Integrated approaches towards understanding the past, current and future ecosystem services and disservices of peatlands in the UK


Peatlands occupy approximately 2.84% of the global land area (Xu et al., 2018a) yet host about 15–30% of terrestrial soil carbon (Limpens et al., 2008). Peatland in the UK is not only an important carbon store but also delivers many valuable human-benefitting ecosystem services (Page & Baird, 2016). In the UK, peatlands deliver potable water for 43.1% of the population (Xu et al., 2018b), form some of the UK’s most extensive wild spaces and are rich in rare and endangered wildlife. Peatlands are also major tourist destinations and provide a rich cultural history contributing significantly to the UK’s cultural ecosystem services (e.g., This makes peatlands an important habitat for providing ecosystem services in the UK and boosting the UK’s biodiversity (ONS, 2019). However, degraded peatlands may deliver ecosystem disservices such as fire or flood hazards (Holden et al., 2004), greenhouse gas emissions (Evans et al., 2021), water contamination by dissolved organic carbon (Xu et al., 2020), and siltation (IUCN, 2018). Despite their importance, there is no holistic understanding of the past, current and future ecosystem services and disservices of peatlands in the UK. The major aim of this fellowship is, therefore, to integrate cross-disciplinary approaches in environmental sciences, social sciences, and archaeology to first understand the past ecosystem services and disservices and quantify current and model future ecosystem services and disservices of peatlands in the UK that will contribute to the conservation of UK’s natural capital and the Defra’s new Environmental Land Management scheme.


In this project, the successful candidate will work with supervisors at the University of Leeds (Dr Jiren Xu and Prof Joseph Holden), and the University of Glasgow (Prof Nicki Whitehouse) to answer some unresolved questions around ecosystem services and ecosystem disservices of peatlands in the UK.

1. The student will use past records to understand both how people used peatlands in the past (ecosystem services, including cultural value) and identify the location of past peatlands using palaeoecological, archaeological and historical records such as maps and paintings. Palaeoecological locations may be initially established using the Neotoma database the BGS borehole database; archaeological data can be downloaded from the Archaeological Data Service Collections of paintings may be accessed using art collection databases associated with national collections, whilst archival maps can be accessed in local archives. These approaches could take a regional approach.

Figure 1. left: Inclesmoor Map (1407) shows the former extent of peatland in the south of the Humber Estuary; right: people coring areas of peatlands now preserved beneath agricultural fields.
Figure 2. Paintings indicate the ecosystem services from peatlands in the past. (a) A Galloway Peat Moss by William Stewart MacGeorge (1888) describes peat harvesting indicating the provisioning service provided by peatland in Galloway (; (b) Solway Moss: Evening by William Simson (1830) describes the supporting grazing service provided by peatland in Solway (; (c) A Lowland River by Horatio McCulloch (1851), a sketch done on the Water of Leith near Edinburgh, describes the freshwater provision by peatland (; (d) View of Loch Lomond by William Dyce (1838), an example of cultural service provided by peatland (

2. Combining the remote sensing technology and fieldwork ground truthing to understand the current conditions of the peatlands identified from Objective 1 and investigate their current ecosystem services and disservices.

3. Selecting one or two representative peatlands as case studies for simulation (e.g. from the WaterLANDS project,, the student will use inclusive, participatory methods to develop a range of peatland management scenarios tailored to their specific characteristics of social-ecological conditions. A peatland development model (e.g., DigiBog developed by the University of Leeds, will be applied to simulate peatland development under future scenarios. Finally, the drivers of changes in past, current and future ecosystem services and disservices of UK peatlands will be investigated.

Benefits to student

The project offers a unique opportunity to develop interdisciplinary skills encompassing digital and peatland archaeology, remote sensing, numerical modelling, statistical analysis and data interpretation, academic writing skills and giving presentations. The successful candidate will benefit from interdisciplinary training from the University of Leeds and the University of Glasgow. The results of the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF2021) show that 92.8% of the University of Leeds’s Geography and Environmental Studies research outputs and 96.8% of the University of Glasgow’s archaeology research outputs were rated as either ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’.

