Sphagnum: reversing the fortunes of our northern moors

Posted by Alice Learey on 30/04/2021
Sphagnum up close. Photo: Moors For The Future

We take a closer look at the plant that's reversing the fortunes of the Peak District and South Pennine moors. Alice Learey from Moors For The Future investigates.

Individually, the little sphagnum moss plants planted into our hills – about the size of a 50 pence coin – may not look like much. However, a carpet of these little plants should blanket our hills. In time, these small plants will continue to grow until they join up to create a thick mossy carpet cloaking the moors.

What are the benefits of a carpet of these sphagnum mosses?

Sphagnum moss has an incredible ability to hold up to 20 times its weight in water. The conditions that sphagnum creates protects carbon-rich peat (a type of soil made up of partially decomposed plants) as well as capturing carbon at its tip to grow (we all know how photosynthesis works) and decomposing from the base to keep that carbon locked up in layers of peat. Peat is around 70% carbon, so it is important to keep this carbon-rich mossy blanket where it belongs on the moors. The quickest way to help these moors to establish a good sphagnum cover is to plant the moss in areas it will survive, and thrive – namely, very wet areas. In the Peak District and South Pennines, Moors for the Future Partnership has been working to restore the moorlands to healthy peatlands since 2003. Unfortunately, the landscape has not regenerated any sphagnum moss when left to its own devices. However, in the places where it has been planted, it has thrived.

The many types of sphagnum moss. Photo: Moors For The Future

The adventure playground of these moors sits just an hour’s drive from a third of the UK population, a well-loved moorland wilderness that many have – sometimes quite literally when the cloud sets in – got lost in. The highest point in the Peak District, at 636 metres, the iconic route of Kinder sits majestically in the Hope Valley, proud and exposed to the elements. These hills, where many of us have made fond memories and cut our teeth – a place of escape and peace, well, these hills have their very own story to tell (and it features sphagnum moss).

The moorland stretching from the Peak District up to the South Pennines is one of the most degraded upland landscapes in Europe. The lifeless areas of blackened peat that still stretch across vast expanses should not be the norm for these blanket bogs. Peat should be beneath a surface of vegetation – these uplands should be carpeted with a thick, lustrous blanket of sphagnum moss and teeming with wildlife.

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A potted history of how these vast expanses of bare peat came to be is simply down to their geographical location, sandwiched between large industrial cities – Sheffield, Manchester, Oldham, Huddersfield and Leeds – these moors were the settling ground of the coal smoke pumped out of these cities during the industrial revolution. The living bog layer (the surface of vegetation over the moors) was stripped away by the sulphur dioxide in the coal smoke. Sphagnum moss – hardy in arguably some of the harshest moorland conditions – is highly sensitive to sulphur dioxide and was killed off by the smoke emitted during the revolution in exposed areas, such as Kinder.

The sphagnum cover is crucial for a couple of different reasons

First, sphagnum moss should form a thick carpet that blankets the bog (hence the name, blanket bog). This carpet is a protective layer from the harsh moorland elements, which many of us have experienced. This protective layer prevents the carbon-rich peat from eroding in the wind and rain, or being dried out in the sun and releasing carbon dioxide in the process. Peatlands form the biggest terrestrial carbon store in the UK, storing 40–50% of UK soil-based carbon in just 8% of its land area. Therefore, it is very important to keep the peat on the hills. Globally, 25% of peatlands have been destroyed and, in the UK, at least 80% are damaged.

Sphagnum carpet on Bleaklow. Photo: Moors For The Future

Secondly, sphagnum is the key component in forming peat. As a moss, sphagnum does not have roots. Instead, it grows from the tip and decomposes from the base. As it rots from the base, it forms layers of carbon rich peat. The little plant powerhouse has an incredible ability to hold 20 times its weight in water. A healthy blanket bog is a naturally waterlogged environment, and it is the excess of water that slows down the decomposition of plants to form peat, instead of breaking down completely. When you’re walking on a blanket bog, your foot should be enveloped in water with each step – waterproof trousers recommended!

Sphagnum up close. Photo: Moors For The Future

Thirdly, sphagnum has antiseptic qualities. Interestingly, the moss was harvested from the Peak District moors in the First World War to pack wounds. This antiseptic quality also contributes to slowing down the decomposition of plants – helping to form peat – as well as filtering water that passes through. This water eventually winds its way down to the reservoirs to become our drinking water. Did you know that 70% of the UK’s drinking water comes from the uplands? Sphagnum’s ability to filter water reduces the need for heavy chemical treatment to remove the peat that otherwise turns the water that distinctive shade of brown.

This little plant powerhouse really is rather incredible, so if you are interested in finding out more take a look at the Moors for the Future Partnership’s website or social media channels and watch out for the hashtag #SphagnumMondays for wonderful weekly facts and figures.

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More about Moors For The Future

Moors for the Future Partnership has been working since 2003 to protect the most degraded landscape in Europe. Using innovative conservation techniques it has transformed over 34 square kilometres of bare and degraded peat bogs in the Peak District National Park and South Pennines.

The work of the Partnership is delivered by the Peak District National Park Authority as the lead and accountable body.

It is supported through its partners including the Environment Agency, National Trust High, RSPB, Severn Trent Water, United Utilities, Yorkshire Water, Pennine Prospects, and receives additional advice from the Woodland Trust, Natural England and representatives of the moorland owner and farming community.

Healthy peat moors:

  • provide a unique habitat for a wide range of wildlife.
  • absorb and store carbon – peat is the single biggest store of carbon in the UK, storing the equivalent of 20 years of all UK CO2 emissions and keeping it out of the atmosphere.
  • provide good quality drinking water – 70% of our drinking water comes from these landscapes. Damaged peat erodes into the reservoirs so that water companies have to spend more money cleaning the water for consumption.
  • potentially help reduce the risk of flooding.

HELP: extinguish disposable BBQs on the moors



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Anonymous User
05/05/2021
So, how does one STOP Sphagnum Moss from growing - particulrly in domestic lawns? Or should I give up on trying to eliminate Sphagnum Moss from my lawn and just let it take over completely instead?

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