Pilot site Winmarleigh carbon farm + Little Woolden Moss : state of play

Our project aims to persuade landowners to use fields to capture and store carbon, preventing it from escaping and adding to the problems of climate change. 

Therefor, Lancashire Wildlife Trust (LWT) is working with partners to create a ‘carbon farm’ on their pilot site, growing Sphagnum moss for the purpose of storing and protecting soil carbon on farmland next to LWT’s lowland raised bog Winmarleigh Moss SSSI nature reserve, near Garstang, Lancashire, North West England.

This method of farming, if proved successful using Sphagnum, will prevent future carbon emissions from peat soils and turn carbon sources into carbon sinks.

Carbon farming involves implementing practices that are known to improve the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and converted to plant material and soil organic matter. Carbon farming is successful when carbon gains resulting from enhanced land management and/or conservation practices exceed carbon losses. In addition, carbon can be stored long term (decades to millenia).

Carbon farming covers a whole spectrum of practices from growing cover crops to reduced or no tillage. In the trials at Winmarleigh we are growing a permanent, non-harvested cover crop of specialised bog species (Sphagnum), grown for the purpose of protecting soil carbon and sequestering further atmospheric carbon. We will also be assessing the effect of re-wetting this buffer zone area on the functioning of the adjoining nature reserve, and hope to demonstrate the viability of alternative land management techniques on peatland sites adjacent to wildlife restoration sites and show its benefit both in terms of carbon and improvement to the wildlife site.

How carbon farming works

Carbon farming creates a carbon pump and carbon store - plants in the cover crop pull carbon in from the air and turn it into carbohydrates, which is pumped through their roots in the soil (in the case of Sphagnum, which has no roots, carbon is stored in the plant). The plants grow larger and this sets up an ongoing feedback loop that brings more and more carbon into the soil each year - moving carbon from the atmosphere into the soil, and retaining soil carbon already present.

Product: The ‘product’ of the farm is the carbon that is captured in the vegetation and soils, and the reduction of carbon emissions. It is not about harvesting a crop to sell, although ‘selling’ the carbon kept in the soil (carbon offsetting) would provide some income to ‘Carbon Farmers’.

 Why grow Sphagnum? Peat is formed in waterlogged, acidic, conditions, which are very low in nutrients, and only very specialised plants - like Sphagnum – can thrive in it, but more importantly for climate change, the carbon in these plants is trapped in perpetuity. As Sphagnum moss grows, underlying Sphagnum vegetation decays but decomposes very slowly, forming peat, which is almost 100% Carbon, effectively absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere and burying it as peat below the Sphagnum.

Target areas for such carbon farming: Poor quality, marginal land adjacent to / in buffers around a nature reserve or SSSI etc. Also degraded peatlands with shallow peat in need of replenishment or building up.

 Carbon farming has many benefits:

  •       Climate: Conservation of carbon fixed in peat and reduction of CO2 emissions by rewetting degraded peatlands. Trials by Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) & BeadaMoss® (Micropropagation Services) show that plots on a restoration site at Little Woolden Moss (LWM) & elsewhere are not just reducing emissions but capturing carbon as well.
  •       Environment: Reduction of the emission of pollutants into ground and surface water (eutrophication) in comparison to agricultural land use; renewed function of water purification and water retention in peatlands as well as a local cooling effect due to increased water evaporation.
  •       Social & Economic: Providing income on marginal land to farmers to support the local community.
  •       Wildlife: Providing habitats for Sphagnum species and associated mossland flora and fauna. Mossland habitats are fragmented and vulnerable so extending on providing mossland corridors/stepping stones is vital
  •       Landscape: Conservation of open landscape.

Challenges: To be successful, carbon farming may need support from subsidies or carbon-offsetting schemes. Our project aims to provide the data needed to be able to devise appropriate funding schemes.

Opportunities: Carbon farming will help to limit future carbon emissions from peat soils, and potentially lead to more sustainable systems for farmers that maintain wet conditions, protecting peat soils, reducing CO2 emissions, cleaning water, benefiting wildlife, sharing knowledge and creating new opportunities. A carbon farming project can contribute to the data Defra needs to develop new funding schemes and also demonstrate to farmers what they can do with poor quality marginal land that could bring them greater revenue in the future. It can also help to bring in carbon-related revenue for land that may not fit with current carbon offsetting schemes, and help prevent mis-guided planting of trees on peatland, which unlike peat, do not permanently lock up carbon.

