Ploughing, Peat and Post-CAP Policy

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A cultivated field at Staxton, just inland of Scarborough on the Yorkshire Coast illustrates how dark the peat soil is here in the Vale of Pickering. These fields are a store of soil-based organic carbon, locked away in wetland biomass over the last 11,000 years. But we really should not be ploughing such soils for arable crops.

A freshly-cultivated field by the A64 at Staxton with a green sliver of a remnant drainage ditch, illustrates nicely how dark the peat soil is here in the eastern Vale of Pickering. Generally speaking the darker the soil the higher the organic matter and hence carbon content. These fields are a store of soil-based organic matter locked away in wetland biomass over the last 11,000 years, since Mesolithic humans knapped flint and hunted deer on the shores of Lake Flixton. In places the several-metre-deep peats around Star Carr and Flixton Carr have been found to be up to 95% carbon by mass. In the UK, soil carbon stores exceed that locked up in our forests by approximately four times. So we really should be looking after these Natural Capital assets. World leaders and policy-makers will be meeting in Edinburgh later this month for the World Forum on Natural Capital.

In climate change mitigation terms, (As I vividly remember reading in the exec. summary headline of the IUCN Commission of Enquiry on Peatlands)  the ‘low hanging fruit of climate change mitigation’ in other words the very first priority we should be spending our carbon offset cash on, is to restore and re-wet our degraded peatlands. Cultivated (and hence degraded and oxidizing) peat farmland soils figure prominently in this catergory. Spending our Corporate and Social Responsibility pounds on woodland creation may be more ‘sexy’ for big businesses and we’ve all bought the loo rolls that promise to plant two trees or whatever for every one they chop up for cellulose…or the tea bags that fund tree planting projects…but perhaps we really should be investing more in restoring and re-wetting peat bogs? (Maybe there is a good case for bog rolls that donate to Bog Restoration – just a thought.)

What I am about to say next may sound counter-intuitive…Sadly, Stewardship schemes for these type of famland areas ( ie lowland cultivated peats) over past decades have prioritised high quality habitat creation and biodiversity targets. These are fantastic of course where they can be achieved – restoring wet grassland for breeding waders like curlew and lapwing, but they are difficult and bold undertakings, needing expert advice, on the ground supervision, and a zeal for conservation rare outside of nature reserve management.

I have found this out through personal experience as Project Officer on the Carrs Wetland Project, a role I enjoyed full time from 2007 until 2011 then part time with other duties for a few more years. Only on a few of the farms on the ‘black land’ was re-wetting even acheiveable, especially when neighbours continue cropping and therefore maintaining active land drainage. Even then it was not an undertaking agreed to lightly. Prioritising wet grassland for breeding waders does nothing to offer incentives to the average farmer for managing their land to best retain soil carbon for its own value.

So, while on The Carrs we still thankfully have a few farm schemes in HLS doing what they can to re-wet the fields: bund the ditches, excavate wader scrapes, carefully manipulate sward structure with cattle grazing and raise water tables with sluices….the great expanses of ‘Black Land’ in between, comprising millions of tonnes of locked away carbon, but steadily oxidizing to CO2 with each pass of the plough….remain in cultivation. This may in fact be very productive, for potatoes for instance, or it may be sub-optimal – where adequate drainage is a barrier to good arable cropping. I really feel though that in the new era of post-CAP agri-policy we do need to be looking at payment for public benefits – including the sequestration of soil carbon itself – as well as the laudable efforts to restore species, preserve heritage features and regulate flooding wherever possible.

I hope the policy makers in DEFRA are paying attention, for meanwhile as Brexit negotiations rumble on, the farms are cultivating their fields, laying fresh underdrains, and planting crops on the very land that could help us stave off a runaway spiral of CO2 emissions and the uncharted climatic consequences that come with it. Our soils are just one element of Natural Capital – the assets in our landscape that underpin our economies, health and prosperity – but looking after our soils better (as part of a Natural Capital Policy that makes it pay for land managers to do so) is a very good starting point. I sincerely hope that national and global decision-makers wake up to this jolly soon, because I might just be still around to see the consequences.

 

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