The Lives and Deaths of Peat Bogs

Spending over a month doing restoration work on Little Woolden Moss has inspired me to find out more about the ecology of peat bogs – what they are, how they come to life, how they function, how exploitation by humans has led to the deaths of 80% of them, and how they are currently being revived.

The information that follows has been gleaned almost exclusively from the IUCN Peatland Programme’s Conserving Bogs: The Management Handbook, which can be downloaded for free HERE.

What is a Peatland?

A peatland is ‘first and foremost’ a ‘wetland’. Water is essential because peat does not form when the land is dry. Peat is ‘a wetland soil composed largely of semi-decomposed organic matter deposited in-situ, having a minimum organic content of 30% and a thickness greater than 30cm’ and a peatland ‘an area with or without vegetation but possessing a naturally accumulated peat layer at the surface.’

The EU Habitats Directive distinguishes between ‘active bog’ as ‘a system that supports a significant area of vegetation which is normally peat forming’ and ‘non-active bog’ which does not. It is my intuition that a peat-forming bog is a living bog and a bog that is not forming peat is dead.

The most common type of peat bog is raised bog ‘accumulations of peat’ ‘within a non-peat landscape’ or ‘a fen-peat landscape’ mainly found in the lowlands. Such bogs form distinct domes that rise above the surrounding landscape by as much as 10 metres.’ The ‘classic type’ is basin raised bog – ‘formed within a shallow lake that has then infilled through terrestrialisation’.

Other types include floodplain raised bog, estuarine raised bog, and the evocatively named Schwingmoor ‘swinging bog’ which forms as ‘a floating raised dome’ ‘over a deeper lake basin’.

A rarer type of bog is blanket bog which forms as mantles of peat in the uplands. Types include watershed bog, saddle bog, valleyside bog, spur bog, minerotrophic bog, and ladder fen.

How Do Peat Bogs Form?

The UK’s ‘classic’ basin raised bogs developed over basins created in the aftermath of the last Ice Age by the melting of dead ice, surrounded by sediment, which was left when the glaciers retreated. These basins filled with water and became lakes which were ‘colonised by a fringe of fen vegetation’.

As this vegetation decayed the lakes were filled in with ‘fen peats and sediment’. The plants at the centre were ‘cut off from the nutrients at the lake margins.’ These nutrient poor, waterlogged conditions were perfect for sphagnum mosses to come to dominate, forming a thick carpet.

As the sphagnum began to slowly decompose it resulted in an accumulation of peat. When this reached a thickness of half a metre above the original level of the lakes the bogs were separated from the groundwater and became ombotrophic (rain-fed) so dependent on precipitation alone. Slowly they expanded, escaping their lake basins, to become the lowland raised bogs we know of today.

Blanket bogs formed in a similar way in waterlogged areas of our uplands such as saddles and spurs.

The Structure of Living Peat Bogs

All living peat bogs have a ‘diplotelmic structure’ (telm is Greek for marsh, pool, standing or stagnant water’). The acrotelm (from Greek acro ‘topmost’) is the surface of peat-forming vegetation and the catotelm (from Greek cata ‘down’) is the ‘inert, permanently waterlogged peat store’.

This structure is created, mainly, by sphagnum mosses. Their densely packed heads, known as capitula, form a thick carpet around 2cm deep. Sphagnum leaves are specially designed to cope with water logging due to their ‘large and empty hyaline cells’ ‘sandwiching smaller photosynthetic cells’. This provides a ‘large surface area for cation exchange’ – absorbing ‘nutrients dissolved in water’.

Their swapping of scarce nutrients for hydrogen ions acidifies their surroundings making them more favourable for sphagnum colonisation and unfavourable for decomposer micro-organisms. This leads to conditions that are favourable for peat formation. Sphagnum mosses also release a ‘pectin-like substance’ called sphagnan which coats the upper parts of the plant and the water and ‘inhibits nitrogen uptake in decomposer bacteria’ further slowing the processes of decomposition.

(The anti-microbial properties of sphagna led to the use of packs of sphagnum as dressings in World War I).

Sphagnum mosses ‘grow from the top of the plant – the apices – and die at the base’ at around 10cm. The stems and branches collapse, flatten, and break down to form peat. This is the point of transfer to the catotelm. The living layer of the acrotelm can be between 10cm and 40 cm deep. The catotelm can extend up to several metres (the deepest peat bog, in the Netherlands, is nearly 7m deep).

Sphagnum are the dominant species of mosslands and our lowland raised bogs include species such as S. magellanicum, S. papillosum, S. capillifolium, S. tenellum, and S. cuspidatum. Other plants that can survive in these conditions include common cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium), hare’s-tail cotton-grass (Eriophorum vaginatum), cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix), bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia), and round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia). Sundews are carnivorous bog plants ‘which gain extra nutrients (particularly nitrogen) by catching and absorbing insects.

Ombotrophic bogs gain their water not only from rainfall but from ‘occult precipitation’ – mist and fog.

Exploitation and Death

Humans have been exploiting peat bogs for fuel for many centuries. This began with domestic peat cutting. ‘Turves’ were cut by hand with a spade from banks 10m to 100m long, then stacked nearby to dry. The banks were reached by ‘peat tracks’ and carried by horse and cart or in creels or baskets

Traditional cutting has been replaced by ‘tractor-driven machines’ that ‘cut slits beneath the surface’ to extract ‘sausages’ of peat that are left on the surface to dry before their use as burning briquettes’.

