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Blanket Bogs - what's all the fuss about?

‘Blanket bog’, now that’s a contradiction in terms; warm cosy blankets and cold wet bogs! The latter is closest to the truth, the blanket simply indicating its structure.

Blanket bog can be found on the moors and is predominantly made of peat; the black stuff you would associate with Black Hill, Bleaklow and Kinder Scout in the Peak District. You’ve probably heard a lot about how important blanket bogs are. The UK has 13% of the whole world’s blanket bogs – that is some responsibility!

So, what’s all the fuss about? A bog holds onto water and only releases small amounts at a time compared to say, a rocky mountain or rolling grassland. This reduces the risk of flooding further downhill, and of course, that’s where we tend to have our villages, towns and cities. And with climate change predictions indicating wetter seasons, natural flood defences are growing in importance. Bogs help to clean water too – 70% of the UK drinking water comes from our peat dominated uplands.

But bogs hold an even bigger climate change trophy. They offer a natural solution to tackling the need to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We normally think of trees for this job, but peat is the star of the show when it comes to absorbing and storing large amounts of carbon dioxide. But how? It’s all about the peat. Sphagnum moss and other bog loving plants slowly decompose in the acidic, waterlogged conditions. Just as leaves rot down to make soil in a woodland, layer upon layer of bog plants build up to form peat. This takes a long time; 100 years to form just one meter. When peat is wet and the process of decomposition is slow, carbon in the plants is absorbed and trapped. When peat is dry, carbon can leach out. Which is why wetter is better! The wetter the bog the better the peat formation rate, and its ability to hold carbon. Which is why conservation organisations including the National Trust and Moors for the Future build ditch blocks on the Peak District moors; slowing down the rate in which the water leaves the moors along streams, holding water back which raises the water level on the bogs, which keeps the peat wet.

The National Trust and Moors for the Future also plant sphagnum moss, lots of it! Because it’s important to increase the amount of sphagnum moss growing on the moor. Sphagnum moss can hold up to 20 times its weight in water! It’s a key component of peat and grows very slowly - some sphagnum species grow only millimetres a year, making it equally as precious as peat! And it looks amazing too. There are about 380 species of sphagnum moss which vary in colour from 80’s fluorescent leg warmer green, through burnt orange, pink and red.

Sphagnum moss also has secret properties; it is mildly antiseptic. During the first and second world wars it was used in wound dressings. And I can't see it becoming a best seller on supermarket shelves in the 21st century, but in the past its absorbency has been used in babies nappies!

And we haven’t even talked about how amazing bogs are for nature! Bogs have low levels of nutrients, so plants that live there are very specialised. They include cotton grass that blankets the landscape in a fluffy white coat in spring. Purple heather and crossed leaved heath bringing radiant colour to the Peak District moors in summer. And it’s home to some of nature’s magical plants including the insect eating sundew and yellow flowering bog asphodel. Rare wading birds such as snipe and curlew use the moors to feed and raise their young, as do majestic hen harriers and short-eared owls. Mountain hares populate the moors, turning white in winter to mimic the snow, and bees, butterflies, beetles, moths and dragonflies busy themselves feeding on the specialist feast offered by this treasured environment.

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