Background and Funding

Established in 2011, this experiment addresses identified gaps in relation to the relatively scarce (and sometimes conflicting) evidence for the impacts of current and possible alternatives to burn-rotation grouse moor management of heather-dominated blanket bog on carbon, water and biodiversity. It is conducted across three peat bog sites in north-west England: Nidderdale and Mossdale in North Yorkshire, and Whitendale in East Lancashire.

 map of sites in north-west England [Maps downloaded from MiniScale®; Ordnance Survey data using the EDINA Digimap Ordnance Survey Service

map of sites in north-west England [Maps downloaded from MiniScale®; Ordnance Survey data using the EDINA Digimap Ordnance Survey Service

The project follows on from the previously Defra-funded peatland project BD5104 'Restoration of blanket bog vegetation for biodiversity, carbon sequestration and water regulation'. The project's initial phase ran from 2011 to 2016, with a second phase now well-underway until 2021. Phase 2 funding reflects a multi-funder consortium consisting of Yorkshire Water Services (YWS), United Utilities (UU), the Moorland Association (MA), the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) and the Yorkshire Peat Partnership (YPP). The YPP and Natural England (NE) also support two NERC-funded PhDs and provide valuable guidance within this project. The consortium meets at least annually as the Project Advisory Group.

 ground-level images taken winter 2012, showing dominance of heather & sedge (chiefly cottongrass)

ground-level images taken winter 2012, showing dominance of heather & sedge (chiefly cottongrass)

Rationale

Over 25% of the UK land area is covered by uplands, a large proportion of which comprises blanket bog. Blanket bogs are wetlands forming under high precipitation and predominantly cool conditions, where high water tables and acid conditions suppress decomposition and favour Sphagnum moss growth and ‘active’ peat formation. This peat accumulation of active bogs in the uplands represents a major UK carbon (C) stock which is linked to a range of key ecosystem services, particularly C storage, flood prevention, drinking water provision and biodiversity. Although active blanket bogs are a long-term C sink, they have the potential to emit large amounts of methane, potentially causing a net positive contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Importantly, the UK has about 15% of the globally rare blanket bog habitat, containing many specialist species of birds, invertebrates and plants. These upland habitats also attract many visitors and support local economies including through livestock farming and game management.

 mossdale

mossdale

About 5-15% of the UK upland area, and 30% of UK blanket bog, is managed for red grouse by encouraging ling heather (Calluna vulgaris). Since around 1850, with the onset of driven shoots, grouse moors have been managed by drainage and rotational heather burning to encourage heather dominance over other bog vegetation and their management has been linked to adverse conditions of blanket bogs with negative impacts on key ecosystem services linked to carbon, water and biodiversity. Moreover, climate change poses another challenge, as changes in rainfall patterns with an increasing frequency of summer droughts, are a threat to future bog development. 

Recently, there have been considerable efforts to reverse this degradation and increase resilience to climate change impacts by blocking drainage grips and using alternative mowing management to encourage ‘active’ blanket bog vegetation. Despite the ecological and economic importance of blanket bogs, few robust data are available on UK blanket bog C balance, net GHG emissions and their controlling factors, and on how heather burning or alternative mowing managements affect C storage and other key ecosystem services, and if and how mowing differs in its effects on vegetation composition and structure compared to burning and leaving bog ‘unmanaged’.

 cottongrass -  eriophorum vaginatum -  AT MOSSDALE SITE, THREE YEARS AFTER MOWING

cottongrass - eriophorum vaginatum - AT MOSSDALE SITE, THREE YEARS AFTER MOWING

 

Aims

The overall purpose of the project is to assess the ecological and environmental impact of different management techniques on areas with predominant heather coverage. This is based on including feasible grouse moor management techniques (i.e. burning, mowing and uncut) as part of a manipulative experiment to provide scientifically sound and meaningful data upon which to base policy advice and subsequently inform management decisions, considering both, environmental and socio-economic implications.

Experimental Design

The project monitors changes in peatland habitat status indicator variables in response to different management (i.e. treatments). The main treatment is to mow/cut heather areas in-line with current large-scale mowing management techniques and then compare that to control areas that have undergone the ‘business as usual’ burning regime. 

Our experimental design incorporates two statistical approaches:

  • large catchment-scale (most policy-relevant) manipulations and monitoring;

  • small plot-scale (most scientifically-relevant) manipulations and monitoring.

The Before-After Control-Impact (BACI) approach - comparing the time series behaviour of pre-treatment versus post-treatment - allows us to establish a robust, replicated experimental study. Two major catchment-scale treatments and several additional restoration plot-level treatments are therefore being applied across three sites.

Further information on the three bog sites and additional detail on the experimental design can be downloaded here.

 burning & mowing treatments at the three sites [from left to right, Nidderdale-mossdale-whitendale]

burning & mowing treatments at the three sites [from left to right, Nidderdale-mossdale-whitendale]

Results To Date

View the publications list for results to date. A full report to Defra is pending in 2018 and will be added to this publications list. The schematic below summarises the investigated parameters and their ecosystem services-related linkages across the landscape.

 Schematic network of the main linkages between management impacts on plant-soil-water processes and associated key ecosystem services aspects (related to carbon, CO2-equivalents (CO2-eq), greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) water and biodiversity) across a generic catchment area containing upland areas with blanket bog. Processes and parameters investigated in this project are shown in bold, dashed red line outlines represent identified important but so far understudied processes (i.e. soil chemistry, soil microbes and eco-hydrology) linking key aspects. Note that the impacts are reaching far beyond the upland area with indirect effects on livelihoods in cities connected by water, food and economy.

Schematic network of the main linkages between management impacts on plant-soil-water processes and associated key ecosystem services aspects (related to carbon, CO2-equivalents (CO2-eq), greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) water and biodiversity) across a generic catchment area containing upland areas with blanket bog. Processes and parameters investigated in this project are shown in bold, dashed red line outlines represent identified important but so far understudied processes (i.e. soil chemistry, soil microbes and eco-hydrology) linking key aspects. Note that the impacts are reaching far beyond the upland area with indirect effects on livelihoods in cities connected by water, food and economy.

Further Information and Data Repository

Full details on the project are available via the main project website. Data are available on request from the Principal Investigator Andreas Heinemeyer.