how wetland restoration can please farmers and wildlife alike

how wetland restoration can please farmers and wildlife alike

With 85,000 tiny green celeriacs gleaming against the dark, peaty soil, the countryside in Lancashire looks as ordinary as any.

But this crop is a pioneering test of “wetter agriculture” that can demonstrate how degraded peatlands can be restored to capture carbon and increase biodiversity, providing a livelihood for farmers.

Rindle Field, a former 5.4-acre potato plantation in Greater Manchester, has been purchased by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, which is carrying out the first British trial of malarial farming, or wetter agriculture, using traditional cash crops.

By growing the celery in wetter than usual conditions – with the water table rising between 10 cm and 50 cm below the surface of the soil, rather than being drained – the peat soil can store much more carbon and not dry out and emit carbon as does peat-rich arable land across the country.

Peatlands make up 12% of Britain’s land area and store huge amounts of carbon when in good condition. Yet only a fifth of Britain’s peat is in a “natural” condition: the vast majority is drained for agriculture or forestry, grazed by livestock, dug for horticulture or burned. Greenhouse gas emissions from degraded peatlands account for about 4% of Britain’s total annual emissions.

In Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside, 98% of lowland peatlands have been destroyed, releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

If peatlands are restored to swamp, emissions can be quickly reduced: research conducted by Manchester Metropolitan University at Winmarleigh “carbon farm” – also owned by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust – showed an 86% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from a peatland area in just one year compared to a drained area converted to pasture.

But farmers may not be able to restore productive peaty soils or want to reduce food production, so the Wildlife Trust is testing whether wetter agriculture can be a compromise to reduce emissions in some areas.

“We are pragmatic and find it unrealistic to expect farmers to take land out of food production and return it to the swamp,” said Sarah Johnson, project manager for the Lancashire Peatland Initiative at the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. “We also have to think about the livelihoods of the people who live and work in this area as well. Are there other ways to manage agricultural peat soils that are better for biodiversity and better for the climate with soils able to store and sequester carbon as well?”

The Wildlife Trust employed the grandson of the farmer who first drained Rindle Field to block field drains and drainage ditches.

“He didn’t dare tell his grandfather what he was doing,” said Mike Longden, senior project officer for the Lancashire Peatlands Initiative. “But it is an indication of how agriculture is changing.”

Liverpool John Moores University researchers will measure greenhouse gas emissions from the test site.

Scientists calculate that by halving the typical depth of the water table below deep bogs 1m below the surface, wetter agriculture could reduce UK-wide carbon emissions from degraded bogs by 3.3 million tonnes. per year – nearly 1% of total emissions – with a negligible increase in methane emissions.

“If we could see a significant reduction combined with a profitable harvest, this could be a really exciting path to lowland peatland management for people and our planet,” Longden said.

Celery testing is using conventional agricultural machinery, to reassure farmers that expensive specialist equipment is not needed. One concern among farmers about wetter agriculture is how to prevent it from flooding all fields. To create the test field, the Wildlife Trust installed dikes, low walls of compressed peat that form a watertight barrier, to allow the water table to be raised without flooding adjacent fields.

“We want to use the knowledge and experience of farmers,” Longden said. “It is a project led by LWT, but we are also working with one of the local farmers to prepare the land and he will continue to farm and his input was really valuable.”

While the Wildlife Trust is conventionally farming with herbicides to ensure there are not too many variables to confound the scientific assessment, they are already seeing biodiversity benefits in the celery field, with irrigation canals – filled only by rain – harboring five species of celery. dragonflies.

The moistened field is also helping to maintain water in Rindle Moss, 16.5 acres of degraded peatland that is now a Lancashire Wildlife Trust nature reserve. Rewetting this patch of marsh may attract the rare large moor butterfly with other species already present, including the black dragonfly, lapwing, hobby, brown hare and short-eared owl.

“Protecting this biodiversity is really crucial to what we as the Wildlife Trust want to do,” Longden said. “We are trying to show how agriculture and biodiversity can really live together – by managing a high water table that will also protect the important flora and fauna of the remaining swamp and also create very good natural connectivity.”

In addition to celery, the three-year trial will test other moisture-loving crops like cranberry and catfish, or rush, which can provide livestock forage, ecological insulation and biofuel.

If the first celery crop is successful in six months, it presents a conundrum: what will the Wildlife Trust do with 85,000 celery plants?

The charity plans to donate some to community food banks and, with the help of a contest for the best celery recipes, fill its nature reserve cafes with celery soups and salads.

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