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For peat’s sake: save our moors

Friday 26 March 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who has been warning for 20 years about the damage done to upland peat moors in areas like the Yorkshire Dales, delights that the importance of these habitats has at long last been recognised

MANY times in the history of this column I have referred to LUCs – the Laws of Unintended Consequences. These have usually come about as a result of misguided Government actions which ended up doing more harm than good – even, in some cases, achieving exactly the opposite of what was intended.

Well, just for a change, a LUC was revealed this week that will actually achieve important benefits for our countryside, country folk and country visitors. The fact that this result has been achieved virtually by accident, by virtue of a political fad rather than years of constant pressure, doesn’t mean that it is any less welcome.

Pic: Natural England: Scoured out drainage gulley

We are talking here about the future of our upland peat moors which form the backdrop of much of Britain’s most spectacular scenery in areas like the Yorkshire Dales. These have been raped and pillaged for generations: who cares about the odd peat bog?

Not only were these depredations ignored by authority the worst of them were actually ordered by such authority, in this case by the late and unlamented Min. of Ag. , which ordered that millions of acres of them should be drained to either a) make way for more grazing or b) become home to vast swatches of ugly, unnatural and unwanted conifer plantations.

Along with the grubbing out of thousands of miles of hedgerow, this was one of the worst acts of vandalism ever inflicted on the English countryside and for at least two decades its consequences were ignored by the very people who were supposed to be experts in land management.

Sheep were introduced to the new grazing and proceeded, amongst other things, to clear swathes of heather, the subject of a million picture post cards from the Dales, the North York Moors, and parts of the Yorkshire Pennines which inspired Wuthering Heights.

This brought about a sharp decline in bird species like golden plovers, cross bills and curlews. The conifer plantations were virtually sterile, the soil acid and the dropped pine needles refusing to break down. Nature lovers protested but to no avail.

The threat to wildlife, however, was as nothing compared to the damage the drainage channels dug into the peat – known as grips – did to the centuries old water table. Instead of holding back rain and snow melt in its giant sponge, those channels were gauged out into huge gulleys, sending torrents down into the valleys below like water shoots. Our picture shows just how things are now.

peat moorland has become a star in the latest political drama...

The mass flooding that followed in the lowers reaches of Yorkshire Dales rivers like the Aire, the Ribble, the Ure and the Wharfe began to focus minds some five or six years ago and a start was made to filling in the so-called “grips” on a small scale – but nowhere near enough cash was available to make a serious stab at the job.

But now, suddenly, peat moorland has become a star in the latest political drama: the great climate change circus, which has had the politicos jumping onto to its careering bandwagon like cowboys in a Wild West rodeo.

For peat, you see, stores (or “captures”) carbon from the atmosphere and Britain has been ordered by our masters in Brussels to dramatically cut our carbon emissions by the year 2020. Trouble is, now that peat has become worthy of scientific respect, it has been discovered that, because of the depredations of the past fifty years, it has been losing its ability to act as a carbon store (see News, Tuesday).

Natural England has launched a national survey of out peatlands to see what work can be done to give them back their storage ability. Here in Yorkshire, we have some of the most important deposits of peat in the UK – they have been described as the “tropical rainforests of Britain” for their importance as carbon stores.

This has led to the formation of the Yorkshire Peat Partnership, which aims to substantially increase the amount of peatland being restored in upland areas by working with farmers and landowners.

Now I am always suspicious of political fads that are used to launch major programmes – it was, after all, one of these fads that led to the drainage of the moors in the first place – and I am an open sceptic about the global warming terror. But if this fad means that salvation of some of our most beautiful landscapes, I wish the best of luck to this particular LUC.

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