Will Lancashire's new carbon farm help combat global warming?

Mike Longden ( far right) watching peat core extraction at Winmarleigh Moss
Mike Longden ( far right) watching peat core extraction at Winmarleigh Moss

A small Lancashire mossland is to be the location for an innovative farming experiment which could help in the race to combat global warming.

The mossland at Winmarleigh, near Garstang is being described as “vital to the planet ” after it was chosen to be a key player in a multinational EU (European Union) funded initiative.

Field for the future?  Part of Winmarleigh Moss is to be replanted with Sphagnum moss in a bid to help reduce global warming.

Field for the future? Part of Winmarleigh Moss is to be replanted with Sphagnum moss in a bid to help reduce global warming.

Its secret weapon will be a “crop” of Sphagnum moss.

The 10 acre site, owned by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, is to become a test bed for a new way of using fields to capture and store carbon.

If successful it could be the start of a new “carbon farming” initiative whereby landowners are asked to grow and maintain a sphagnum crop, which will remain in situ.

They would, where conditions are suitable, use their fields to capture and store carbon, preventing it from escaping and adding to the problems of climate change.

Could Winmarleigh Moss help combat global warming?

Could Winmarleigh Moss help combat global warming?

Experts from five European countries are, as part of the Care-Peat project, investigating new methods of capturing and storing carbon through peatland restoration.

The UK partners are the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and Manchester Metropolitan University.

The Trust purchased the 10 acre field earlier this year.

Sarah Johnson, project manager for the Wildlife Trust's Lancashire Peatlands Initiative said: “The carbon farm is on farmland right next to the Winmarleigh Moss SSSI (site of special scientific interest) nature reserve. It was purchased earlier this year through other funding. It was originally a lowland raised bog. “

A Sundew plant on Winmarleigh Moss  (photo: Alan Wright)

A Sundew plant on Winmarleigh Moss (photo: Alan Wright)

The land will be planted up with Sphagnum moss in 2020.

The Trust's Lancashire Mosslands officer Mike Longden said:“Our main role in Care-Peat will be to work with partners to deliver pilots of new methods of reducing carbon through peatland restoration. We want to demonstrate the viability of alternative land use on peatland areas adjacent to wildlife restoration sites and show its benefit both in terms of carbon and improvements to the wildlife site.”

Mike said they would also be working to influence policymakers, landowners and others through their involvement in the Lancashire Peat Partnership.

The project is supported by Interreg NorthWest Europe and the U.K.'s participation will not be affected by Brexit.

Restoration schemes of a range of peatlands are being undertaken in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Ireland as part of the initiative to devise restoration and carbon storing strategies suitable for north west Europe.

The restoration and rewetting of peatlands is seen as a vital key to achieving the Eurropean Union's aim to be carbon neutral by 2050.

It is predicted landowners close to peatlands could become involved in producing wetter areas and even grow sphagnum commercially.

Factfile

The site is a former lowland raised bog which was drained in the 1970s and converted into agricultural farmland used for livestock and winter feed crops.

It borders the Winmarleigh and Cockerham Moss SSSI lowland raised bog area which is a Lancashire Wildlife Trust reserve with limited access.

A large drain located between the two sites removes water from the farmland but also causes water loss on the SSI raised bog.

The Trust first purchased some of the SSSI land in 2010, extending its holding in 2012 and 2019.

The management of the farmland will be changed to make it suitable for Sphagnum moss growing by raising the water table by blocking drains and removing nutrient and seed rich organic topsoil which has formed over the peat. Only then will the site be planted with Sphagnum moss species.

By rewetting the farmland which adjoins the SSSI it isn also hoped that conditions on the SSSI will improve and greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced from the SSSI site.

Restoring the land to its previous status will lead to renewed carbon capture. Sarah Johnson said: “The mosses grow and they capture the carbon. All plants use carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in their photosynthesis. The Sphagnum takes it from the atmosphere and essentially converts it into carbohydrates which plants would normally store in their roots. Sphagnum stores it in the ground As it grows bigger more carbon is stored. The thing about sphagnum is peat is formed in very waterlogged acidic conditions. The carbon is trapped forever.”

Farming for the future

It is acknowledged that to be successful in the longer term carbon farming may need subsidies or carbon-offsetting schemes. The project says it “aims to provide the data needed to be able to devise appropriate funding schemes.

Many peatlands are in a poor condition due to drainage, conversion to agricultural use, peat extraction and historic pollution. This means carbon, previously stored over thousands of years, gets returned to the atmosphere, contributing to increased Greenhouse Gas emissions and increased atmospheric carbon dioxide. It is predicted climate change will increase the rate of decomposition of existing carbon stores, with global annual greenhouse gas emissions from drained organic soils being twice that from aviation.

Care-Peat says Northern hemisphere peatlands account for three to five per cent of total land area and contain approximately 33 per cent of global soil carbon.