biodiversity across the North West, peatlands store vast amounts of carbon. Healthy peatlands are also home to a wide range of species, from tiny insects to large birds of prey. In addition, they also provide an excellent way to reduce flood risk lower down the catchment.

Unfortunately, due mainly to historic activities, but also some more recent ones, our peatlands aren’t in the best of health. Much of the peatland across the UK, including here in the North West, has been damaged and some of it even destroyed. These areas were either drained, burned, over-grazed or mined, as well as suffering from air pollution and recreational damage. Restoration and maintenance of these areas are both essential if we are to create a low-carbon future, not only here in the North-West, but across the globe.

Damage to the peatlands

If we are to be able to effectively restore the peatlands, then we must first understand the damage that human activity does.

Fires can have catastrophic impacts on the general environment. Smouldering peatlands can burn for up to four months after they were initially set alight. This significantly reduces the quality of the water in our rivers and streams, increases the transportation of harmful contaminants and pollutants, and negatively impacts the aquatic species and vegetation.

Carbon losses are one of the biggest impacts of damaged or destroyed peatlands. Healthy peatlands take carbon out of the air and keeps it in long term storage. As little as 30–50 cm depth of peat can contain more carbon than a similar area of tropical rainforest! It was estimated in a study by Manchester Metropolitan University and Natural England, that over 95,000 tonnes of CO² were lost during the fire on Winter Hill in 2018, as peat burnt. This is the same amount of annual emissions as approximately 20,000 family cars.

Furthermore, damage to peatlands considerably reduces biodiversity. This can take decades to recover.

What is United Utilities doing?

Across the catchment in the North West, we are working to return our peatlands to their natural state.

We have made it our overarching goal to protect the peatlands from further degrading activities. We aim to restore the waterlogged conditions to prevent the release of carbon into the atmosphere.

As part of the water industry’s commitment to carbon net zero we have pledged to restore an additional 1000 hectares of peatland by 2030 and we are well on the way to smashing this target.

We are working with specialist partners like Moors for the Future to deliver landscape scale peatland restoration work since 2003. The restoration can be considered in phases; to take the peat from one state to another, gradually improving, and moving towards being fully functioning blanket bog.

Peatland restoration is expensive and the benefits are not just for customers but felt by the local and international community. We combine our funding with grants from the UK and EU to enable us to address the largest area possible. For example, we part-funded the 16 million Euro MoorLIFE2020 project which ran from 2015 to 2020, delivering peatland restoration across 9500 hectares of the South Pennines.

We monitor the benefits of the restoration work and have one of the longest running monitoring projects in the country! Our SCaMP monitoring started in 2005, measuring the change in water table depth, water quality, flow, and biodiversity. The results are made available for learning by others and have been referenced in several academic publications as well. SCaMP, The Sustainable Catchment Management Programme, was an integrated approach to catchment management pioneered by United Utilities. Now, CaST has been developed and is working to build upon the achievements of SCaMP utilising a more holistic approach.

We have also been working closely with Pennine PeatLIFE since 2019, to help restore our peatlands! Pennine PeatLIFE, funded by the EU LIFE programme, also receives with funding from other partners and its main aim is to deliver 1,353 hectares of peatland restoration in the North Pennines, Yorkshire Dales, and Forest of Bowland. The programme involves establishing new restoration techniques to suit the unique climatic conditions and trialling new innovative approaches.

We are proud to be a funding partner and are helping to restore 255 hectares of blanket bog on UU land in the Forest of Bowland. We are looking to get involved in many more projects over the coming years, including more work in Bowland and the West Pennines.

Why peatlands are so important…

Did you know that 70 per cent of the UK’s drinking water originates from areas dominated by peatland? The water that comes from these areas is usually of high quality and contains very few pollutants. This means it requires little treatment when it finally reaches a water treatment works.

Peatland restoration also creates a sustainable flood defence solution, helping to regulate the flow of water entering our lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water. Areas of densely vegetated peatland are associated with the increased time between peak rainfall and peak runoff.

Similarly, the reintroduction of sphagnum moss can reduce peak flows, slowing storm runoff on hillslopes.

Applying a Catchment Systems Thinking Approach

When we apply a Catchment Systems Thinking approach to peatland restoration, we look at the entirety of the catchment in a holistic fashion and delve into the impacts that the peatland has. Returning peatlands to their natural state successfully sequesters carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, improves biodiversity, mitigates flood risk and supplies water of considerably higher quality. Successfully improving the management of peatlands, and removing negative impacts, exists as one of our overarching goals and is very much a staple of CaST.

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Catchment Systems Thinking

Watch our video to learn more about Catchment Systems Thinking.