A year in peat...

Greensett Moss from the flank of Whernside, Ingleborough beyond © Lyndon Marquis

Our Communications Officer considers what he's learned about peat since he started.

At the end of January, 2018, I started a new job with Yorkshire Peat Partnership. I knew a little bit about peat - my degree is in Environmental Studies - and, fortunately, the interview was about communications skills rather than blanket bog ecology. I can safely say that 14 months on, I'm only just beginning to grasp how much I didn't know. If you have the same starting point as I did, here are just some of the things I have learned...

You're not supposed to be able to see the peat...

I've been striding about the southern Yorkshire Dales for the thick end of 40 years now, and I'd taken a real dislike to peat in that time. Plover Hill, Buckden Pike, Fountain's Fell, Firth Fell, Simon's Seat, Yockenthwaite Moor, Great Whernside, Little Whernside, actual Whernside - all routes that had brought me into contact with sucking, black glop (that's definitely a word). Peat had me wading or hopping from rock to rock or sidetracking for hundreds of metres to avoid its cold, wet embrace. But it's not peat's fault - it's our fault. Where peat is exposed like that, it's almost always because of something we've done (society as a whole, I mean, not walkers). On healthy Dales peatland, which is to say blanket bog, there should be a...well...a blanket of vegetation between you and the peat. It will still be wet - you'll want waterproof boots and gaiters - but it should support your weight, provided you keep moving.

Fun peat fact: there are more solids in a pint of milk than there are in a pint of peat. Milk is around 87% water and peat around 90%.

Ombrotrophic is a thing...

I've learned a lot of jargon, but only met this word quite recently. It means that a habitat or species receives all its nutrients and water from the atmosphere - rain, hail, mist and such. This is important because the plants that thrive on blanket bog cannot compete with a species like bracken when the environment is too rich in nutrients. On dryer, perhaps stream fed moorland, you can sometimes see bracken shading out the heather and pretty much everything else. Blanket bog, though, is too wet, too acidic and basically just too poor for bracken to get a toehold.

Sphagnum is the architect here - once it is established, it makes the habitat wetter and more acidic so that few other species can compete. You can find out more about this moss on Dom's post.

Image of Ingleborough summit in low cloud © Lyndon Marquis

Cloud rolling in over the summit of Ingleborough - ombrotrophic habitats obtain all their nutrients and water from the atmosphere © Lyndon Marquis

Craneflies are more important than I thought...

Oddly, I recall the exact moment I took against craneflies*: My family was camping at the back of the George Inn at Hubberhome - I was under 7 at this stage - and my cousin (several years my senior) screamed when a cranefly flew into the tent. Anyway, whether or not your cousin gave you an irrational dislike for them, it's pretty hard to find a firm fan. Unless you're a moorland bird with chicks to feed.

There are many species of cranefly, but they all lay eggs that go onto four larval stages before emerging as adults. On blanket bog, adult craneflies emerge over several weeks during spring. If you took all of the invertebrates on or above the ground's surface during a single year and weighed them, craneflies would make up around 75% of that mass. From a breeding bird point of view, that's a lot of protein just when you need it. You can read about all of this (and more) in M J Carroll's The ecology of British upland peatlands: climate change, drainage, keystone insects and breeding birds. Studies show that more cranefly mean more red grouse, dunlin and golden plover. And craneflies need moist conditions for their eggs and larvae - dried out, bare peat is no good for crane flies and no good for birds. It's no good for anything, in fact, which is why my colleagues spend so much time trying to raise the water table and establish blanket bog vegetation (there's more about what this means and why it's important in Matt's post).

*also known as daddy long legs, or Tipulidae to give them their Sunday name..

I hope that's whetted your appetite - if you'd like to find out more about blanket bog in Yorkshire and how we're restoring it, take a look at the rest of our website.