Loss and gain; peat in the Forest of Bowland

One of the glories of upland Britain are peat bogs, which blanket so much ground from 300 to 600 metres. To many that does not sound high compared to the Alpes and Himalaya but the areas are often relatively featureless, windswept, cold and apparently barren. Often they are windswept and cold but featureless and barren they are not. They support a tremendous variety of wildlife, both flora and fauna, and have a wild addictive unique beauty. There is a great beauty in swathes of cotton grass and if you are lucky, and if the gamekeepers have not got there first, you may see a hen harrier.

Traversing peat moors is not for the faint-hearted as paths are either non-existent or simply a quagmire. Those who have hiked the Pennine Way or done the Three Peaks in the Yorkshire dales will have experienced it. To some from the south of England peat moors may epitomise the north of England but they are missing a treat.

Peat bogs formed after the Ice Age finished and cover swathes of high ground in England and Wales. Superficially there are monotonous and have very few trees. The beauty is harsh and the solitude is often over-powering. Navigation is interesting in fine weather due to vague paths, but in the frequent fog and mist navigation can be challenging as there are so features to locate yourself.

Over the last century peat bogs and blankets have been damaged by game-keeping and sheep-grazing. Once the peat is exposed it is vulnerable to drying out (as it has been fro the last month until today) and on turning to dust is easily eroded.At times acres of peat have been lost, epitomised by the Trig Point (for mapping) on Haythornthwaite Fell which was 10 feet higher than the surrounding land due to erosion. Often the peat has been eroded down to rock and results in almost an absence of any vegetation. Over the past few years there have been attempts to restore the peat; by damming highlevel water run-off paths so that above the dam wet conditions will favour the growth of sphagnum, which is often introduced; Putting sisal matting over hag slopes to enable regrowth of plants; re-planting with moorland plants. At times light digging equipment is used and material is brought in by helicopter. So far on the Bowland Fells the peat cover has increased along with flora, but it will take years. Peat stores an immense amount of carbon, and thus peat restoration is one of the many things to do to slow climate change and absorb CO2. If someone could calculate how much carbon has been lost to the atmosphere through peat degredation, the results would be shocking. As well as absorbing carbon peat regrowth slows run-off in heavy rain as peat is like blotting paper. This has a good effect on potential flooding. The Bowland fells are a water catchment area for Lancashire. Degraded peat bogs result in water run-off being discoloured by peat requiring expensive treatment to clean it.  Peaty water looks like tea without milk, so is not good for domestic use, though I can assure it is perfectly good to drink having drunk brown water on the fells 🙂

My route was simply a long walk round the  watershed of the upper Langden brook and involved 15 miles of “walking” and  2000ft of climbing  on invisible paths.

And so I parked my car under the trees near the waterworks and for a change I was the only one there. (The carpark is only 12 miles south east of Lancaster and a bit further from Preston.) After booting up I was off and crossed Langden Brook to walk down stream for a mile.

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The first part was a delightful walk on the banks of the Langden Brook which joins the River Hodder, a tributary of the Ribble, two miles downstream. Two herons took off and I stopped to admire some foxgloves.

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Soon I left the river and after going through a farm followed a semi-visible bridleway up to Mellor Knoll, a 344m hill, which is made of Upper Bowland Shales.  I looked back to the Langden Valley, which I was to return to in some hours. After a break I had a steep pull-up to the top of Totridge Fell, a peat topped hill of 496 m.

 

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From there I had a good view down the Hodder Valley to Longridge Fell (LH photo) and back looking over Mellor Knoll to the upper reaches of the Hodder valley, with Dunsop Bridge hidden from view. The hilltops are of Pendle Grit (Millstone Grit) and the valleys are of mostly Bowland Shales, which being softer erode faster forming valleys.

