Peatlands are a type of wetlands which are among the most valuable ecosystems on Earth: they are critical for preserving global biodiversity, provide safe drinking water, minimise flood risk and help address climate change. 

There are around 682,230 ha of peatland in England. Cambridgeshire's peatlands - the Fens - account for around 70% of wasted (damaged) peatland in the country - around 27% of England's total peatland stock. There is uncertainty surrounding these figures, but they show a clear message - that Cambridgeshire has a big role to play in improving the nation's peatlands.

They also provide important nesting and feeding grounds for many wading birds, as well as important habitats for rare insects and plants. Due to the unique flora and fauna they support, peatlands have sometimes been referred to as the ‘rainforests’ of the UK. 

The UK government has completed several studies into the value of peatlands, which are summarised at gov.uk.

Map of the extent of peatland in England. Red = deep peat, Orange = wasted peat
Map of the extent of peatland in England. Red = deep peat, Orange = wasted peat. Nationally, wasted peat is concentrated in the Cambridgeshire region.

Improving biodiversity can also reduce carbon emissions and improve our resilience to climate change. These are known as nature based solutions.

When peatlands are in good condition they can act as stores of carbon, but when damaged they can emit vast quantities of carbon. Globally they cover around 400million hectares (around 3% of land area) and store the equivalent of 75% of atmospheric carbon – more than all other vegetation types in the world combined.

However poor, damaged peatland is known as "wasted peat" emits these huge quantities of carbon back into the atmosphere.

Closer management of peatlands, through a mosaic of peat-sympathetic agricultural practice, new agricultural approaches (e.g. paludiculture) and peatland restoration have to potential to significantly improve the County’s peat soils while maintaining food security and ensuring that agriculture continues to thrive in Cambridgeshire.

In these areas, year-round waterlogged conditions slow the process of plant decomposition to such an extent that dead plants accumulate to form peat. Over millennia this material builds up and becomes several metres thick.

The process of peat formation means that the peatland wildlife, mainly Sphagnum mosses, are directly responsible for creating the habitat. Peatlands are characterised by:

  • high water level and moisture content
  • considerable fluctuations of surface temperature
  • low oxygen content
  • accumulation of toxic substances and absorbed gases
  • limited availability of nutrients
  • higher acidity than surrounding ecosystems (in most cases).

These conditions create severe restrictions for living organisms, resulting in intense competition for space and nutrients between individuals even if they have different life forms. All of these conditions change if the peat is drained.

Peatlands also influence their surrounding (e.g. water level, microclimate, particle and water balance, gas exchange, etc.) that affect habitat conditions, and thus biodiversity, for non-peatland ecosystems in the surrounding landscape and downstream.

The importance of peatlands comes from the remarkable services they provide to society, which includes wildlife habitat, global carbon store (they contain twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests), drinking water filtration, flood prevention, historical archive, grazing land and recreational areas. 

Peatlands are among the most carbon-rich ecosystems on Earth. They cover around 400million hectares worldwide (around 3% of land area) and store the equivalent of 75% of atmospheric carbon – more than all other vegetation types in the world combined. In a natural condition, peatlands have a net cooling effect on climate, reduce flood risk, and support biodiversity. Healthy peatlands can reduce flood risk by slowing the flow of water from the uplands, and by providing floodplain storage in the lowlands. 

Damaged peatland is known as "wasted" and between 60 – 80% of wasted peatland in the UK is located within Cambridgeshire. Wasted peatlands become a source of carbon emissions, releasing all that carbon that they were able to store previously. In Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, these carbon emissions are estimated at around 5.1 million tonnes each year. 

Impacts of drainage of peatlands, including: carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, increased fires, land degradation and increased carbon loss via water.. Adapted from IUCN
Impacts of drainage of peatlands. Adapted from IUCN.

Addressing the Peatland Challenge 

There are many challenges and opportunities to the problem of peatland carbon emissions. A careful balance is needed to enable appropriate action to be taken to reduce carbon emissions and improve biodiversity, without failing our rural communities.

Cambridgeshire County Council owns approximately 33,000 ha of land in the county, much of which is tenanted. We know that our agricultural communities are already making changes and are keen to do more. Much of the work the Council is undertaking is to enable our farmers to share knowledge and best practice, and prepare for accessing forthcoming governmental funding in the “Environmental Land Management Scheme” (ELMS).

