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Impact case study

Peatland Management for Biodiversity Conservation and Water Resources

Unit(s) of assessment: Geography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology

School: School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences


Peat research at NTU has an impact on the:

  • conservation of peatland habitats
  • sustainable quantity and quality of water resources
  • development of alternative growing media.

Stakeholders using NTU research on peatland management include the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, Moors for the Future, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, water companies, horticultural peat producers and the Environment Agency, all working to improve policy and practice in the management of peatland habitats. Research into alternative growing media for use in horticulture, pioneered by Dr Bill Carlile in conjunction with William Sinclair Horticulture, contributed to the development of market-leading brand New Horizon.

NTU's research on peatland hydrology and restoration informs the on-going management of large areas of peatland in the UK and overseas. This research is readily applicable to the conservation of exploited peatland landscapes and has been applied by major landowners, water companies, conservation charities and statutory conservation bodies.

In 2010-2012 NTU led an assessment of peatland hydrology for the IUCN Commission on UK Peatlands. Sponsored by the North Pennines AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), this involved reviewing available evidence, coordinating a stakeholder group, organising and hosting a workshop, an invited presentation and attendance at an open inquiry event. Dr Jill Labadz and Dr Ben Clutterbuck also contributed to and were cited in the IUCN 2010 assessments of peatland restoration and burning. Labadz is a named author on the full report of the IUCN Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands.

In 2012 Labadz was one of two academic experts appointed on the Natural England evidence review on restoration of uplands. Clutterbuck contributed to the review on burning of uplands, the second in a series of five reviews intended to provide a sound evidence base for future policy and practice in upland management. The Director of Evidence and Chief Scientist stated that more than 1,000 downloads of the series were recorded from the Natural England web site in the first week and that "the conclusions and research recommendations from the five topic reviews have entered the next stage, moving evidence into our guidance."

The group's research on lowland bogs has contributed to the body of knowledge leading to the cessation of peat extraction on many sites and associated targets for a total ban on the use of peat as a horticulture medium. Impacts include the designation of one of the areas of study, Bolton Fell Moss, as a European special area for conservation, with management guidelines influenced by the research. In 2010, Natural England negotiated a £9 million plan for cessation of peat cutting on this internationally important site and research is continuing.

The Unit's research into alternative growing media has led to changes in commercial practice. William Sinclair Horticulture’s environmental policy now states that they will actively promote peat alternatives. In 2010, they used 370,000m3 of peat alternatives and intend to increase this to 600,000m3 by 2020 with 450,000m3 coming from recycled materials. The International Peat Society produced a strategy for responsible peatland management in 2010 and in January 2013 Defra announced a package of measures to support the horticulture industry in moving towards more sustainable growing media.

Research background

Dr Jill Labadz and Dr Ben Clutterbuck investigate the functioning, management and restoration of both lowland raised bogs and upland blanket bogs. Research has focused on hydrology of these areas in relation to the impacts that erosion, burning and artificial drainage have had on stream flows and human water supplies, and on the potential impact of land management on both biodiversity and water quality.

Many UK water companies are concerned about water quality from peatland catchments, especially rising levels of water colour, associated with exporting dissolved organic carbon. This problem brings associated rising costs of water treatment and concerns over health issues from disinfection by-products. In a project for the National Trust High Peak Estate, Labadz and O'Brien investigated raised water colour associated with moorland degradation in the Ashop and Derwent moors, feeding into the Ladybower reservoir system operated by Severn Trent Water.

In 2002, Severn Trent funded a major seven-year project at NTU, investigating the effect of land management on water colour and dissolved organic carbon. It aimed to establish whether changes judged desirable and practicable by land managers would have any measurable benefit for water quality or quantity from the catchment. Management interventions were gully blocking, grazing exclusion and cessation of burning. This work showed that, while there was no major change in dissolved organic carbon concentrations observed within five years, there was a significant reduction in stream flow and all three interventions showed significant benefit to water tables and vegetation.

Clutterbuck has focused on land management by prescribed burning and has demonstrated links with increased levels of dissolved organic carbon in heavily burned catchments. He works with partners including Yorkshire Water, the National Trust, Natural England and the RSPB to assess the impacts of prescribed moorland burning and to inform their policies for future land management.

Dr Dan Yeloff has investigated the relationship between blanket peat erosion and sediment yield in upland blanket bogs and water quality in associated reservoir catchment areas. This work has been cited in reports for the RSPB and by Scottish Natural Heritage in their 2011 report on peat erosion and the management of peatland habitats. On the basis of previous research on erosion and moorland degradation, Labadz and Clutterbuck were invited in 2013 to take part in a new research project for the National Trust, aiming to establish whether restoration techniques demonstrated elsewhere can also be successful on more degraded and steeper peat slopes. This forms part of a wider project worth £2.2 million, funded by the Environment Agency under Defra's Catchment Restoration Fund, and is on an area designated as important for both its ecological and geological interest.

The extraction and use of peat for horticulture is now widely perceived as unsustainable and undesirable. Work on alternatives to peat as a substrate for horticultural use was pioneered in the Unit by Dickinson and Carlile (1995), working with William Sinclair Horticulture to identify media that would not deteriorate, overcoming major storage problems typical of previous peat-free media. Surrage and Carlile (2009) then identified sources of green (waste) compost that led to the development of further commercial formulations for peat-reduced and peat-free media, and further research with the company is on-going.


  • RSPB: letter of support from Senior Uplands Policy Officer providing evidence of impact on peatland ecology and peatland processes, shaping future policy and management practices.
  • Natural England: letter of corroboration from Upland Specialist, Landscape and Biodiversity Function, providing evidence that researchers in the Unit have made a considerable contribution to their understanding of the processes on peatlands and how the land management decisions made by Natural England may affect these processes, helping to inform Natural England on the definition and management of designated wetland and peatland sites.
  • Natural England: email from Director of Evidence and Chief Scientist June 2013 confirming involvement of Labadz in authoring the Evidence Review of Uplands and stating that "the conclusions and research recommendations from the five topic reviews have entered the next stage, moving evidence into our guidance."
  • Natural England Evidence Review report by Glaves et al (2013) on effects of managed burning on upland peat biodiversity, carbon and water, referring to research by Clutterbuck.
  • IUCN International Union for the Conservation of Nature (2011) Commission of Enquiry on Peatlands: full report with Labadz as author showing evidence of impact of peatland hydrology review and previous research.
  • Joint letter from ministers (February 2013) setting out a framework for action and providing evidence of impact of the IUCN Commission of Enquiry on Peatlands and associated research.
  • The North Pennines AONB refers to research on peatland hydrology by NTU.
  • NTU is one of the key literature references for the Defra-funded Peatlands (Ecosystem Services UK) project.
  • Work on erosion of blanket bogs by Labadz and Yeloff has been used by organisations including Natural England and Yorkshire Peat Partnership to inform management and restoration of degraded peatlands, and has been cited by Scottish Natural Heritage (2011) in a report on peat erosion and the management of peatland habitats.
  • Which? Gardening (Jan-Feb 2010) rated New Horizon Organic & Peat Free Growbag as a "best buy growing media for seeds."
  • Clutterbuck's work has informed the Natural England Review of Evidence on Burning in the Uplands (Glaves et al, 2012) and was disseminated via a presentation to the Upland Hydrology Group, which brings together stakeholders aiming to reach a consensus about how land and water should be managed in the uplands.