Commercial peat extraction for horticulture and energy is currently taking place on a far greater scale and is far more damaging. Peat accumulates at ‘2mm a year’ and ‘a hundred times that depth’ is removed each year by modern extraction methods such as peat milling. This begins with the drainage of the land by ‘regularly spaced deep drains’. Once the upper peat has dried ‘the surface vegetation is removed’ to create ‘bare black fields’ then the top layers are ‘rotovated’ or ‘milled’ to allow further drying before the peat is ‘bulldozed into long ridges’ then bagged or taken to power stations.

Drainage of the land for human benefits has deadly results. The immediate effect is water loss from, and the drying out of, the acrotelm, leading to the decline in sphagnum and other peatland species.

Loss of water from the catotelm is slower (up to one million times slower than the speed of a snail!). However, water in the spaces between peat fragments seeps into the drain. This causes peat adjacent to the drain to collapse and shrink. This process is called ‘primary consolidation’.

The ‘drier catotelm peat adjacent to the drain itself becomes a heavy load on the peat beneath because the drained layer no longer floats buoyantly within the bog water table.’ It ‘compresses the peat beneath it and squeezes more water from the peat into the drain, causing the bog surface to subside still further.’ The entire depth of the catotelm subsides. This is ‘secondary compression’.

Drainage ‘allows oxygen to penetrate the catotelm’ which is usually prevented by waterlogged conditions. ‘Preserved plant material is thus lost in the form of carbon dioxide (CO 2 ), leading to further subsidence as the peat material itself vanishes into the atmosphere.’ This is ‘oxidative wastage’.

‘The three drainage processes – primary consolidation, secondary compression and oxidative wastage – cause the peat to subside progressively and continuously across an ever-expanding area. Drainage in effect continually widens the dimensions and impact of the drain.’

‘Where drainage leads to the loss of the peat-forming layer, carbon sequestration may cease’ and there are increases in the production of dissolved and particulate organic carbon (DOCs and POCs).

A peat bog in this state is termed haplotelmic. Without an acrotelm it is no longer living.

Sadly ‘80% of UK peat bogs now lack an active living surface as a result of human impacts’ and ‘therefore now have little or no capacity for resilience in the face of future climate change.’

Reviving Peat Bogs

Peat bogs can be revived by blocking drains and building dams and bunds to prevent water loss and begin the long process of silting up with vegetation that will lead to the development of sphagnum.

Bare peat can be re-vegetated by planting hardy species such as common cottongrass and hair’s tail cottongrass.

Sphagnum mosses can then be planted amongst the common cottongrass to form new hummocks and once these have formed species such as cross-leaved heath and bog rosemary can be planted on them.

Doing this research has provided me with a greater depth of understanding of the workings of peat bogs and the impact of my work on Little Woolden Moss. It has shown me how restoring a living acrotelm of sphagnum is essential to reviving a bog and reinstating the process of peat formation which sequesters carbon in the depths of the catotelm rather than releasing it into atmosphere.

I look forward to revisiting the mossland in years to come and watching its return to life.

8 thoughts on “The Lives and Deaths of Peat Bogs

  1. Michael Graeme says:

    I enjoyed reading this, Lorna. It has greatly improved my understanding of the bogland eco-system. I shall pay them much closer attention next time I’m out walking in bogland areas.

  2. Ogden Fahey says:

    I was up in the western isles of Scotland a few years ago, the locals are cutting peat and leaving it to dry around the landscape – I expect its quite sustainable up there, I imagine its the most commonly used fuel, though it may soon be banned due to incoming carbon emission controls. Still, it felt good to see people doing things in old ways like that.

    • lornasmithers says:

      It’s got to be more sustainable than commercial peat extraction but I doubt whether the small amount formed by bogs (2mm per year I think) makes up for it. It would be my intuition that a coppice of trees, which grow faster, might be better? Or renewables?

  3. Greg Hill says:

    I’m lucky to have two raised bogs near me: Borth Bog (Cors Fochno) and, further away from me now but where I used to live, Tregaron Bog . Both rich habitats which are being conserved. There’s also the areas of blanket bog on the Cambrian Mountains which are less well preserved, though the big roadless area of small bogs and peatland around Nat y Moch, below Pumlummon is also a special habitat. There are plans to put a large wind farm in there, which sounds good to some, though the carbon loss to the air which excavating the peat for roads and pylon bases might make it counter-productive in terms of climate change apart from depleting the ability of the area to hold water after heavy rain.

  4. ceridwensilverhart says:

    It’s interesting to learn that some peat bogs form domes. I had always assumed bogs sunk down into the earth rather than rising above it. It brought to mind the image of a burial mound, and the thought that such bogs basically preserve the memory of the moss. And yet those domes, if unviolated, house living memory rather than dead.

    • lornasmithers says:

      Thank you Ceridwn. I had never thought of the analogy between raised bogs and burial mounds before, each holding the dead and ancestral memories… I do wonder if our ancestors also saw that connection. A valuable insight.

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