We must work with our rural communities to identify the best approaches for their areas: where alternative agricultural techniques might make a difference or where areas of low productive land could be rewetted, if we are to improve peatlands for the benefits of all.

The CUSPE 2019 "Net Zero Cambridgeshire" report estimates that green house gas emissions from peatlands are significant – up to 5.1million tonnes CO2e. This is almost double emissions from all other sources.

In October 2019, full council agreed a Tree & Peatland Motion. This outlined the challenges of carbon emission from peatlands and resolved the Council will: “lobby government for investment to set up a pilot project - with the potential for national roll out - exploring how CCC can become national exemplar in the area of peatland restoration to demonstrate how peatland has the potential to change from a net emissions source to a net carbon ‘sink’”.

As a result of widespread habitat modification and drainage to support agriculture, lowland peat systems which are naturally one of the most carbon rich ecosystems in the UK have become one of the largest sources carbon. However, it is recognised that taking peatlands out of agricultural production could affect national production of food.

Challenge

  • Complex balance between agriculture and carbon emission. Large scale peatland restoration alone is not a viable solution.
  • Data on the extent and condition of peatland is old and needs updating, to ensure emissions calculations are accurate and action can be targeted to locations that will benefit the most

Opportunity

  • Potential for significant carbon reductions if peatland condition can be improved
  • Local knowledge of the soils and sympathetic agricultural approaches in the agricultural sector can be extensive, with some farmers more pro-active than others. This local knowledge can be harnessed for peer to peer demonstration of action
  • The Council owns over 33,000ha of land, much of which is in the Fens and could be used, with the help of our tenant farmers, as peatland sampling sites to improve the data available

In their natural, wet state peatlands provide vital ecosystem services. By regulating water flows, they help minimise the risk of flooding and drought and prevent seawater intrusion.  They also preserve important ecological and archaeological information such as pollen records and human artefacts.

Due to their waterlogged nature, peatlands accumulate dissolved compounds - draining peatlands can allow the build up of dissolved substances to be released back into the environment. This can reduce the quality of the water we drink. 

Challenge

  • Dry lands mean flooding can be more acute as the water cannot soak into the hard soils, damaging homes and crops.
  • Clean water provision is fundamental, however poor condition drained peatlands can cause pollutants to enter water systems

Opportunity

  • Improved peatland condition can help to buffer against excess water and flooding
  • Better peatlands can help to improve water security and quality for the County, and UK
  • Patches of restored peatland on farms can be used as miniature aquifers reducing costs of irrigation during drought periods.
  • If water levels in some areas could be raised, without damaging existing land use, there is potential to make savings on drainage and pumps.

Peatlands are habitats with a unique biodiversity and are recognised as of national and international significance.

Damage to peatlands results in biodiversity loss. With many species that only survive in the waterlogged peatland areas, drying thee areas can destroy these ecosystems. They also provide important nesting and feeding grounds for many wading birds, as well as important habitats for rare insects and plants and large fen areas now provide the only habitat for many threatened bird species including common crane (Grus grus) and the rare spotted crake (Porzana porzana).

With partners, Cambridgeshire has an aim of doubling-nature by 2050, and are exploring taking part in projects lead by the Local Nature Partnership to explore how this can be achieved in a financially beneficial way.

Challenge

  • Peatlands host a unique range of biodiversity, but as they are lost, so too is the plant and wildlife.

Opportunity

  • Carefully planned peatland restoration can provide large biodiversity benefits, while also providing new green spaces for people
  • More sympathetic agricultural practice can lead to biodiversity gains as well as carbon reductions. Sharing of best practice can enable farmers to understand from peers the benefits they can bring with minimal detriment to their livelihood.

Projects being run by the Council's partners

There are many groups all working on securing a future for Cambridgeshire's Peatlands. All are exploring different aspects of the issue - from improving the evidence base for the condition of the peat through to trialling new agricultural approaches. The links below share some of the vital work.

Great Fen Project  - large scale Fen restoration project located just north of Huntingdon

Water Works -  a project based at the Great Fen exploring wet agriculture techniques "Paludiculture"

Measuring Carbon Emissions  - a 3-year funded government funded project to measure carbon emissions from wasted peat in the Fens

 Cambridge Zero - A multi-disciplinary network, bringing together researchers from across the University of Cambridge to develop new ideas, insights and proposals on advancing a zero-carbon world