The Saddleworth fire and the importance of restoring our peatland habitats in tackling climate change

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

The Saddleworth fire and the importance of restoring our peatland habitats in tackling climate change

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A lot can happen in a week so I thought it a good idea to get an update from RSPB Senior Land Use Policy Officer Dr Pat Thompson on the recent events at RSPB Dove Stone.

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The recent fire in the northwest Peak District that started on Stalybridge Estate has attracted significant media and public interest. The spectre of smoke-filled streets and people having to leave their homes is neither what we want or expect to see in the English uplands. Many people were understandably afraid and significantly affected by the fire.

As we now know, the fire started on Stalybridge Estate - a grouse moor - immediately east of the village of Buckton Valeon Sunday 24 June (shown in the black elipse) and spread across a large area over five days including onto the RSPB/United Utilities estate (depicted by the blue line). As I write today, the focus is now on managing numerous ‘hot spots’ where the peat has ignited and is smouldering. Throughout this period, numerous fire fighters, gamekeepers, National Park Rangers and RSPB/United Utilities staff and volunteers worked tirelessly to bring the fire under control.

After starting on the Sunday, the fire spread across a large area for the best part of a week. The background image above is a Copernicus Sentinel 2 image from 29/6/2018 showing extent of burn. Date points are from VIIRS active fire data from FIRMS. We acknowledge the use of data and imagery from LANCE FIRMS operated by the NASA/GSFC/Earth Science Data and Information System (ESDIS) with funding provided by NASA/HQ.

Over the past week, there have been those who have sought to blame us for the moorland fire and then, ironically, accused us of pointing our finger at the game keeping community. Let me be absolutely clear - we do not blame gamekeepers for the fire, and gratefully acknowledge the efforts of the game keeping community (from nine grouse shooting estates in the Peak District) who worked alongside RSPB/United Utilities colleagues and volunteers to hold the fire on Arnfield Moor and the Chew Valley edge of Stalybridge Estate. Their collective actions undoubtedly helped reduce the impact of the fire to areas of heath and bog. Equally, however, we reject the baseless assertion that our own moorland management is in any way responsible. In this case, the fire clearly started some distance from Dove Stone on an area of moorland managed as a grouse moor.

The Fire Service, National Park Rangers, Gamekeepers, RSPB & United Utilities staff and volunteers worked together to fight the fire for over a week (Dave O'Hara).

Our blanket bogs are of global importance. They are important for wildlife and lock up vast amounts of carbon, stored as peat, since these bogs first started to form several thousand years ago. Despite their importance, our bogs are not in great heart for a variety of reasons including atmospheric pollution (from the industrial revolution) and long-term management including afforestation, managed burning and wild fires and historic attempts to improve agricultural productivity through drainage.

Since 2010, the RSPB has worked in partnership with landowner United Utilities at Dove Stone in the Peak District to restore blanket bog habitats to benefit water quality and wildlife. This pioneering work (extending across 4,000 ha) is one of the best examples of how landscape-scale habitat restoration can bring multiple benefits for people and nature. The work includes re-vegetating bare peat, re-wetting gullies and translocating bog-forming Sphagnum mosses to speed up the recovery. There is already evidence that bog hydrology is recovering and some bird species are responding positively to the recovery effort, including golden plover, dunlin and red grouse. In terms of this fire, there is some evidence on the ground that gullies with peat-forming Sphagnum mosses recovering have played a role in slowing the spread and intensity of the fire.

Because of the degraded and therefore dry nature of the bog areas, the fire spread rapidly. However, in places, wetter ground did help slow the passage of the fire (as shown in the above image from Dave O'Hara).

Nonetheless, the damaged bogs of Dove Stone will remain vulnerable until they have fully recovered, and the recent fire posed a major threat to years of work already undertaken to restore the bog. Thanks to the efforts of all who fought the fire, however, damage to Dove Stone was limited. Currently, we estimate that the fire spread across some 200 ha of the site, damaging 180ha of bog and 20 ha of dry heath/grassland. Whilst adult birds and larger mammals such as hares may have been able to leave the area, there is no doubt that much wildlife will have perished. Fortunately, from survey work quite close to the fire area, we do know that most of the breeding waders had fledged their young by the time of the fire.

Changes in climate are making our weather more volatile. The recent fire has come in the hottest June in England since records began, yet in recent years the areas have been subject to near unprecedented rainfall events. In this context, and given that we are struggling to meet the UK Government target of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, there is a pressing need to restore peatland habitats both to lock up the stored carbon (as peat) and to create the conditions that will allow active peat formation to begin again. The costs of bog restoration are a critical investment to help reduce emissions and thereby contribute to meeting these targets and obligations.

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