Carbon Farming at large scale will be essential to change current high emissions from peatlands into carbon sequestration sites, so that peatlands can once again play an important role in nature based solutions for climate change, and help us achieve Net Zero Emissions targets by 2050.

About the location of the Winmarleigh pilot site

The location of the pilot site for the carbon farm is a former lowland raised bog that was drained in the 1970s and converted to agricultural farm land used for livestock and winter feed crops. It borders Winmarleigh and Cockerham Moss SSSI which is a lowland raised bog. A large drain sits between the site and removes water from the farmland and, despite piling and other water retention measures, causes water loss on the SSSI raised bog. Lancashire Wildlife Trust (LWT) first bought part of the SSSI in 2010, purchasing further sections in 2012 and 2019. In 2019, LWT also purchased 20 ha of the farmland buffering the SSSI.

The main objective for this pilot is the change in management of 4 ha of this farmland to a ‘Carbon Farm’ planted with Sphagnum moss and designed for the long-term storage [sequestration] of atmospheric CO2. This will be achieved through raising the water table through blocking drains and the removal of the nutrient and seed rich, organic top soil that has formed over the peat. The site will then be planted with Sphagnum moss species. It is also hoped that the rewetting of this buffer farmland that adjoins the SSSI will improve conditions and reduce GHG emissions from the SSSI.

Winmarleigh and Cockerham Moss SSSI is Lancashire’s best example of a lowland raised peat bog. Drained and historically exploited for peat extraction, the moss suffered serious degradation until Lancashire Wildlife Trust first bought some of it in 2010 to safeguard the plants and animals, and began restoring the invaluable landscape. The Trust now manages 89.5 ha in total within the SSSI.

Little Woolden Moss, UK

In addition to the carbon farm at Winmarleigh, on LWT’s Little Woolden Moss nature reserve in Salford, Greater Manchester, we are testing different combination planting techniques for their effect on greenhouse gas emissions and in terms of best practice restoration of this ex-peat extraction site. Little Woolden Moss (LWM) is a 107 ha lowland raised bog that was extracted for peat until 2012 and in parts as recently as December 2017. The site is wholly owned by LWT and restoration of the bare peat has commenced on areas of the site. As part of Care-Peat, a 2 ha area of bare peat is being revegetated by a combination of Sphagnum Mosses and sedges designed to promote rapid colonisation and minimise the time taken to the return the site to a CO2 sink. This work applies research findings on the C benefits of specific plant mixes

 

State of Play:

The Winmarleigh carbon farm is now complete, with the below works being carried out:

  • Bespoke pump and irrigation system installed – this is solar powered and controlled by a ballcock system that automatically pumps water across the site from the water retention area and sump pits if water levels dip below a certain point. Sensors also provide alerts about hydrology changes, adjustments can then be made remotely – allowing us to control the bog from home!
  • 150,000 Beadahumok™ plugs of sphagnum moss (from project partners, Beadamoss®) have been planted across the site, these are growing well and many have already doubled in size.
  • Phragmites australis (common reed) has been planted in the two end cells. This will help to filter any additional nutrients out of the water before it runs off into surrounding ditches. This could also provide a paludiculture nurse crop for future carbon farms, removing nutrients from previously farmed peatlands before sphagnum planting and providing a profitable crop, without having to remove topsoil.
  • A layer of straw has been spread across the site to provide a microclimate and provide shelter for the sphagnum whilst it is getting established.

Project knowledge partners, Manchester Metropolitan University, are monitoring greenhouse gas fluxes both on the carbon farm site and on surrounding drained farmland to compare carbon release/sequestration levels.

Little Woolden Moss - companion planting trial

The companion planting trial is now complete, with a 2ha area of Little Woolden Moss that was formerly bare peat being planted with a mixture of 75% common cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium) and 25% hare’s-tail cotton grass (Eriophorum vaginatum) interspersed with Beadahumok’s™ of sphagnum consisting of a mix of S. capillifolium (30%), S. palustre (30%), S. papillosum (30%), S. medium/divinum (5%) and S. subnitens (%5). The cotton grasses were planted 6 months before the Sphagnum plugs to allow them to establish and provide sufficient shelter for the Sphagnum. 

Monthly monitoring is being undertaken of methane and carbon dioxide fluxes, along with environmental variables such as water table depth (WTD), soil temperature and photosynthetically active radiation (PAR).  

The project will be looking at Sphagnum growth rate within the established cotton grasses, compared to a control plot of bare peat that has been left to revegetate naturally. We will also be recording any suggested influence on greenhouse gas fluxes.

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