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Geography

Moorland in Haworth photograph

Upland research

One of our research priorities is the study of peatlands and their interactions with the wider environment. We work in partnership with Defra, Moors for the Future, water companies and recreational users.

The focus of our research - peat moorland 

Our research shows that degraded peat moorland has the potential to cause a variety of problems for both moorland communities and their neighbours.

Degraded peat releases carbon to the atmosphere, reversing its usual role as a carbon sink and thereby contributing to climate changes. Industrial pollutants that have been ‘locked up’ in peatlands associated with past growing industrial areas may also be released once degradation takes place.

In addition, peatlands have the ability to slow the delivery of rainfall to stream systems. Once the peatlands have been degraded, rainwater may be released more rapidly to downstream communities which may increase the likelihood of flooding. These factors make the study of peat moorland of global significance.

However, our research has also shown that, in restored peat moorland, the potential issues can be reduced or even prevented.

What is the importance of moorlands and peat in the UK?

Peat moorlands provide a number of ecosystem services, with their importance global in nature. This is for a number of reasons: they are often nature reserves, they provide water resources to nearby populations (particularly in the UK), and if kept in favourable condition, are carbon stores. Whether peat moorlands can continue to provide these valuable services, which have both economic and social importance is dependent on how they are managed.

What is peat moorland?

Peatlands are characterised by waterlogged conditions, which limit decomposition of the peat by microbes. Peatlands tend to develop in areas where there are high amounts of rainfall (to maintain a high water table) and relatively low temperatures (to limit loss of water via evaporation and transpiration).

These conditions are often found in cool temperate regions. As such, peatlands that form in low latitude regions tend to be at a higher altitude. Areas in the UK such as the Peak District have met these criteria in the past and therefore have an extensive growth of peat bog.

How did peat form in the Peak District, Southern Pennines?

Peat moorlands appear to be wild, natural, open spaces – untouched by humans. Yet research shows that their formation in the UK was partly initiated by human activity, together with a deteriorating climate.

Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and, later, Neolithic farmers, cleared trees in both lowland and upland areas. The tree cover was able to regenerate in lowland areas. But in upland areas, with their thin soils, the deforestation was irreversible.  In a climate that was becoming colder and wetter, and therefore favourable to the formation of peat, this eventually led to the development of open moorlands.

We know that around the southern Pennines, the peat did not accumulate during a single period, but in a succession of wetter phases. Based on evidence from deposits underneath the peat, it is believed that peat formation began around 5,000-6,000 years ago.

Linked to the view of peat moorlands as ‘natural’ landscapes is the idea that they are ‘clean’ and untainted. Unfortunately, due to the effects of atmospheric pollution from the nineteenth century onwards, the opposite is often true. However, this is only likely to be a problem when peat is mobilised through erosion.

Issues for peat moorlands

Peat moorlands are vulnerable to changes in climate and land use. However, severe and expansive erosion appears to be mostly unique to the UK. This has culminated in this area being a case study for researchers at the University of Manchester.

The exact timing of the beginning of the erosion is disputed, however best estimates are concentrated within the last one thousand years. The causes of erosion are pollution, natural climatic effects and human land management practices such as overgrazing, burning and drainage

The erosion of the peat moorlands can have a range of detrimental consequences on the environment. It reduces plant productivity, which can ultimately reduce carbon storage, with carbon also lost through the river system once it is eroded. In addition, the water quality may also be reduced by the addition of particulate peat and the related pollutants.

Polluted peat moorlands provide a hazard to wildlife living downstream, in addition to the potential increased costs for water treatment. Research efforts are concentrated on restoring these landscapes to prevent polluted peat from entering river systems at the source.

Whilst management is generally moving towards restorative practices, human-caused climate change is likely to put increasing pressures on peat moorlands. Related to this, other current and future issues that the University of Manchester has expertise on are wildfire and managed burning.

UK legislation requires many upland peat habitats to be in a favourable condition. As such, there has been a move to change management practices to prevent erosion and re-establish vegetation across the peat moorlands. Deciding on best management practice requires extensive study.

Further reading

What can we learn from peat moorlands?

Scientists study peat moorlands, or peatlands, across the world. In Geography at the University of Manchester we are uniquely placed to study some of the most eroded peatlands in the world, particularly to examine if these valuable landscapes can be restored.

Peatlands in the UK have become polluted, particularly those in the Peak District, due to their proximity to industrial centres such as Manchester and Sheffield. The study of polluted peat enables us to provide approximate dating to the column of peat to understand how old it is at various depths.

Carbon cycling is also a prominent research theme, due to the need to better understand the global carbon cycle. In addition to monitoring peatlands for their carbon balance status, scientists also examine the column of peat as a whole, as it provides a record of environmental change over time. By examining the characteristics of the partially decomposed peat that used to be living vegetation, researchers can make inferences about past climate and the past status of the peatland, by the types and quantities of vegetation that are present.

