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Bogs, why Bother? Guest Blog: David Harpley, Cumbria Wildlife Trust

Posted by Ruth on Monday, 24 March 2014.

Bogs, why Bother? Guest Blog: David Harpley, Cumbria Wildlife Trust

As an ecologist I'm bound to say that they are brilliant places, full of exciting rare wildlife and generally wonderful and that is all true, but then again I would say that wouldn't I?

Bogs are wonderful for wildlife, with insectivorous plants like sundews and butterworts, nesting birds like Curlew and Dunlin and their own specialist butterflies and other insects.

These are all great (trust me they are!) but bogs and the peat that makes them up does so much more for us.

Peat (the wet brown stuff inside a bog) is the un-rotted remains of plants that have been laid down sometimes over thousands of years. As such it is a massive Carbon store and one which takes Carbon out of the atmosphere every year for as long as the bog stays wet.

Bogs regulate the flow of water. One thing bogs don't do is "soak up water like a sponge", but water that falls onto the surface of a bog may get held in the hollow cells of Sphagnum moss, it may pass into spaces within the peat, or it may flow slowly across the bog surface, held back by the bog vegetation. Whatever happens to it, water only makes it very slowly into rivers and streams. This means that active bogs help reduce flood peaks, but also that water still trickles out of bogs during the summer, giving better summer flows.

All that filtering through vegetation ensures high water quality as well, with low silt loads. This means that river gravels downstream are clean making them ideal for spawning fish such as Salmon, which is then attractive to people who come salmon-fishing.

Finally, the wet, acid, oxygen free environment preserves just about everything that falls into a bog (bone and iron are exceptions), so we can tell all kinds of things about what the world used to be like from looking at things preserved in bogs, from pollen grains to people.

However, in spite of all these good things, people have not been kind to our bogs, we have used the peat for fuel, we have reclaimed bogs for agriculture, we've drained them, used the peat for gardening and so on.

This is bad, because all the clever things a bog does stop once it is drained. Drained and damaged bogs start to lose their Carbon into the air, they lose their ability to retain water, and they start to erode, leading to scars in the landscape and "black" water, which costs money for water companies to clean up. If things get really bad, the peat that used to be part of a bog can end up infilling lakes and reservoirs, which, as these are the places we get our drinking water has some fairly serious implications for us all.

Fortunately there are things that can be done, Cumbria Wildlife Trust has been doing bog restoration on a whole host of sites, damming old drains, re-profiling peat faces, covering over erosion scars and so-on. This work is truly amazing, removing real blots on the landscape and enabling the bog to back to performing all the services that we get from it, but is slow and painstaking work.

So, what can you do? Well, you can support the Trust in its work, but you can also help by not using peat in gardening – it doesn't do any good and will probably have come all the way from Estonia- and at the same time support local business as there are very good locally produced alternative composts.

So, bogs are beautiful and do us no end of good!

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