Pioneering project to restore Broads peatland wins £800,000 grant

Researchers coring into deep peat soils in the Broads

Researchers coring into deep peat soils in the Broads - Credit: Broads Authority

A new partnership has been awarded almost £800,000 to explore peatland restoration and new farming methods to prevent carbon losses in the Broads.

While vast amounts of carbon are locked up in wet fen and reedbeds, nearly a quarter of the area's deep peat soils are drained for agriculture, which releases greenhouse gases.

It is estimated that around one million tonnes of carbon have been lost from the Broads in the past 40 years.  

So the government's Nature for Climate Peatland Grant Scheme (NCPGS) has awarded a "discovery grant" to develop new approaches to peatland management and carbon storage in the Broads. 

A cross-sector partnership led by the Broads Authority aims to work on 13 sites to find ways to restore wetland so it captures more carbon, as well as improving flood risks and habitats for wildlife.

The authority said the project will build on its existing work with farmers to develop practices which are both sustainable and economically viable.

That could include raising the water table on traditional grazing marshes, exploring the commercial potential of reed cutting and "wet farming" crops, and looking at financial models which could unlock public funding and private investment under the government's policy of rewarding farmers for "public goods".

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Broads Authority chief executive John Packman said the funding is "a really important announcement for the Broads".

"If we want to protect and enhance the enormous carbon store in the peat then we need to work in partnership at a landscape scale which is what this funding will allow," he said.

Andrea Kelly, the authority's environment policy adviser, said the historical loss of carbon from the Broads meant there was a great potential to make positive changes.

Broads Authority environment policy adviser Andrea Kelly

Broads Authority environment policy adviser Andrea Kelly - Credit: Broads Authority

"That is what we want to support landowners with," she said.

"We see some grazing marshes with some very deep drainage levels, and that is affecting the deep peat. 

"Raising water levels is not easy where you have got a grazed system, particularly on peats and soft soils, it could create welfare and traffic issues for the animals.

"There are all these concerns to overcome about raising water levels on agricultural land, but if you look at the total UK emissions from peatlands it is 18.8 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. That is 2pc of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions.

"Every 10cm reduction in water table depth could reduce the net warming impact of CO2 and methane emissions by the equivalent of at least three tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year.

"But we need to recognise that food production is something that needs to be squared off around all of that. We don't want people to stop farming. It is about management and recognising there are viable alternative crops as part of that business model."

She said an example could be found at Horsey, where 3ha of drained peatland has become a trial site for paludiculture or "wet farming", retaining water in the field while growing wetland crops including reed and reedmace. 

Broads Authority environment policy adviser Andrea Kelly at a wetland farming site in the Broads

Broads Authority environment policy adviser Andrea Kelly at a wetland farming site in the Broads - Credit: Broads Authority

The initial grant of almost £800,000 is for the "discovery" phase of the peatlands project, to gather information and complete feasibility studies before an application for the second-phase "restoration" grant to begin work on the ground.

The partnership comprises the Broads Authority, Natural England, the National Trust, Norfolk FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group), RSPB, Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Suffolk Wildlife Trust and international management firm Palladium.

It will work alongside the Water Management Alliance (Broads Internal Drainage Board), National Farmers' Union, Ranworth Estate and other private landowners.

A new partnership will explore peatland restoration and carbon storage in the Broads

A new partnership will explore peatland restoration and carbon storage in the Broads - Credit: Broads Authority

Chris Bielby, countryside manager for the National Trust, said the funding would help plan the next steps for conservation management at Heigham Holmes in the Upper Thurne.

"This 180-hectare site in the National Park is already really important for nature, but this funding will help us to plan for its future," he said. 

"We believe this site has huge potential to support a peat-forming habitat that will capture and store carbon; key to our local efforts in the global fight against climate change.

"The project will also benefit species such as bittern, crane and marsh harrier, as well as help to conserve water resources in the summer and manage flood risk in the winter."

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