Climate change is being talked about much more, especially as we near the critical decision-making United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP26, in Glasgow this November. Many of us may wonder what we can do to help prepare and adapt to the changes caused by climate change and how to prevent these from becoming worse for us and, most importantly, for future generations. One way is to give peat a chance.
Peatlands in Northern Ireland occupy 242,600 hectares, covering 18% of the land area – that’s around 21 times the area of Belfast City. Many of us regularly see peatlands, also known as peat bogs, perhaps taking them for granted and not realising how much we rely on them for our way of life. Peatlands have been forming for thousands of years and are valuable for many reasons. For generations they have provided land for livestock farming, feeding us and supporting our economy. Healthy peatlands are naturally wet places and in the uplands they capture rainfall, controlling its steady flow downhill, averting flooding, supplying clean water into rivers and into drinking water reservoirs, and can reduce the risk of wildfires during prolonged dry weather. They are places rich in nature, hosting many rare and protected species.
The challenge is that in Northern Ireland around 80% of our peatlands are leaking greenhouse gases and we urgently need to restore them so we can stop this, and it needs to be done on a large scale, and as quickly as possible.
And they have a critical role in our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. Peatland plants draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using it for growth and as the older parts of the plants die back they slowly turn into carbon-rich peat, locking away the carbon for thousands of years more. It’s a massive amount of carbon – in Northern Ireland, around 45 years-worth of our current annual greenhouse gas emissions is locked away.
Today we recognise that in Northern Ireland land management practices over many decades and erosion due to weather have led to large areas of once healthy peatlands being gradually changed, from carbon stores into leaky sources of greenhouse gases. This has occurred as peatlands have been drained or reclaimed earlier this century for grass and forestry or traditionally dug for fuel, and in the past sixty years, extracted on a large scale to make growing media for horticulture. This loss of intact peatlands has been happening across the world, and over the past thirty years nations have woken up to the need to stop this to help restore nature; to stop greenhouse gases being released, adding to climate change.
“Globally, peatlands cover just 3% of the land area yet they store twice as much carbon as our forests and it’s critical this stays locked away,” said Dr Ian Garner, Ulster Wildlife’s Peatland Innovation Lead. “The challenge is that in Northern Ireland around 80% of our peatlands are leaking greenhouse gases and we urgently need to restore them so we can stop this, and it needs to be done on a large scale, and as quickly as possible.”
This year, Ulster Wildlife, in partnership with the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen and AFBI, is responding to this urgency through its Accelerating Peatland Restoration project. Using the latest satellite imaging and other mapping techniques along with extensive soil sampling, experts at the James Hutton Institute will produce peat maps for Northern Ireland that will provide an accurate picture of where our peatlands are, how much peat they contain and the condition they are in.
The peat maps will be an up-to-date resource that can be used to inform long-term decisions on policy and investment for peatland restoration in Northern Ireland.
Dr Matt Aitkenhead, leading the James Hutton Institute work, said, “The peat maps will be an up-to-date resource that can be used to inform long-term decisions on policy and investment for peatland restoration in Northern Ireland. Experience across the UK has shown that investing in peatland restoration now can return multiple economic and social benefits at the local and national level for many years as we adapt to climate change and work to lessen its effects.” He added, “It will be vital to have effective policies to improve the resilience of peatlands, for climate change mitigation and adaptation.”
DAERA is producing a Northern Ireland Peatland Strategy and has established a Resilient Peatlands Programme to support the delivery of policy measures and work with partners to invest in restoring and managing peatlands across Northern Ireland into the future.
Jennifer Fulton, CEO of Ulster Wildlife, said, “Much of our peatland is in private ownership, mostly as farmland for grazing. The mapping information will support the development of plans for peatland restoration and its long-term management, and through working closely with farmers and landowners we can set priorities, help create solutions that retain the productivity and profitability of the land, stop them from releasing greenhouse gases, and make peatlands valued as part of national Nature Recovery Networks.”
The valuable insights on peatlands in Northern Ireland that Ulster Wildlife and its partners are producing will be an important contribution towards tackling the nature and climate crisis
Dianna Kopansky, UNEP’s Global Peatlands Coordinator, added, “The valuable insights on peatlands in Northern Ireland that Ulster Wildlife and its partners are producing will be an important contribution towards tackling the nature and climate crisis. The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration was launched this year with a rallying call as a global movement to stop, prevent and reverse the degradation of all ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean. The next ten years will count most in the fight against the climate and nature emergency - which will only succeed if everyone plays a part.”
Ulster Wildlife is bringing its years of accumulated experience and know-how in peatland management for nature and for restoration. Through working with its partners, farmers and landowners they will help secure a future for peatlands, which will, in turn, remain true ‘Climate Heroes’ for generations to come.
Share, learn, inspire, experience and act for peatlands, people and the planet by following and sharing using #PeatlandsMatter and #GenerationRestoration and visit ulsterwildlife.org/saving-our-peatlands.