Wetter is better

The National Sheep Association says rewilding means more fires like those on Saddleworth Moor. Our specialist advisor Alastair Driver says the opposite is true

Peat bogs forsinard scotland
© lucentius/iStock

The devastating moorland fires in the North West of England have led to claims that moves to rewild many of our upland areas would put far more and far larger areas at risk.’ In reality, all available evidence (from scientifically peer-reviewed papers to anecdotal evidence from land managers on the ground) shows that the exact opposite is the case – rewilding in parts of our uplands reduces the risk of fires and increases the chances of them being extinguished earlier. 

It’s not rocket science

This isn’t rocket science. If you stop the regeneration of a wide mix of natural vegetation on peat bogs and maintain it as a heather moor and then periodically burn that heather to expose bare peat, you will cause that peat to retain less water. It will then desiccate and thus burn more easily, longer and deeper. 

Conversely, rewilding is about the restoration of healthy, functioning ecosystems towards the point where natural processes prevail and nature can take care of itself. With peat bogs, allowing natural recovery enables them to retain more water for longer, both in the vegetation and the peat below, and thus be less flammable. Of course, in extreme droughts, there is still a risk of fire but the risk is lower and the chances of extinguishing fires sooner is higher.

In my former role as Head of Conservation for the Environment Agency I collated a body of evidence on working with natural processes to restore catchments, which I called Killer Facts’ and a quick dip into those provides us with some useful examples of how rewilding interventions make peat bogs wetter:

  • The Pumlumon Project ditch blocking work affected the water-holding capability of a 1,013ha catchment area, raising the water table by an average 5cm and retaining an extra 155 million litres of water. 
  • During drought periods, drain blocking in the upland blanket bog of the Berwyn & South Clwyd Mountains SAC led to drain flows being more stable and up to three times higher than those prior to blocking. 
  • After blanket bog restoration in 2008 as part of the SCaMP project, the median annual water table depth at the Whitendale Central Dipwell on the Bowland Estate reduced from 9cm below ground surface in 2008 to 5cm below ground surface in 2015

Water-retention powers

As for burning as a form of management on peat bogs, the 2017 EMBER report (Effects of Moorland Burning on the Ecohydrology of River Basins) states that water tables were significantly deeper for burned catchments than for unburned ones’ and that changes in the hydrological properties of the peat after fire make the peat less conducive to Sphagnum moss growth’. As is well documented, Sphagnum has superb water-retention powers. 

As I write this, I am pleased to see that IUCN have released a statement about these moorland fires, stating what is now undeniable: Spending effort now in rewetting peatlands avoids far greater costs imposed by damaged peatlands.’

Re-wetting upland peat

Re-wetting upland peat on an unprecedented scale will be part of the upland rewilding projects that we at Rewilding Britain are aiming to catalyse. However, we are not seeking to promote the rewilding of our uplands in their entirety – we are probably only looking at the potential for perhaps 10 – 20% coverage by rewilding projects in English upland national parks. These would be carried out in partnership with farmers and land managing organisations by the end of this century. 

What is becoming increasingly clear however, is that we not only need to do this for reasons such as flood risk management, water quality, carbon sequestration, health and wellbeing and biodiversity, but also for drought and fire risk management – especially in the light of climate warming.