Peatlands

What are peatlands?

A Peatland is a type of wetland with a naturally accumulated peat layer at the surface.  The surface can be bare or covered in vegetation.  Peat is formed over time due to an accumulation of dead organic material.  The water-logged conditions prevent this material from fully decomposing and it builds up to form a layer of peat.

It takes approximately 10 years for 1cm of peat to form!

The different types of peatlands

There are several different types of peatlands but the main ones that we find in the UK and Ireland are blanket bog, lowland raised bog, and fen. 

Blanket bog

One of the most extensive semi-natural habitats in the UK and Ireland.

Blanket bog is a globally restricted peatland habitat confined to areas with a cool, wet, typically oceanic climate. 

Lowland raised bog

Lowland raised bogs are located in low-lying areas, such as river valleys, lake-basins, and between drumlins.

Lowland-raised bogs began to form in Ireland around 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age.

Fen

Fens are peatlands that receive water and nutrients from soil, rock and groundwater as well as from rainfall.  They occur in poorly drained basins or hollows, along lake margins, or on river floodplains. 

Peatland biodiversity

Peatlands are amongst the most valuable ecosystems on Earth, critical for preserving global biodiversity.

Key plant species on blanket and lowland raised bogs include peat-forming plants such as bog mosses, cotton-grass species, heather, heath, and moor grass.

These plant species provide the perfect habitat for a rich and unique range of invertebrates and breeding birds such as Golden Plover, Curlew and Hen Harrier.

Fens are highly diverse habitats which support a very wide range of plant and animal species. They are particularly important for invertebrates; these include dragonflies such as the Irish Damselfly, Water beetles, pond skaters and butterflies such as the Marsh Fritillary.  A number of locally rare plant species are associated with Fens such as Grass of Parnassus and Irish Lady’s-tresses orchid.

Peatland ecosystem benefits

Peatlands perform an array of ecological functions including carbon regulation and climate change mitigation, providing food and maintaining water quality, flood risk regulation, tourism recreation and cultural heritage, and fire risk regulation.

In the UK, peat is predominantly extracted for horticultural use.  Agriculture is also a major use of peatlands with an estimated 7% of peatlands in the Uk currently being used for agricultural purposes.  Farmed peatlands are however a large source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Approximately 70% of UK drinking water is sourced from peatlands. Peatlands in good condition supply high-quality water that requires little treatment before entering the drinking water supply.  However, peatlands in a poor condition release dissolved organic carbon into the water. Dissolved organic carbon causes water to turn brown, and removing this is the largest cost for water utilities in the UK. NI Water has been running a pilot restoration project in Co Fermanagh to address this issue and improve the quality of drinking water – Source to Tap 

Did you know.........

Did you know that sphagnum moss was used as a field dressing during WW1?

It played an important part as a substitute for cotton gauze dressings, as it was found to absorb liquids about three times more quickly than cotton, retain liquids much better, and distribute the liquids more uniformly.

It was cooler, softer, and less irritating than cotton, and could be produced more rapidly and more cheaply.

From 1915-1918 sphagnum moss was collected, cleaned, dried and packed in processing centres. The moss was then distributed to local centres where dressings were made into muslin bags and sent to military hospitals.

How Humble Moss Healed the Wounds of Thousands in World War I – read this great article on how sphagnum moss was used to save the lives of thousands of injured soldiers in The Great War.

Peatlands and Climate Change

Peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store sequestering approximately 0.37 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year.  Peatlands store more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined.

It is estimated worldwide, the remaining area of near natural peatland (>3 million km2) contains more than 550 gigatonnes of carbon (1 gigatonne = 1,000,000,000 tonnes), representing 42% of all soil carbon.

In the UK, peatlands currently store more than 3 billion tonnes of carbon, this is the same as all the carbon stored in the forests of the UK, Germany and France combined.

In the past, land use has concentrated on use of peat for fuel and drainage for agriculture and forestry.  Damaged peatlands contribute about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural, forestry and land-use sector. CO2 emissions from drained peatlands are estimated at 1.3 gigatonnes of CO2 annually. equivalent to 5.6% of global CO2 emissions.  In effect, damaged peatlands transform from carbon sinks into carbon sources!

Restoring our natural peatlands

As part of the green recovery, it is vital that we invest in nature-based solutions which, amongst other things, are a key mechanism for tackling climate change.  Peatland restoration delivers carbon and biodiversity benefits and can also lead to job creation e.g. in peatland restoration activities and ecotourism.

Investing in large-scale peatland restoration also brings with it an opportunity to build capacity and ensure the provision of ongoing employment opportunities.

The Office for National Statistics estimated the monetary benefit, based only for greenhouse gas emissions, for restoring 55% of the UK’s peatlands to a good state to at least £45-51 billion over the next century.

Check out our partners Ulster Wildlife and some of the restoration work they are doing – https://www.ulsterwildlife.org/saving-our-peatlands

Peatlands articles

Peatlands Restoration at CAFRE’s Hill Farm Centre

CAFRE (College of Agriculture, Food & Rural Enterprise) is developing ecosystem service delivery from the peatlands of its Hill Farm Centre in Glenwherry Co Antrim, through a 10-year re-wetting and restoration programme, that commenced in 2020. 
Learn more about the valuable work being done to restore this valuable natural resource.

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