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Peatland plateau turned into ‘giant sponge’ with 3,500 pools to absorb carbon

A moorland plateau near Manchester has transformed into a ‘giant sponge’ after conservationists built thousands of peat bunds to tackle the effects of climate change.

A moorland plateau near Manchester has transformed into a ‘giant sponge’ after conservationists built thousands of peat bunds to tackle the effects of climate change.

Aerial photos released today reveal almost 3,500 low, scallop-shaped banks of peat – which allow water to pool behind them – spread across the landscape at Holcombe Moor in the West Pennines. 

The National Trust together with Moors for the Future Partnership, Natural England and the Holcombe Moor Commoners’ Association, spent six months creating the bunds as part of plans to improve the condition of the peat, enabling it to store carbon while boosting bird numbers and reducing flooding downstream. 

Work also involved building 403 stone dams and 308 peat dams to further slow the flow of rainwater running off the plateau and planting half a million sphagnum moss plugs to create boggier habitats and hold moisture in the soil.

It is thought that interventions may already be having some effect, with the flood-prone communities at the bottom of the moor avoiding damage during Storm Christoph earlier this year. 

Maddi Naish, Rural Surveyor at the National Trust, said: ‘If you imagine a giant sponge which is covered in thousands of small holes and can hold large quantities of water – that’s what we’re aiming for here. The peat bunds stop rainwater rushing across and off the plateau and instead trap it on the moor, allowing special plants to thrive which help the peat to absorb carbon from the air.

“These interventions provide a range of other benefits too, including reducing flooding  downstream, improving water quality and attracting rare wildlife, such as golden plover and dunlin which have declined in recent years. 

“Peatlands only cover a tiny percentage of the world’s land but are superheroes when it comes to storing carbon. We’re just a stone’s throw from a major city so it’s incredible to think we live alongside a habitat that is rarer that rainforest globally, but which contributes so significantly to tackling climate change.”

The project has been funded by Defra and the Environment Agency, and forms part of Moors for the Future Partnership’s ‘Moor Carbon’ initiative.

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: “Peatland restoration at Holcombe Moor is a shining example of innovative action being taken across the country to lock up carbon, store water and provide a home for rare wildlife. 
 
“Ensuring peatlands in the West Pennines are healthy is important not just for local people and wildlife but also in reaching Net Zero by 2050, which is why we supported the Moor Carbon project with funding over the past three years, including Holcombe Moor.

“Protecting habitats like this is at the heart of the Government’s peat action plan, which aims to restore at least 35,000 hectares of peatland by the end of this Parliament.”

Holcombe Moor is part of the Stubbins Estate, which was gifted to the National Trust in 1943 by a local mill owner in memory of his son who died in the war. It is the first area of countryside reached when travelling north out of Manchester and is much-loved by local walkers.  

On the high moor, blanket bog has formed over 6,000 years leading to an accumulation of peat that is up to three metres deep in places. 

But this precious area of peatland, like many others in the Pennines, has degraded over the last 150 years as a result of pollution from the industrial revolution, as well as moorland fires, erosion and overgrazing. These pressures have dried the surface peat and changed the vegetation – making it less suitable for moorland birds, such as the amber-listed dunlin which breeds in the uplands, and increasing the likelihood of flooding downstream.

Dried-out peat can also no longer store carbon in the way that it should, and can switch from being a precious carbon store to an emitter. 

Now, the groups behind the project hope to change that. Sphagnum plants – which can hold up to eight times their own weight in water – will colonise the pools and create a carpet of moss across the moor. Over time these waterlogged plants will restore the important peat soils beneath, returning the land to its full potential as a tool for tackling climate change. 

Dewi Jackson, Conservation Works Officer for Moors for the Future Partnership said: “The improvements at Holcombe Moor are a testament to the success of partnership working. With the National Trust and the Holcombe Moor Commoners Association we were able to find a solution that was suited to the needs of this particular environment and that we hope will have long-lasting results in terms of carbon storage and other benefits for water quality, biodiversity and natural flood management.”

In January 2021, Storm Christoph was expected to bring flooding to the communities at the foot of the moor, but the houses avoided damage. 

Maddi added: “It is difficult to say for sure whether our interventions stopped the floodwater reaching people’s homes earlier this year, but we hope that they played a part, and this is certainly our ambition for the future. We know that storm damage and floods are due to increase in the north of England by 2060 so natural flood solutions like these could become increasingly important.”

Header image: NW Groundworks.