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.

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