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I was now on blanket peathag in various states of disrepair. My first shows the peat rising several feet above the path, which was more than visible here, but soon erosion was down to the rock  – Pendle Grit (to the afficianados  – Namurian – lying just below the Coal measures, which would have been above me!)  The summit was more a table top with a Trigonometric Point (trig point) which was used by the Ordnance Survey in the days when theolodites were carried up by surveyors and all calculations done with Log tables as no calculators were available then. While prospecting in South Africa I had to make a topographic map using these traditional methods. Evenings were spent with log tables, doing the calculations and then plotting the map. These trig points are now redundant and are no only useful as navigational aids. The view of the summit with the trig point looks like normal moorland, but it is normal degraded moorland in which the peat cover is being lost.

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I now had three miles to traverse to the top of Fairsnape Fell, which at just over 520metres meant that after descending some fifty metres I only had an ascent of seventy five metres.  It did not feel like three miles and seventy five metres  as the path was almost non-existent and simply vaguely followed a fence. Every so often the path dipped into a morass which created a challenge to cross dry-shod. I did not even get my boots wet! Meanwhile everywhere cottongrass was in full flower. It is not a flower but a sedge.

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After managing to keep my feet dry, I started to plod uphill to my high point of the day 523 metres near Fairsnape Fell. There was no bog as most of the peat had gone done to the rock, and the dryness was interspersed with a few doleful looking dried-out hags. Many hags were covered with hessian  mesh to help regrowth. The improvement was there, but slow, demonstrating that peat restoration will not happen overnight but over decades. To control wandering apes, flags were laid to coral them onto a path and not let them wander anywhere aqnd damage the frail vegetation. I cannot say that the hessian matting is attractive, but they are helping regrowth and gradually disappearing. You need an eye of hope.

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From there I descended a few hundred feet to the delightfully named Fiendsdale Head, where my semi-visible permissive path was crossed by the magnificent right of way from Bleasdale down the exquisite ravine of Fiendsdale Water to Langden Castle, which is now a derelict sheepshed. Fiendsdale Head used to be a quagmire but the path is now on flags. To the purist, and fell-runner, this is not ideal but it serves two purposes. Most importantly it allows the peat bog to recover and, as a possibly unintended consequence, enables walkers to keep their feet dry. I have been coming up here since 2002 and previously hated the spot as my only concern was not to go up to my knees in slutch. After two years the difference is considerable. In stead of a brown morass, there are more actual pools and vegetation is growing both in the pools and around them. The mini-dams of biodegradable material have been effective in backing up water to form pools and sphagnum mosses and other plants have either self-colonised or been planted. The pools are filling up and as in the one in the second photo sphagnum is slowly covering the surface of the pond and before  long should simply be wet sphagnum. The results are not confined to the actually pools as the whole surrounding peat, which has been allowed to dry out, gradually becomes moister and slowly begins to be what it was before numpties began to manage the moors.

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I crossed the path from Bleasdale to Langden Castle and became pathless. All I could do was keep close to the fence and a long trog over rough moorland to Greave Clough Head. There was no semblance of a path and the ground underfoot was very uneven, with nice holes two feet deep waiting to devour an ankle. To some this must seem futile and tedious walking, but there is something about being absolutely alone in wild country. The views were expansive and almost the only noise was the odd twittering of a white ear.  Despite the flatness I could not walk at three miles an hour and it was probably less than two.

 

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As I approached Greave Clough Head my tranquillity was destroyed by the screeching of thousands of gulls who were nesting there. I suddenly found a chick hiding in a clump of grass and bilberry. I took my photo and moved on, noting the number of bird bones lying on the ground. The birds were wheeling and screeching in the sky or on the ground looking like enormous cottongrass.

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at this point I was getting slightly fed-up as the walk was getting monotonous and progress was slow. Things looked up when I got to the top of the ridge, looked down on the upper Wyre valley and over to the lakes. One more up-hill to Haythornthwaite Fell and then it was all downhill. Where ever one looked one could see the gullies caused by peat erosion. At times it was difficult to see how effective peat restoration was possible without  a massive cost.

