Skip to main content

Peatlands make up 3% of the land area of the globe, but they hold 30% of the world's carbon. Peat is made up of partly decomposed plants and forms over millennia. Here on the Isle of Man, restoring our peatland has potential to contribute significantly to the Isle of Man’s net zero emissions goal.  We speak to Sarah Hickey, Peatland and Upland Carbon Officer, to learn what peat is, how they will restore it and to understand more about the new Manx Peat Partnership!

Peat Hag

Hi Sarah, thank you for the opportunity to learn more about the Peatland Project. Can you tell us what your role is? 

My role is Peatland and Upland Carbon Officer, working with the Uplands Team. I first had an interest in peatlands while at university and studied peat cores for my undergraduate dissertation and master’s thesis. I started working on Manx peatlands as a volunteer with Manx Wildlife Trust, mapping the depth and extent of upland peat. This project was then funded for a year, enabling the mapping of large areas of the Island’s peat. Until recently, work on peatland has slowed down, but this new job role will enable further mapping and restoration work to be undertaken.  

You have lots of experience and passion for the peatlands. For those that don’t know, what is a peatland? What makes peat so important?  

A peatland is an area where the habitat is supported by a naturally accumulated layer of peat. Peat typically forms in waterlogged conditions, and this slows down the decomposition of organic material. In our uplands, many of the habitats receive their water from rainfall, whereas lowland areas receive water from both rain and groundwater sources.  

Upland peat began accumulating on the Island approximately 5000 years ago as the result of a wetter climate and deforestation. It accumulates very slowly (less than 1mm per year) but peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store, storing more carbon that all other vegetation types in the world combined. Peat can store carbon for thousands of years. 

Peatlands also support an assemblage of specialist flora and fauna, including the carnivorous Sundew, sphagnum mosses (which engineer their own ecosystem by holding over 20 times their own weight in water, thereby raising the water table), curlew, snipe and hen harrier.

Many of our peatlands have become degraded through historic drainage and peat cutting for fuel. This often leads to a loss of peat-forming vegetation and the drying out and erosion of peat. This turns peatlands from a sink of carbon to a source of carbon and, globally, damaged peatlands are responsible for 5% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions. 

What’s going on then? Will people see notable differences? 

Information gained from mapping the extent and depth of peat, and from studying aerial images, is used to identify areas of deeper peat which are in a degraded condition. Features such as drainage ditches, peat hags and habitat condition are then mapped in detail and a restoration plan drawn up. 

The next stage of the process is to gather the required materials. This may be timber to construct dams, stone for sediment traps, heather bales and coir netting for re-vegetating bare peat and coir logs to slow the flow of water and trap sediment. At this stage we also look for contractors who are able to undertake the work, which includes installing dams and re-profiling peat hags. 

Once the contractor has completed the work, we hope to use volunteer work parties to spread heather brash and install coir netting, to allow vegetation to become established on areas of bare peat. 

Work undertaken by contractors can look messy to start with, as it involves the use of excavators, however after a couple of years it should be possible to see the benefits of the work. 

The peatlands are home to lots of wildlife. What lives on the peatlands? 

There are several habitats found on peatland, including heath, grassland and blanket bog. Blanket bog is a rare habitat on the Island and is dominated by sphagnum mosses. We hope that restoration work will improve the condition and extent of this habitat. 

Several rare and threatened bird species utilise peatland habitats. These include curlew, snipe, hen harrier, skylark and meadow pipit. Upland peatlands are also home to the iconic mountain hare and are important areas for invertebrates. 

Typical plant species include heather, cross-leaved heath, blueberry, crowberry, sphagnum mosses, bog asphodel and cotton grass. 

What does the future look like? Tell us the best bits! 

This project aims to complete the restoration of 500 hectares of peat, as outlined in the Climate Change Plan 2022 - 27. There is probably around 10,000 hectares of peat on the Island (including lowland peat), so hopefully there is scope in the future to extend the project. It would be great to have as much peatland as possible restored in order to reduce CO2 emissions, increase carbon sequestration and improve peatland habitats for wildlife. 

In addition to peatland restoration, the project is also identifying suitable upland areas for tree planting. Planting should not be done on peat, as this dries out the peat and releases carbon. There are many upland gullies and areas of hillside that do not have peat, so we hope to eventually plant these with suitable native tree species. This will benefit both wildlife and carbon sequestration and is also helps with natural flood management. 

What are the challenges for this project?  

One of the challenges is the weather – the practical restoration work needs to be undertaken between September and March in order to avoid disturbing ground-nesting birds. This means that contractors are sometimes held up by poor winter weather, which is always more challenging in upland areas. 

Wow. This is all very exciting. Who is involved? 

We are in the process of forming the Manx Peat Partnership, which will be a working group of stakeholders. This group will help to ensure stakeholders are informed of restoration plans and can help to guide the required work. We also hope to be able to involve volunteers and businesses in practical work. 

To keep up to date with all peatland news, follow our Instagram and Facebook. Or visit the Peatland Projects own Instagram and Facebook for a close look at the project!