Using palaeoecology to support blanket peatland management.

Peatlands cover 3% of the world’s surface but store up to 30% of soil carbon, which is more organic carbon than any other terrestrial store (Parish et al., 2008). In the UK, blanket peatlands constitute the greatest terrestrial carbon reserves (Cannell et al., 1999) and represent up to 10-15% of all blanket peatlands worldwide. Degradation of these sites via numerous causes such as pollution, overgrazing, artificial drainage and burning (Holden, 2007) and a subsequent recognition of their importance in terms of carbon storage, provision of potable water, possible flood management and as areas for wildlife conservation have led to extensive attempts to implement restoration schemes.

Although widespread in the UK, restoration schemes are rarely carried out with consideration of the location’s previous history of peatland development. Restoration implies a return to some previous, more pristine state, but knowing whether such a goal has been achieved is not possible if that original, pristine state is not known. Palaeoecological techniques can help us to understand how peatland ecosystems have changed over thousands of years, including their vegetation and surface-wetness histories. They provide a means to contextualise the present state of the peatland so that restoration can be tailored around site-specific evidence of what a “natural” peatland should look like (Chambers et al. 1999, Chambers & Daniell 2011). However, evidence from palaeoecological analyses is rarely requested or utilised by practitioners. By cooperating closely with restoration agencies, the benefits of palaeoecological work to guide restoration plans will be highlighted. This site-specific approach can provide restoration goals that are more appropriate and achievable. For example, Sphagnum planting is a standard practice when restoration occurs but there is evidence that – although an important peat-building constituent – UK blanket bogs can be relatively devoid of Sphagnum (Blundell and Holden, 2015). More nuanced restoration targets and trajectories are needed and should be based on understanding of how peatlands have developed over time in different locations.

Example research questions that could form foci for the project include:
Q1 Are present ecological states in UK blanket mires atypical compared to natural baselines?
Q2 Has Sphagnum played a substantial role in UK blanket peatland development?
Q3 Can potential restoration goals be advised based on palaeoecological data?
Q4 Is the current ecological state of UK blanket peatlands a reflection of recent management practice?

Strong links have been developed with the National Trust and other agencies, providing a source of promising sites for a student to explore. There is potential to use two locations on the National Trust Marsden Estate where previous in-field analyses form a powerful basis from which to carry out palaeoecological work. Although the study could be centred around the Yorkshire/Derbyshire area, this is not essential.

It is envisaged that the study could follow a two-tier approach involving i) in-field analyses and ii) laboratory-based microscope work. The former providing peat depths, evidence of Sphagnum and charcoal, would supply a spatial perspective whereas the latter via master core could be analysed for pollen, charcoal, macrofossils, testate amoebae and humification allowing point specific but highly detailed reconstruction of the site’s vegetation and hydrological development and human induced change. This work will seek to highlight and contrast the substantial influence of humans on these blanket peatland sites over the last few centuries so the atypical nature of the present state can be established. Robust chronologies would be sought via AMS radiocarbon dating but the candidate could explore other complementary techniques.

Although a primary aim of the project will be to inform blanket peatland management, other benefits include reconstruction of regional climate and environmental change (Blundell et al., 2018). Stratigraphic analyses and peat depths would also permit detailed site-specific estimates of carbon storage.

This project would disseminate findings to partners and hope to influence restoration practice for the better. All supervisors are experts in aspects of peatland science including palaeoecology, hydrology and biogeography providing quality support for a prospective student. The thesis will lead directly to publications in international journals, led by the student. The studentship will provide excellent opportunities for networking with water@leeds, Priestley Climate Centre, and external links with agencies such as the National Trust, Moors for the Future and Yorkshire Peat partnership.

Suggested reading:
Blundell, A. & Holden, J. (2015) Using palaeoecology to support blanket peatland management. Ecological Indicators, 49, 110–120.
Blundell, A., Holden, J., Edward Turner T. (2016). Generating multi-proxy Holocene palaeoenvironmental records from blanket peatlands. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 443, 216-229.
Cannell, M.G.R., Milne, R., Hargreaves, K.J., Brown, T.A.W., Cruickshank, M.M., Bradley, R.I., Spencer, T., Hope, D., Billett, M.F., Adger, W.N., Subak, S. (1999). National inventories of terrestrial carbon sources and sinks: the UK experience. Clim. Chang. 42, 505–538.
Chambers, F.M. & Daniell, J.R.G. (2011) Conservation and habitat restoration of moorland and bog in the UK uplands: a regional, paleoecological perspective. PAGES Newsletter, 19, 45–47.
Chambers, F.M., Mauquoy, D. & Todd, P.A. (1999) Recent rise to dominance of Molinia caerulea in environmentally sensitive areas: new perspectives from palaeoecological data. Journal of Applied Ecology, 36, 719–733.
Holden, J., Shotbolt, L., Bonn, A., Burt, T.P., Chapman, P.J., Dougill, A.J., Fraser, E.D.G., Hubacek, K., Irvine, B., Kirkby, M.J., Reed, M.S., Prell, C., Stagl, S., Stringer, L.C., Turner, A., Worrall, F. (2007). Environmental change in moorland landscapes. Earth Science. Reviews, 82, 75-100.