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I was greeted with a forlorn sight at the top of Haythornthwaite Fell. This is a toppled Trig Point which was erected a century ago. when I first came up here ten years ago the Trig Point was stranded ten feet in the air but no longer. It is a measure of the peat degradation, which can be seen in the first photo with receeding peat hags lying ten feet above the stony ground. That much peat has gone in a century or so, all the result of bad management in the hills. This damage is repeated throughout the Pennines and much of Wales. I could also mention the lowland peatbogs of Lancashire, like Winmarleigh Moss, which is being rescued by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. Perhaps this fallen Trig Point could be used to show the world the results of upland (mis)management.

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A century ago I would have been walking at 478 metres as marked on the Ordnance Survey maps, as they give the original heights. In fact I never got that high and hovered around 476 metres as the land, or rather the peat, had volatilised and eroded away. I crossed the fence from the Duke of Westminster’s land to United Utilities land. UU value this catchment area and have carried out restoration to improve the water in our taps. It was very evident as I walked along the fence, with more vegetation on the UU side, as there has been re-seeding as well as the occasional mini-dams, in which the ponds had almost dried out in our English drought. (For Americans; that means no rain for two weeks :)) This pictures show the results after two years.

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My time was running out so I decided to leave the fence at a vague boggy area called Lingy Pits as I knew there was a sort-of-path going through the grouse butts (for indolent rich boys to prove their virility by shooting grouse and paying about £1000 a day to do so). Going down there was more evidence of erosion. I walked from butt to butt, wondering how the rich little boys could actually struggle to walk up here. Greenpeace would do far more for Climate Change if they blockaded every grouse shooting moors after the Glorious Twelfth instead of their silly campaigns against fracking and Lego. Rant over!

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Grouse shooting has not helped our uplands and this articlehttp://www.brownfieldbriefing.com/news/peat-restoration-can-help-prevent-floodsblames rotational peat burning for grouse shooting, which has rejoinder in the  Blog “Modern Gamekeeping” http://www.moderngamekeeping.com/features/peatland-potential/ I see no value in setting aside so much of our uplands for this kind of activity, when it damages the uplands as one of the finest CCS facilities ever invented – by God.

As I descended to the track I thought of the plight of Hen Harriers, which have mysteriously declined over recent years.  Several years ago when walking in the Bowland Fells I stopped for rest and refreshment at Grid Ref SD********, (giving a precise 8-figure reference) three Hen Harriers were circling above me making a right squawking.  I realised I was close to a nest, which I could have located. I hope my precise grid reference is of help to any of my readers want to locate nesting sites to destroy them. For them, I hope they get stuck in a peat bog one miserable November night.

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With my ranting over I hit the gamekeepers’ track leading back to Langden Castle and the end of the valley. In many ways Bowland valleys are far prettier than the tops, which even I describe as bleak, which I regard as farmyard French. The valleys are deep with a much wider variety of plantlife. I looked up my favourite ravine of Fiendsdale Water and dropped down to Langden Castle, which was a shack for shooters to escape the elements and now often occupied by sheep.

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At little more uphill and then the track took me back to the Waterworks  (in the distance in the photo) often seeing foxgloves in profusion. And so I returned to the car having covered some fifteen very rough miles in some of the wildest countryside of England. I fulfilled the purpose of my outing as I not only wanted a good rough tramp in the hills but also get an overview of peat degradation and peat restoration.  I was filled with equal amounts of despair and hope. Despair at the damage done and the lack of awareness many have of all environmental degradation, but hope both in the sheer awesome beauty of our world and the little improvements which have occurred.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Postscript

It is not my intention to give detailed information on peat restoration and its technicalities. I hope I have given an impressionistic snapshot.

A useful publication is; http://www.field-studies-council.org/publications/pubs/sphagnum-mosses-in-bogs.aspx

For more try googling;  peat restoration, Forest of Bowland, Natural England etc. There is an immense amount to read.

http://www.forestofbowland.com/peatrestoration

and an excellent report

http://www.forestofbowland.com/files/uploads/pdfs/priority_peat_2013.pdf

http://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/ASC-2013-Chap4_singles_2.pdf

http://www.iucn-uk-peatlandprogramme.org/sites/all/files/IUCN%20Demonstrating%20Success%20Booklet.pdf

http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/ourwork/conservation/biodiversity/englands/peat.aspx

 

 

 

 

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