The University of Manchester resources and research catchment

In Geography at The University of Manchester, one of our key study areas is the blanket bog at the top of Bleaklow Plateau and Kinder Scout in the Peak District.

What do we do?

  • Extraction of peat by coring: for further study including vegetation composition, heavy metals and pollen.
  • Taking water samples: for further study including amount of Dissolved Organic Carbon, Particulate Organic Carbon and heavy metals.
  • Gas monitoring: to calculate carbon budgets of peatlands.
  • Weather monitoring: to understand changing weather, and the effect this may have on peatlands.
  • Remote sensing: Allows us to monitor vegetation, map gullies and model erosion rates.

Stakeholder resources

Further reading

Glossary of upland research terminology

Blanket bog: A type of peatland that is a widespread bog (rainwater fed) that follows the underlying topography, meaning that it varies in depth. Evans and Warburton (2007) 

Carbon sink: An environment in which there is a net gain of carbon. i.e carbon is stored in the living vegetation and the peat. Carbon is stored by the photosynthesis of the living plants at the top of the column of peat. 

Carbon source: An environment in which there is a net loss of carbon i.e carbon is lost to the atmosphere or stream in a peatland. Losses of carbon can occur through a number of means; respiration of plants, gas release to the atmosphere from decomposition and erosion to a river system. 

Catchment area: Also known as drainage basin or watershed. This refers to the area where rainwater falls on the surface of the landscape and is transported into streams, which converge into a single point. This may be a main river, a lake or the ocean (definition from the Oxford Dictionary). 

Ecosystem services: the benefits received by humans from ecosystems e.g. provision of clean drinking water, food and energy.

Flash flooding: In the context of the areas that the researchers within the Upland Environments Research Unit (UpERU) study, this is a flood that is caused by heavy rainfall over a period of 6 hours or less. 

Hydrological lag time: The period of time between peak rainfall and peak river flow. 

Hard engineering: Options that attempt to prevent or lessen flooding effects that do not use ecological methods, and therefore tend to be expensive. Examples are building levees or dams to protect the surrounding area from the river in the event of a flood; and widening or deepening a river channel to allow it to carry more water. 

Moorland: There is a variety of terminology used by the different interested parties when they refer to a moorland, which may cause confusion. The term ‘moorland’ covers a wide range of environments, such as temperate grasslands and savannas in ‘upland’ areas, which are uncultivated. These areas are characterized by low-growing vegetation on acidic soils. Moorland habitats occur across the world, and as such the word on its own is probably not explicit enough to refer to the areas that the University of Manchester study. (Evans and Warburton, 2007)

Terms used in addition to moorland are ‘peat’ or ‘peatland’ and ‘blanket bog’. These terms infer that the vegetation is waterlogged, which is an essential criteria for peat to form. The main focus of our research is the study of peat and its interactions with its environment. Therefore the areas we study can best be described as ‘peat moorland’ or ‘peatland’.

Moorland restoration: Re-vegetating bare peat using a number of techniques. 

Peat: An accumulation of partially decomposed or undecomposed plant material. (Evans and Warburton, 2007). 

Upland blanket peat forms when there is excess rainfall and waterlogging of existing vegetation, which limits decomposition by microbes. Peat only grows in areas that meet very specific conditions. Requirements are 1000 mm of annual rainfall and temperatures of less than 15 °C during the warmest month, with minimal seasonal variability in temperature. Areas in the UK such as the Peak District have met these criteria in the past and therefore have an extensive growth of peat bog. 

Peatland: A landscape where the dominant surface deposit is organic matter (peat) greater than 0.4 m in depth. There is an extensive amount of discussion relating to the definition of peatlands. One definition relates to how they are supplied with water: bogs are supplied by only rainwater, whereas fens may additionally be supplied by groundwater. The term ‘mire’ covers both of these. Evans and Warburton (2007) 

Peak District: Some of the peatlands are contained within the Peak District National Park. Bleaklow Plateau and Kinder Scout have been the focus of peatland research in Geography at the University of Manchester. 

Pennines: The southern area of the Pennines within the Peak District National Park has been the focus of peatland research in Geography at the University of Manchester. This primarily includes the peatlands, Kinder Scout and Bleaklow Plateau and their drainage areas. 

Surface roughness: Deviations in the normal 'vector' of a surface. This can be thought of as surface texture. On peatland surfaces, for example, vegetation increases surface roughness and this helps to prevent eroded peat from entering the stream system.

Upland: An area beyond the boundary of enclosed fields, where the landscape is generally un-cultivated. In addition, ‘Upland’ has connotations of a higher altitude. We are also generally referring to landscapes where peat has grown or continues to grow. As such, there are a number of factors that determine whether peat may grow including geology and climate. (Evans and Warburton, 2007) 

(See also Peat and Peatland

Vector: A quantity with both a magnitude and direction for example (definition from the Oxford Dictionary).

Water table: The level below which the ground is saturated with water. This level may be variable across a landscape due to topography (definition from the Oxford Dictionary).

Upland research projects

Stakeholder resources