Protection urgent for peatlands 

Sunday 10th July 2016
Kentra Moss, courtesy: www.wildlochaber.com

In July 2015 scientists from York University warned that  an entire ecosystem of birds, bugs and blanket bogs was under threat  from climate change. Now geologists at Exeter University,  studying Kentra Moss in Lochaber,  report that climate change is increasing the salt levels in peatlands, making it less able to absorb carbon. In Scotland, some 20 per cent of the land is covered in peat, storing some 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon.

Study leader and senior lecturer in Physical geography Dr Angela Gallego-Salas (right) said: “The results were startling. Peatland areas are vital for our ecosystems. We need to act now to protect our peatlands. The effects of global warming are already being observed, but the longer we wait to act, the quicker changes to our environment, which would have a devastating impact on many regions around the world, will take place."  The researchers examined  salt found in seawater,  has on how successfully peatland ecosystems accumulate carbon from the atmosphere. They discover that the rate at which peatland areas accumulated carbon was significantly impacted as the concentration of salt rose. The results appear in Scientific Reports.

In the York study, which involved collaboration with British Trust for Ornithology,  Aberystwyth University and the University of Leeds and part-funded by the RSPB, showed that the humble crane fly, more commonly known as ‘daddy longlegs’, is a crucial link in determining the impact of climate change on these peatland bird species.

The birds depend on the protein rich crane flies as food for chicks, but scientists have discovered that summer droughts, which are predicted to increase, will cause significant declines in crane flies and subsequently the bird species that depend on them.

Based on a peatland model developed at the University of York and latest climate change predictions, the researchers warn that by 2051-80 the dunlin could see a 50% decline in numbers, with the golden plover down 30% and the red grouse down by 15%, all driven by declining abundance of the birds’ crane fly prey.

The findings, part of a PhD by Dr Matthew Carroll (right)  supervised by Professor Chris Thomas at the Biology Department at the University of York, highlight the complex relationship between climate, bog habitats, insects, and birds. It suggests that large-scale projects to restore degraded and eroded blanket bogs could be critical in securing the future of these internationally important bird populations, alongside both water supplies and the crucial role of blanket bogs as a carbon store.  

Dr Andreas Heinemeyer from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) based at the University of York, developed the peatland model The Natural Environment Research Council and Defra - investigating blanket bog ecosystems across several UK upland sites, including the Yorkshire Dales, Peak District and North York Moors. Dr Heinemeyer, who is currently leading a £1m Defra-funded SEI project to further study the impacts of climate change and management on blanket bogs, said it wasn’t only rare birds that were at risk from climate change. 

Dr Carroll, RSPB Conservation Scientist, said: “Our work shows that climate change could harm some of our most iconic upland bird species. The birds rely on crane flies for food during the breeding season, and the crane flies rely on the cool, wet conditions in blanket bogs. Large-scale peatland restoration projects such as the Sustainable Catchment Management Project run by United Utilities and RSPB are crucial in helping to make our blanket bogs resilient to climate change.”
 

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