Climate futures - Wales puts more money on its peatlands

Brecon Beacons National Park Authority (BBNPA) is rewetting and restoring its degraded upland peat bogs, part of a national five-year peat-restoration programme. Karen Thomas braved the elements to review its progress

The track up from Tal-y-Bont Forest is steep and muddy, after a night of heavy storms. Around it, waterfalls cascade in full flow.

Below us the Tal-y-Bont reservoir that supplies Newport is spilling surplus water towards the River Usk. Above us stretches a degraded landscape. Its ability to hold water has suffered from decades of pollution, grazing, erosion, fires and climate change.

It’s a steep climb to reach Gwaun Cerrig Llwydion and the peatland-restoration project that stretches across the plateau. Richard Ball, a Brecon Beacons National Park Authority (BBNPA) projects officer, leads the way. With us is wetland hydrologist David Mould. His company Milestone Environmental surveyed the hydrology to monitor progress restoring the Brecon Beacons’ blanket bogs.

Peat is part-decomposed vegetation. In peat bogs, waterlogged conditions compress this material, which decays very slowly. Wales, with its cool, wet weather, is typical peat country. The Brecon Beacons National Park has more than 16,000 ha of upland peat bogs – a lot of it badly degraded.

Healthy peatlands absorb carbon emissions, critical to manage climate change. But the Brecon Beacons blanket bog is the most eroded in Wales and the terrain is so degraded in places, that it emits more carbon than it absorbs. That damage can be reversed – which is what The Environment has come to see.

In 2020, the Welsh government launched a five-year plan to restore the country’s peat bogs, to tackle the nature and climate emergencies. Natural Resources Wales’ (NRW) National Peatland Action Programme (NPAP) planned to restore 650 ha a year. In 2021 it restored 1,000 ha.

And in October, climate-change minister Julie James announced that Wales will triple its peatland-restoration targets to better manage 30 per cent of the world’s land and marine habitats by 2030, to meet the United Nations-led 30x30 nature-recovery goals.

Climate-action plan

Blanket bogs aren’t glamorous. They are vital to a healthy planet. Healthy peatlands offer triple benefits. They absorb water through downpour and release it slowly through drought. They create habitats for plants, birds and insects. And they regulate greenhouse gases while also capturing and storing carbon.

The stakes here are high. Seven reservoirs around the Brecon Beacons supply nearly half Dwr Cymru Welsh Water’s (DCWW) drinking water. DCWW needs to make the region more resilient to water shortages. It has created the Brecon Beacons Mega Catchment, working with farmers, landowners, academics and industry partners to manage land to improve and safeguard its water supplies.

Restoring peatlands supports that strategy. NPAP aims to protect peatland from erosion, restore drainage and restore afforested peatlands, to sustainably manage blanket peat and lowland peat and restore high-carbon peatlands.

The government awarded BBNPA £450,000 from its Sustainable Landscapes, Sustainable Places fund for 2021-2022 to restore peatland habitat and prevent erosion across the park.

BBNPA brought in contractors to build leaky dams and pools to raise water levels and rewet the blanket bogs. Helicopters delivered stones and biodegradable coir rolls to form dams.

Teams have covered sheltered areas with local heather brash, harvested on nearby Mynydd Du. This protects the peat from erosion and enables seeds to germinate and grow. Other areas are lined with jute and coir geotextiles to protect the peat by keeping it damp so that new plants can establish and stabilise the underlying peat.

Ball and Mould point out treated and untreated peat hags – black scars where peat has been lost to erosion and overgrazing with bare roots of vegetation exposed to the wind. Diggers have removed turf, reprofiled the slopes and replaced the covering vegetation to protect the bog from erosion and its drying effects.

Mould’s team completed hydrological surveys at four sites last autumn, to monitor progress and check the water levels. It assessed the peat-restoration work and recommended future approaches.

Restoring peatland is painfully slow. Healthy bogs grow just 1mm deeper every year. As we squelch across the restored pools and watercourses, Ball points out a green splash of fresh-planted sphagnum moss. Sphagnum builds healthy bogs. The plug comes from a South Wales site cleared to build an onshore windfarm, replanted on Gwaun Cerrig Llwydion.

Milestone Environmental has fitted dataloggers that allow BBNPA to monitor water levels and temperature. Signs in Welsh and English explain how and why the bogs are being restored, asking visitors to keep to the paths. “People do seem to understand why we’re doing this – that it’s helping us to tackle climate change,” Ball says.

It hasn’t been easy. Restoring blanket bogs is slow and labour-intensive. BBNPA is managing an area of common land with open grazing rights that is also a site of special scientific interest (SSSI).

Ecologists are still learning the hard way what works and what doesn’t to restore peatlands. Last year’s drought didn’t help. NRW, Welsh peatland-action groups, RSPB and conservationists meet several times a year to trade experiences and share best practice. That exchange will help BBNPA to create a peatlands-restoration strategy.

Funding remains the biggest challenge, Ball says. BBNPA expects to spend around £500,000 a year on restoring peat over the next three years. Projects tap Welsh government annual budgets, delivered via NRW. But rebuilding a lost ecosystem demands a further-sighted, longer-term approach.

Restoring the Brecon Beacons’ vast blanket bogs is a labour of love – and that task will take decades.

This article first appeared in the May 2023 issue of The Environment magazine, published by CIWEM. Karen Thomas is editor of The Environment

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