Updated: Apr 7
Helping to Forge Farming Futures
Our peatlands store more than all the world's forests combined. That's why we're working with local communities to protect our peatlands and forge a new future for Somerset.
The Somerset Peatland Partnership (SPP) is currently funded by the Nature for Climate Peatland Grant Scheme (NCPGS) to deliver a discovery project and begin lowland peat restoration across the Somerset and North Somerset Levels and Moors (SLM). We have an ambitious goal of 1000 hectares (ha) of degraded peatland on a trajectory to recovery by 2025, which would equate to 262,500 cumulative tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emission reductions by 2050. The partnership hopes to kick start a process of transformational change that will shift the SLM from a landscape dominated by carbon emissions to a landscape managed to deliver net sequestration.
Since April 2022, we have been collaborating with those who live and work on the SLM to develop new lowland peatland conservation and restoration projects and start conversations around peat soil use and its role in the climate crisis. As part of this we have been carrying out baseline greenhouse gas flux monitoring and commissioning hydrological surveys and historic environment assessments on potential restoration sites, as well as breaking down barriers to change within local communities.
Peatlands are a vital carbon store covering just 3% of land globally but storing 30% of all soil carbon (more than all the world’s forests combined!). Furthermore, it is estimated that UK peatlands store 3.2 billion tonnes (t) of carbon, putting us in the top 10 countries for peatland area coverage globally. Somerset alone, is currently estimated to be storing almost 11 million tonnes of carbon, equivalent to the carbon sequestered if 182 million trees were grown for 10 years (yr). Unfortunately, across the UK approximately 80% of our precious peatlands are actively eroding and releasing this carbon into the atmosphere which significantly contributes to the climate crisis.
In ideal conditions, it may take 1000 years for 1 meter of peat to form, however under heavy drainage that same 1 meter could be lost in only 33 years. Throughout history much of the SLM has experienced heavy drainage at one time or another. Read more about the history of land use across the SLM in our blog post: “Honeygar Farm, the start of a new era for Somerset land use?”. In the last century the availability of powerful pumps dramatically increased the capacity for industrial peat mining, but also the intensification of agriculture (with the latter actively encouraged by government and academics post World War 2 to feed a hungry population). This history of drainage means the SLM are now very low-lying, and in some areas even below sea level, despite ground level thought to once have been up to 5 meters higher. This means up to 5000 years’ worth of carbon and cultural history preserved in the peat has been lost to the atmosphere, everything all the way back to the end of the stone age!
Hence, when considering the climate crisis and the preservation of our environmental and cultural heritage it is crucial that we act now to keep whatever peat remains in the ground where it belongs.
Luckily, the emissions produced by drained peat soil can be quickly reduced. Current research suggests that for every 10 centimetres (cm) the water table is raised (to within 30cm of surface) the CO2e emissions released is reduced by 3 t/ha/yr. This is because it returns the carbon rich soil to its natural anaerobic conditions, preventing the aerobic processes that would otherwise release the ancient carbon back to the atmosphere. At 10cm water table depth healthy peatland may even begin sequestering carbon again.
So, the key to keeping peat in the ground is to keep it wet! Simple right?
Not so much, as it turns out…
70% of the UK’s land is currently under agricultural use and in my role as the SPP’s Farm Liaison Officer, it is a priority of mine to support farmers on the SLM through the current agricultural transition with peat soil in mind. I work with them to find nature-based solutions to reducing CO2e emissions, and other climate crisis related priorities, in ways that allow these often 5 or more generations old stewards of the land to continue to thrive in the landscape.
We work to support our landowners in exploring peatland restoration and conservation, but there are many barriers to navigate even for the most enthusiastic of farmers. The very nature of working with water tables in lowland landscapes makes landowner collaboration key to success but reaching consensus on decisions can be challenging due to the SLM having a huge number of landowners, compared to other landscapes. For example, the South Downs have 45 landowners across 30,000 ha, but Curry Moor, just one area of the SLM, has 35 landowners over 350 ha. Additionally, many farmers have spent generations refining how they work in this volatile landscape and changing this can be scary as it threatens not only their often-marginal income but also their deep cultural connection to the land. However, arguably the largest barrier is the still very fluid state of the public and private financial infrastructure for peat restoration. Farming families are conscious to avoid unwittingly limiting the future flexibility they need to continue thriving in the landscape and to not contribute to greenwashing through engaging in unrefined or rushed green financing.
However, despite the challenges, there is appetite in the farming community to make those crucial reductions in CO2e emissions and by approaching our discovery project as the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge that it is has led to great progress being made. Many farmers are actively engaging with the SPP through our greenhouse gas monitoring, 1:1 conversation, group events and the Moor Associations are coming together to talk about collaboration. They also value our supporting them to make informed decisions about how to navigate the changing political and environmental landscape with some farmers already actively exploring their own potential peat restoration projects.
We are entering a new era of collaboration across the SLM farming landscape and by supporting the communities that epitomise the way of life that that gave Somerset its name – Land of the Summer People, we can forge a new future that sees our vital peatlands protected for generations to come.