Pioneering research project could revolutionise peatland restoration

Using drones in peatland restoration

A pioneering research project at Swinton Estate is testing whether drones could cut the cost of peatland restoration in Yorkshire.

Swinton Estate is taking part in a 10-year study in partnership with Yorkshire Water, Yorkshire Peat Partnership and the University of Manchester to assess the impact of sphagnum mosses on habitat restoration.

The project is a detailed assessment of the reintroduction of sphagnum mosses in peatland habitats, to help prevent carbon emissions and improve water storage in the soil. Sphagnum mosses are important peat-forming plants, helping to contribute to long-term carbon sequestration in bog habitats.

The use of drones could be a game-changer because peatland restoration is currently very expensive and labour intensive.

Mark Cunliffe-Lister of Swinton Estate, Chair of the Moorland Association, said: “We are keen to play our part in peatland restoration to help improve soil hydrology and to ensure that carbon stays locked up in the ground as much as possible. Reintroducing sphagnum mosses isn’t always successful and ongoing monitoring is very expensive. If drones can bring down the cost of peatland restoration that is a win-win for the environment, for land managers and for the public purse.”

Rosie Snowden, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Peat Programme Manager, said: “We are already using drones to capture high-resolution topographic and infra-red images. If we can find a way to extract data like sphagnum growth, vegetation structure and species, this could replace ongoing ground-based monitoring by researchers and reduce the cost of such projects across the Great North Bog.”

Andrew Walker, catchment strategy manager for Yorkshire Water said: “Yorkshire Water has been working closely with the Moorland Association for over a decade to understand and promote the importance healthy blanket bogs can play in mitigating the impacts of variable weather patterns for water quality and supply. Healthy peatlands can deliver other benefits to society and the environment, not least attenuating flooding downstream. We are grateful that the Swinton Estate has allowed us to restore and enhance these internationally important habitats, which are sources of drinking water for Wensleydale and Harrogate. Being able to remotely monitor how effective – or not – interventions have been will build on evidence and confidence that continued investment from a ranges of sources, is sound.”

Reintroducing sphagnum

The research, which began in August 2017, seeks to understand the impact of reintroducing sphagnum to achieve environmental benefits such as improving water storage in the soil and preventing emissions of greenhouse gases.

Yorkshire Peat Partnership hopes to also evaluate whether drones could be used for ongoing monitoring of any sphagnum which has been planted, instead of requiring people to undertake this work.

The study site is located on Masham-Colsterdale Moor on Swinton Estate, in Nidderdale National Landscape in North Yorkshire. The land is managed for grouse shooting and is also used for sheep grazing.

Sixty plots of ground have been studied in detail by the research team, with varying peat depths of between 30cm and 190cm.

A report on the first two years of the project showed that sphagnum cover increased from 10 per cent to 58 per cent on the treated sites. Greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, were also measured as part of the research. The results showed that net carbon uptake was occurring – meaning that more carbon was being stored in the soil than emitted though natural processes.

Post-war drainage and historic air pollution caused by industrial processes have damaged areas of peatland in the north of England, resulting in patches of bare peat which emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Re-vegetating these areas will help ensure carbon remains in the ground.

Peatland restoration

Separately, Swinton Estate has undertaken major peatland restoration works on Colsterdale and Ilton moors, in addition to woodland planting and biodiversity improvements. Drone images, which provide much more detail than the existing satellite data, are being used to evaluate the outcome of these projects.

This involved revegetating 5.9 hectares of bare peat, to help prevent carbon emissions, cutting existing vegetation across 55 hectares and inoculating with sphagnum species, and blocking 48,480 metres of historic ‘grips’ (drainage channels) to help improve the soil hydrology as well as blocking and reducing sediment flow for 27,948 metres of eroding gullies.

An additional 929 metres of drainage grips, 26,847 metres of gullies and 10,155 metres of peat hags have been reprofiled and the eroding sides revegetated.

The work on the ground was carried out by Marsden AES with staff from Yorkshire Wildlife Trust provided on behalf of Yorkshire Peat Partnership, along with support from the Swinton Estate management team. All phases were funded by Yorkshire Water.

Conservation on the Swinton Estate

Nature champion Swinton Estate has previously won a coveted ‘Life on Land’ award from Red List Revival for its conservation work benefiting curlew and hen harrier.

The estate was ranked in the top 1 per cent of landholdings in the UK for its breeding hen harrier population and in the top 10 per cent nationally for curlew.

Moorland Association members are at the forefront of peatland restoration and have already achieved 60 per cent of the peatland restoration work required on their land as part of the government’s commitment to tackling climate change.

Over 27,000 hectares of land have been restored and nearly 7,000 kilometres of old agricultural drains (grips) blocked, to re-wet the peat, making a significant contribution to England’s carbon sequestration target.

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