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Measuring success of peatland restoration

Mike Peacock collecting data in the fieldMike Peacock collecting data in the fieldBangor University are assisting the National Trust in an ambitious project to restore Wales’s second largest peat upland and a European-designated special conservation area.

A 400 mile network of ditches on the Migneint between Ffestiniog and Llanrwst will over time be filled in to restore the area to its natural state. Cut over centuries to improve drainage and provide more land for farming and grouse shooting, the ditches are possibly contributing to the release of carbon.

The aim is to reduce the reduce carbon released from the peat as it dries out. Having taken measurements before the work began, this will continue for four years in order to review  the success of the restoration works. Bangor University PhD research student, Michael Peacock is carrying out this work in collaboration with the National Trust through a Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarship (for further details visit www.higherskillswales.co.uk/kess). Also involved are the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) and the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW).

Peatlands hold a vast amount of carbon dioxide, locked in their waterlogged soils. It is thought that an amount equal to 35 years’ worth of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions are locked up in the country’s peaty moorlands. But carbon dioxide is being lost from these areas- and the suspects for this are droughts and rising temperatures drying out the uplands.

Trystan Edwards of the National Trust, who own the land, explains:

“The National Trust has been looking for more evidence that carbon can be contained by peatlands, and we were delighted to be able to collaborate with Bangor University through Michael’s research project. This phase of the ditch blocking work is part funded through the European LIFE project, which is administered through RSPB.”

The Migneint itself covers a range of nearly 200km2, of which the National Trust owns approximately 8,000 acres. The research will allow calculations to be made to measure how much carbon is lost from the peat due to man-made ditches. Additionally, it may be feasible for carbon credits to be generated for the National Trust due to the ditch-blocking, which could be re-invested to continue restoration of the vast moorland. 

Ditch-blocking is a popular method of returning peatlands to their original state, but uncertainties remain regarding the overall impact on carbon cycling.  By recording and analyzing results from the various measurements of carbon dioxide released from the soil and carried in the water, as well as of water levels, water flows and rainfall over several years, the project can assess whether ditch-blocking causes peatlands to store more carbon, or to release more carbon or methane into the atmosphere. 

Michael Peacock says:

“Approximately six months of comprehensive baseline data have been collected so far.  As work begins to block the ditches, we will begin the longer process of monitoring to see how much, if any, carbon is given off into the atmosphere.”

Professor Freeman of the School of Biological Sciences says:

“It is expected that the results of Michael’s research will provide vital information that will indicate whether ditch-blocking is a viable environmentally friendly restoration technique.  The research will examine different methods of ditch blocking to find out which technique is the most efficient at retaining carbon. This knowledge can then be used by other ditch blocking projects across the UK.”

Michael’s research project is one of several PhD projects funded by KESS currently under way at Bangor University which are focusing on the effects of carbon in the environment.

“I chose to do my PhD at Bangor University because it has an excellent reputation for peatland biogeochemistry and I knew that I would have the expert support I need from my supervisor, Professor Chris Freeman,” he explained.   He also knew that access to numerous sites for fieldwork is within a short drive from the University. 

Michael is 25 and comes from St Helens, Merseyside. He attended Carmel College, St Helens and gained a BSC in Zoology and an MSc in Ecology from Bangor University.

Publication date: 7 February 2011

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