I sat in Natural England’s office on the disused Kirkbride airfield talking to Alasdair Brock before Britain’s official application to leave the European Union had been submitted, and we talked about the future.
“We’ve lost 95% of our raised bogs,” Alasdair said, “so the remnants are protected – though not fully protected.”
Natural England has been “tasked with restoring the damage, and we’re also trying to work in the ‘wider landscape’.” This means, of course, working with local farmers: “There’s a lot of farmland on peat and – understandably – their approach is opposite to what we want.”
Ideally, these ‘landscape-scale’ changes would occur around a core of designated sites – that is, sites protected by legally-binding conservation designations.
In the Upper Solway region, “bogs were – are – a significant part of the semi-natural habitat. They would have been surrounded by lagg – wet woodland, with a reed-bed interface, grading into woodland of ash or oak, depending on how dry it was. Each bog would have grown, escaping its catchment, its basin.”
But since the 1940s, agricultural demands have tended towards draining the laggs, with the result that farmland nutrients move towards the bog, and alter the vegetation, so that peat-forming Sphagnum species are out-competed. The aim of Natural England and the RSPB, then, is to try to return the edges back towards a wet habitat, or ‘wet agriculture’.
“Bowness, Glasson, Drumburgh were all large bogs at one time – there’s peat under the road between Bowness and Glasson. In the future, we’ll try to re-create the links between them and to manage the remaining habitat in as optimal a way as possible. We’ll need to work with the communities and the farmers – but what will happen in the future is not at all sure. What are we going to get post-Brexit? Will new agri-environment schemes be appropriate, will they be targeted?”
Re-wetting and regeneration schemes are already helping the raised mires to recover. “We’re already seeing see the bog vegetation recovering after 10 years and that will continue – but there will always be an impact at the edges.”
The recovery of the vegetation is of course not just important in restoring the raised mire’s ‘habitat’ – a distancing and abstract word, that doesn’t help us truly feel why the Moss is important (see Chapter 2).
Re-growth of Sphagnum mosses and the other thin skin of plants of the acrotelm that overlie the peat will ensure that some of the carbon dioxide from the air will eventually be trapped and stored (see Chapter 7). The balance between sequestration and release is complex during bog restoration, but eventually, sequestration will win out (see the discussion in Richard Lindsay’s 2010 report on Peatbogs and Carbon, section 10).
Alasdair raised a different, and interesting, point about the impact of climate change – not just on the local climate, but also globally, on sea-level. The history, and the future, of the Solway Firth and its edgelands has always been a story of sea-level changes.
“We don’t understand the hydrological connectivities. Climate change is likely to have an effect – increased rainfall, such as we’ve had in July/August, might make farming in this area untenable. A rise in sea-level could cause further erosion around the Bowness peninsula …”
In planning for regeneration of the raised mires it’s usual to think in terms of decades. But how these external influences, these ‘connectivities’, will affect the mosses and the Mosses in the much longer term is going to be hard to predict.
The ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos below show what can be achieved, and why we must always remain optimistic. If we do not feel positive about our ability to ameliorate the situation, we would become paralysed with inactivity – but there is a surprising number of good stories about what our species can do when we come together.
The aerial views, commissioned by Natural England in 2004, show the Solway Junction Railway track and Bowness Common before re-wetting had started; James Smith’s aerial views show how re-wetting has changed the track, and the Common in its vicinity, by the winter of 2016/17.