Burned into their memory: the fate of Englands’ peatlands

Peatlands remember. They remember the way the climate has changed over thousands of years by the shifting pollen grains they hold. They remember brutal sacrifices from the Iron Age by their careful swaddling of perfect human corpses. They remember pollution 800 years ago with increased lead deposits. They remember us testing nuclear weapons by the radioactive isotopes that sprinkled down on them. They remember ancient fires with thin layers of buried ash. And they remember today’s fires too.

Upland moors in places like the Peak District are burned every year to remove the cover of heather. The heather, whose roots are still intact, will grow back over the next couple of years. Grouse, rusty brown birds with white feet and a red streak on their heads, eat these fresh shoots. This food, the protective shelter of older heather patches, and the reduced predation risk by birds of prey (because of their illegal destruction by gamekeepers) the grouse population grows. This thriving does not last, however. Instead of being hunted to feed hungry golden eagles and hen harriers, it is humans who pay around £7000 a day for the luxury of shooting them. Roughly 500’000 grouse are shot every year like this.

Peatlands remember. They are made of memory. 

Peat is layers of partially decomposed plant matter, accumulated over thousands and thousands of years. In the blanket bogs where grouse hunting happens, the plant community is dominated by Sphagnum moss. They begin their lives as an explosion of spores, which then germinate and extend their tendrilous branches across and under the surface of the peatland. Deeper than a centimetre or two, light cannot penetrate. Sphagnum beneath this point, buried by its cousins above, dies. But it is not forgotten. The watery grave protects it. Whereas in other ecosystems microorganisms and fungi break down dead bodies, in peatlands they are much less able to do so.  This is because the oxygen decomposers require to stay alive cannot penetrate through the water. As well as this, Sphagnum is made out of cells that are inherently resistant to decomposition and it produces chemicals which acidify the water, effectively pickling itself. 

The peatland remembers everyone who ever lived there, building itself from them and in doing so becoming the largest terrestrial carbon store. New plants germinate and grow on top of their ancestors and the bog climbs upwards, growing around a centimetre each year, and each year sequestering around 0.37 gigatons globally of CO2.0.37 Gt, one centimetre ago, Zac Goldsmith pledged to ban the burning of peatlands for grouse shooting. Yet today still the practice continues, with the environment minister George Eustice accused of blocking efforts at legislation. When these areas are burned, the top layer of Sphagnum is destroyed and the level of organic matter in the upper layers of peat is diluted by the incoming ash from the burning. It is this upper layer of organic matter which holds on to

the scarce nutrients which come to the bog through the rain, so without it Sphagnum cannot get the fuel it needs to grow. As the researchers from Leeds University put it: “In this sense, the peat retains a ‘memory’ of past burning”.

Even worse than this, burning lowers the water table, exposing peat to the air and allowing it to decompose and release its carbon. Burning peatlands for grouse shooting releases 260’000 tonnes of CO­2 every year in England. 

Looking globally, as well as burning, extracted peat is imported for use in compost and peatlands are drained so the land can be used for agriculture. The combined total of all of these is that degraded peatlands release 6% of annual anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The peatland’s memories are destroyed at our expense.

Contemplating peatlands gives a deep perspective on time and land. Many lament that we would lose an essential English tradition if we were to ban burning. The thousands-of-years-old peat mocks the idea of a 250-year-old ‘tradition’. Many cite the economic benefits that grouse-shooting brings, but these dwindle when they are put in proportion to the size of the land used. And they vanish when we look with the peatland’s eyes wider and deeper in time. The short-term benefits are outweighed by the costs of the climate and ecological crisis. Costs which are already hitting those worse off the hardest, and which my generation and my generation’s children will have to deal with. 

Having said this, policies for peatlands in England must not leave the communities who have benefitted from historic poor practices without alternative means of supporting themselves – for example through regenerative payments for peatland’s many ecosystem services. Effective engagement with these local stakeholders is required for a collective movement into the positive vision of a future where peatlands and humans can thrive.

Peatlands will remember the decisions this government makes long after its term has ended. Next year the assembled countries of the world will remember the decisions this government makes when they congregate here for COP26. Therefore let them be the right decisions. Ensuring a just transition for local communities, we must ban burning on peatlands; ban the import of extracted peat from other countries; and rewet, restore and protect our degraded peatlands. If we do not, the peatlands will remember. 

By Jamie Walker, with Bethany Copsey and Frankie Turk, members of Re-Peat. If you run into any problems accessing the cited resources, contact Jamie Walker for more information.

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