Degradation of the Pennine moorlands in northern England over the last 100 years has been severe. This rocky windswept spine runs through the centre of what was once the industrial powerhouse of Britain, and these upland areas have been subject to intense pressures from atmospheric pollution, overgrazing and recreational activity. The moorland soils are eroding, which rapidly exposes their carbon-rich peat to the elements and so they begin release carbon dioxide. This is a big issue for the UK because, owing to this sort of land degradation, our upland soils are currently releasing the carbon emissions equivalent to that of Manchester.
At their heart, upland soils are built upon the few tiny plants that can survive harsh conditions, waterlogging and low nutrients. Sphagnum mosses are the building block that achieve this, but unfortunately once the soil has eroded, sphagnum cannot recolonize.
With the assistance of Manchester Metropolitan University and a small UK company – MicroPropagation Services, a product has been developed which promises to revolutionise upland conservation and reverse this degradation. The product is BeadaMosstm – a sphagnum culture formed into small gel beads, which stabilise and nurture these young plants, allowing them to re-establish on degraded peatlands where they would otherwise be unable. Remarkably, these green beads are actually airlifted by helicopter, so large quantities can be dropped to target specific areas of remote moorland, where volunteer workers then complete the final painstaking step of inserting them into the soil.
Within the last few years these efforts have proved very successful and formerly severely eroded areas such as Black Hill in the Peak District have become entirely rejuvenated. The trick now is to develop ways in which these gel beads can be sown without the need for workers on the ground. If this can be achieved, vast areas of degraded UK uplands could be open for restoration. BeadaMoss promises to be a remarkable conservation success story and one which demonstrates how innovative approaches can be used alongside ecological expertise to solve critical environmental problems.
Dr Alan G. Jones is a NERC-funded postdoctoral research associate based at Aberystwyth University. The views represented above are the author’s own.
Follow Alan on Twitter: @alanjones_eCO2
Academic profile: http://www.aber.ac.uk/en/ibers/staff/staff_profiles/agj5