Monday, 16 November 2015

How your hare sightings can help

We've been asking you to send in your sightings of brown hares, mountain hares and rabbits. Why are we interested? Read on to find out.

Mountain Hare Leveret - Photo by Phil Straton of MFFP
Brown hares, mountain hare and rabbits are the only three 'lagomorphs' living wild in the UK. Of these, only mountain hare are considered native; brown hare and rabbits having been introduced (probably) by the Romans and Normans respectively.

We're interested in how these species are being affected by climate change. The mountain hare is a particularly interesting case. It is well adapted to the harsh conditions at found at higher altitudes  - thick coat, large feet for bounding over snow, shorter ears than the brown hare (for losing less body heat) and most obviously of all a bright white coat in winter for camouflage against snow.

However; as the climate changes will the future winters leave these bright white animals standing out a mile in a landscape with no snow? Will hares begin to adapt to warmer wetter winters? Will the mountain hare start to decline at the warmest southern edge of its range (which happens to be here in the Peak District)? Will the adaptable brown hare take advantage of less harsh conditions and start to move in? There are a huge number of possible scenarios.

Mountain hare turning white

The only way to start to understand the complex interactions between animals and their environment is by collecting information and observations. Data allows us to see trends and predict what might happen in the future.

This is where you come in. By providing sightings of any of these species - simply telling us what you saw, where and when - via our simple form you can add to a nationally important knowledge base.

On its own your sighting might simply help you remember of an enjoyable wildlife experience; but when it is added to other sightings it becomes something much more powerful - it is part of a dataset which collectively can be used monitor how a species is faring and even make important decisions in conservation or land management to help secure its future.

All sightings received through our project will be verified by an expert, and will feed in to the Mammal Society's new 'Mammal Atlas'. This is the first atlas for 20 years, and aims to map vital baseline data about mammals and their distribution - which can then be continually updated and provide a hugely important resource for mammal conservation. Read more about the National Mammal Atlas Project on their website.

Your sightings will feed into The Mammal Society's National Mammal Atlas Project
The cut-off for your records to be included in this edition of the Mammal Atlas is the end of the year, so now is a very good time to send in your sightings.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Where is all the Sphagnum?

Where IS all the Sphagnum? This is the question we would like to answer - and to do it we'd like your help.

We've created a survey which anyone can take part in. It's called 'The Big Moss Map'. The aim is to map where this moss can currently be found in the Peak District and South Pennines.

To find out how to get involved, please visit our website.

Looking for Sphagnum  - The Big Moss Map survey

 To find out why we're so interested, read on...

Sphagnum mosses are small plants, but collectively they can have an enormous effect. They are the engineers of the peatland environment - without their amazing properties, we wouldn’t have as much peat formation. 

Peat is made of dead but not rotting plant material - and it is Sphagnum which helps to create the conditions in which it can form. Some species of the moss can hold up to 20 times their own weight in water, stored in special cells known as 'hyaline' cells. This means that a blanket of Sphagnum can make a whole area waterlogged - perfect conditions to stop organic matter from decomposing. In addition to this, they produce a chemical called 'sphagnan' which has antiseptic properties - adding to the effect. It is for this reason that dried out Sphagnum made a very effective filling for wound dressings in World War 1 - and saved countless lives.

Sphagnum mosses
Plants, including Sphagnum mosses, are built from carbon - captured from the atmosphere when they photosynthesize. Usually, when a plant dies it is broken down by fungi and decomposing bacteria - and that carbon is released back into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. However the special conditions created by Sphagnum means that this decay doesn't happen –or happens very, very slowly. The carbon captured by these mosses is not released back into the atmosphere, but stored on the ground as peat.

This process is glacially slow (In fact, peat forms a lot slower than a glacier moves – only about 1mm can be formed per year) - but peatlands can store a colossal amount of carbon. UK peat currently holds around 3 billion tonnes of carbon. To put this in to context, all the woodland in the UK holds less than 5% of that amount. It quickly becomes clear what an important role Sphagnum can play in the fight against climate change. As C02 levels in the atmosphere increase, peat offers a way of capturing and storing some of this carbon. Not only this, but healthy ‘active’ peatlands have a host of other benefits – they’re great for wildlife, for reducing flood risk, for improving water quality and reducing fire risk  - to name a few.

All this sounds fantastic - and indeed it is - if peatlands are in good condition. Sadly, the Peak District and South Pennines are the most degraded in Europe. Large areas have been stripped bare of Sphagnum and other vegetation by a 200 year history of industrial pollution, overgrazing and wildfires - among other factors. In this condition, this huge store of carbon turns from a 'sink' into a 'source'. The exposed peat starts to erode and be broken down - releasing carbon back into the atmosphere, and becoming a major contributor to our carbon emissions – if we lost only 5% of the carbon stored in the UK’s peatlands, that would be equivalent to the UK’s entire total annual greenhouse emissions.

Moors for the Future partnership are attempting to reverse this process across the region by stabilizing and re-vegetating the bare peat and re-introducing native plants, including Sphagnum. It is a huge task and there is still a long way to go, but great results have already been achieved in a little over 12 years.
A small Sphagnum 'plug'  -being planted by hand

To help this work it is important to know where the remaining areas of Sphagnum are located within the region. This is where 'The Big Moss Map' - and you - come in. If you can recognize Sphagnum (or even if you can't yet - as we can provide free training to help you) all you need to do is to note down the locations where you see it as you walk the region's paths. The Sphagnum seen (or not seen) along these paths provide us with a 'sample' of the area. Your sightings will enable us to get an idea of the areas where this moss remains, and help us to track the progress of its re-introduction as well its reaction to future climate changes.

When the damage to the region’s peatlands is repaired, and they are re-colonised by a blanket of this magnificent moss, then the benefits – economic and social - as well as environmental will be vast.