Training at Leeds deals fully with the elements described in the Joint Research Centre statement on skills training for research students. PhD students take modules provided by the staff development unit (e.g. starting your PhD, small group teaching) and a 15-week faculty-training course (covering elements such as planning, critical reading and writing, oral presentations, and writing research papers). Students present results and receive constructive feedback from peers in a Research Support Group, from colleagues in the River Basins research group, and at a university postgraduate research day. The student will also benefit from being part of water@leeds, the largest interdisciplinary water centre in any UK university, which runs multiple postgraduate activities. The University of Glasgow will offer interdisciplinary training through the AHRC SGSAH DTP. The successful candidate will be a member of the interdisciplinary Peatlands Group at the University of Glasgow and join in with more humanities training around landscapes and cultural attributes/values.

Specifically, the successful candidate will work under the supervision of a cross-disciplinary team of peatland experts in geography (Dr Jiren Xu and Prof Joseph Holden at the University of Leeds) and archaeology (Prof Nicki Whitehouse at the University of Glasgow). The successful candidate will also have the opportunity to access the National Gallery of Scotland stores and other Museums through the University of Glasgow’s Interdisciplinary Peatlands Group, which includes Museum curators, art historians, and archaeological field sites in the UK for collecting data. The successful candidate will also gain different disciplinary insights from physical geography, social sciences, archaeology, palaeoecology, and art history through two workshops which will be co-coordinated by the supervisor team.

Potential for the high-impact outcome

The research is expected to be published in 3-4 papers in top international journals. This studentship will provide a holistic understanding of the past, current and future ecosystem services and disservices of one of the most important landscapes in the UK – peatlands. The project has the potential to feed into the ‘natural capital of UK peatlands’ for the Office for National Statistics and can provide scientific evidence for the new Environmental Land Management schemes currently being developed by Defra.

Student Profile

The prospective student should have, or expect to receive, a minimum 2.1 BSc and/or MSc degree in an appropriate discipline, and an understanding of cross-disciplinary approaches in environmental sciences, social sciences, and/or archaeological science is highly desired. Strong analytical skills are required. Informal enquiries can be sent to Dr Jiren Xu ( Further details about postgraduate research degrees at the School of Geography, University of Leeds, can be found here.


Evans, C.D., Peacock, M., Baird, A.J., Artz, R.R.E., Burden, A., Callaghan, N., Chapman, P.J., Cooper, H.M., Coyle, M., Craig, E. and Cumming, A., 2021. Overriding importance of water table in the greenhouse gas balance of managed peatlands. Nature, 598, 548-552.

Holden, J., Chapman, P.J. and Labadz, J.C., 2004. Artificial drainage of peatlands: hydrological and hydrochemical process and wetland restoration. Progress in physical geography, 28(1), pp.95-123.

IUCN UK Peatland Programme. 2018. UK Peatland Strategy.

Office for Natioal Statistics. UK natural capital: peatlands.

Page, S.E. and Baird, A.J., 2016. Peatlands and global change: response and resilience. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 41, pp.35-57.

Limpens, J., Berendse, F., Blodau, C., Canadell, J.G., Freeman, C., Holden, J., Roulet, N., Rydin, H. and Schaepman-Strub, G., 2008. Peatlands and the carbon cycle: from local processes to global implications–a synthesis. Biogeosciences, 5(5), pp.1475-1491.

Xu, J., Morris, P.J., Liu, J. and Holden, J., 2018a. PEATMAP: Refining estimates of global peatland distribution based on a meta-analysis. Catena, 160, pp.134-140.

Xu, J., Morris, P.J., Liu, J. and Holden, J., 2018b. Hotspots of peatland-derived potable water use identified by global analysis. Nature Sustainability, 1(5), pp.246-253.

Xu, J., Morris, P.J., Liu, J., Ledesma, J.L. and Holden, J., 2020. Increased dissolved organic carbon concentrations in peat‐fed UK water supplies under future climate and sulfate deposition scenarios. Water Resources Research, 56(1), p.e2019WR025592.