RSPB Senior Conservation Scientist, Mark Hancock, gives us an update on work to restore blanket bog in the Flow Country.

Measuring our restoration management in the northern blanket bogs

The early spring is one of the busiest times for RSPB researchers, as we prepare for the coming field season.  One of our main projects in the north of Scotland is monitoring the restoration work that RSPB is carrying out in the Flow Country - the huge blanket bog of the northern Scottish Highlands.  Most of this restoration is taking place on our reserve at Forsinard Flows - the largest RSPB reserve in the UK.

We've just completed a 12-month 'baseline' period of monitoring in areas where restoration is about to commence.  These are forestry plantations that were (controversially) established on deep peat soils in the Flow Country in the 1980s.  In some of these areas, we plan to harvest the trees, block the forestry drains, and restore the blanket bog with its characteristic bog mosses and beautiful breeding birds like golden plovers and greenshanks.

Greenshank (at left) photographed by a camera trap at a loch-side in Forsinard Flows reserve: a late evening shot from May last year.  The dark feathers on the bird's back are characteristic of the breeding plumage.

Our baseline data allows us to measure the state of the areas planned for restoration, prior to the restoration work starting.  We're particularly interested in measuring the wetness of the ground - because this is crucial to the re-establishment of the all-important bog mosses, and ultimately, the complete bog habitat with its characteristic wildlife.

So, how do you measure the wetness of a bog?  Well, first and foremost, we measure how deep the water table is in the soil, and the moisture levels of the surface layer.  We need water tables and moisture levels to be both high, and stable, throughout the year, in order for the bog to start to recover in the restored areas.  Most of the hard work of keeping on top of this monitoring work and making these (and a wide range of other) measurements has been done by my colleague Trevor Smith, ably assisted by Paul Stagg, our TCV Natural Talent Apprentice.

Field research staff in action at RSPB Forsinard Flows reserve: Trevor Smith (top)and Paul Stagg (bottom), measuring the surface wetness of areas planned for restoration (top) and comparable bog areas (bottom).

It's been really interesting having a look at these hard-won data.  Trevor has been pulling together a report on our first year's work - here's one of the illustrations from the report, showing the water table in an area of bog we use as a comparison for the restoration areas:

Water table depth in an area of bog near to the restoration areas (October 2012 - September 2013): the water table is high and stable most of the year.  Even during a prolongued drought in July 2013, it only falls to 350 mm below the surface, and only for a short period.

The unusual drought period we had last July can clearly be seen in this illustration.  Although the water table fell a bit in the bog, it fell much lower in the areas where restoration is planned, which have all been ploughed to form deep forestry drains.  You can see this is the graph below.  The areas planned for restoration (red bars), which are currently forestry plantations, have water tables about 200 mm lower than those of bog areas.  The green bar is based on areas of standing forestry which are not planned for restoration management.

Water table depths during a dry period (July 2013).  The bog areas (brown bar) have water tables about 200 mm higher than those of the restoration areas (still under forestry: red bars) and other forestry (green bar).

Of course, what we hope is that the red (restoration) bars on this graph will start to look more like the brown (bog) bar, as restoration management (e.g. blocking of drains), commencing later this year, starts to wet up the ground again.  This should then help the bog habitat to gradually recover.

We're expecting the coming field season to be especially busy, as restoration management starts, and we need to keep tabs on our monitoring equipment and quadrants while contractors (with their specialised machinery) take out the trees and block up the drains.  We've always had a lot of help from volunteers based at Forsinard reserve, but this summer we plan to set up a 3-month internship on the bog restoration monitoring work.  Based at the reserve with other volunteers, the intern will have a chance to learn a wide range of monitoring techniques and get an insider's view of the huge range of practical conservation management and research going on at this fascinating site.

An important date in the calendar for us this year, before the field season kicks in earnest, is a conference on all the research work going on in the Flow Country, organised by the Environmental Research Institute in Thurso, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands.  These days, the Flow Country is a top destination not just for biodiversity research, but also for climate-related science.  The climate researchers are interested in how huge bogs like the Flow Country, with their deep peat soils, collect and protect vast quantities of carbon, originally taken out of the atmosphere by plants over thousands of years, and held in the saturated peat.  We're all really looking forward to the conference, where several new projects, including three PhD studentships, will be reporting some of their first results.

Researchers from the Environmental Research Institute (Paul Gaffney, left, and Roxane Andersen, right) measuring water quality & carbon dynamics in a watercourse below restoration areas in the Flow Country.