Eminent British ecologist Professor Sir John Lawton visits MoorLIFE conservation site, Black Hill.

It was, perhaps, an unlikely venue for a VIP visit.   White cloud was swirling around the damp moorland vegetation of Holme Moss, an area of Black Hill, one of the landmark summits in the Pennine hills which act as a backbone for northern England.  Visibility was down to a few metres.  A persistent drizzly rain was falling, and everyone was in their waterproofs.

Image of Dr Jonathon Walker, Research Manager for MFFP and Sir John Lawton

But the visiting guest, the eminent British ecologist Professor Sir John Lawton, was in his element.  Professor Lawton, currently advising the UK government on their approach to the natural environment, was visiting one of Britain’s most innovative conservation programmes, the MoorLIFE moorland restoration project.

The landscape close to Holme Moss is an extraordinary one, described by Professor Lawton as almost a moonscape.  Hectare after hectare of moorland is stripped of almost all vegetation, showing nothing more than bare black peat.  It is an unnatural scene, the result of two centuries of air-borne pollution carried over from the industrial areas to the west of the Pennines, combined with the effects of wild fires.  Where you’d expect to find healthily wet bogs complete with a wide variety of creeping shrubs, plants and mosses you stumble instead across a desert.

According to Chris Dean of Moors for the Future, the partnership organisation which is leading the MoorLIFE project, it is a situation which has to be changed.  Black Hill itself is within England’s first national park, the Peak District, and this area of the Pennine moorlands is recognised internationally as important.  As Chris points out, it is designated under the European Habitats Directive as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) as well as – in recognition of its potential value for bird life - a Special Protection Area (SPA).  Not to be outdone, the UK government has declared it a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

It’s not only the ecology which suffers when peat bogs dry out and crumble away.  The drinking water for many of the big cities of northern England comes off Holme Moss and the neighbouring Pennine hills, and treacle-coloured water carrying small particles of peat is not what people want to find when they turn on their taps.

But there’s an even more important reason for bringing new life back to these hills.  Peat bogs are a superb store of carbon which would otherwise escape, adding to the quantity of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  For about seven or eight thousand years, the rainy climate and the dampness of the ground has meant that dead vegetation hasn’t been able to decompose in the usual way but has gradually turned into peat, with the carbon normally released into the air safely locked instead inside the soil. There is, one research study claimed, more carbon trapped in British bogs than in the forests of Britain and France combined.

Dried-out bogs stop this process of peat accumulation and carbon storage continuing, and – worse – begin to allow the trapped carbon to escape.  But Chris Dean and his colleagues in the MoorLIFE project have come up with various ways of rewetting the bogs and giving them back a proper clothing of vegetation.  Specially harvested heather ‘brash’ is spread on the peat, providing a protective blanket for grass seed to take root.  Lime is put down, to try to neutralise the excessively acidic nature of the soil; caused by past atmospheric pollution.  Helicopters are used to drop grass seed.  The spongy Sphagnum moss – the sign of a healthy wet bog – is reintroduced.  Little by little, the bare surface of the moors around Black Hill are turning green once again.

It is, as Professor Lawton was quick to notice on his visit, a remarkable success story.  Looking around cheerfully as the MoorLIFE team described their work – and as the Pennine rain fell all around - he called the efforts being taken as absolutely extraordinary, a win-win situation four times over:  “You win in terms of water quality, you win on carbon, you win on landscape, and you win on wildlife conservation,” he said.

The MoorLIFE project is probably the biggest moorland conservation programme in Europe, covering an enormous swathe of the southern Pennine moors.  It has been made possible by a £5.5m grant from the European Union’s LIFE+ programme and is running for five years, having started in 2010.  By the time the project is over in 2015, over a thousand hectares of degraded peat bog will have been restored to rude health.

MoorLIFE’s success is very much the result of partnership working led by the Peak District National Park Authority.  Waiting in the rain clouds at Holme Moss to meet Professor Lawton were local representatives from the Environment Agency, National Trust, Natural England and RSPB, as well as staff from the two regional water companies.  Water companies are keen to act as responsible landowners and there is also good commercial sense in improving moorlands to improve water quality, as Ed Lawrance of United Utilities and Mike Pearson of Yorkshire Water explained.

For Professor Lawton, MoorLIFE’s partnership approach was part of its success:  “It takes real skill to bring a group of very different organisations together, and hold them together, and get them all pointing in the same direction, and I think that’s been achieved,” he said.

The importance of initiatives like MoorLIFE is recognised by other senior public figures.  "Improving the quality of our peat moorlands means helping to reduce the risk of flooding, improve water quality and combat climate change," says Lord Smith, Chairman of the Environment Agency.  Poul Christensen, Chair of Natural England, agrees, and also mentions the value to biodiversity:  “We have to ensure that peatlands are properly looked after as one of our most precious environmental resources,” he adds.

For Chris Dean, however, it’s important that the message gets through not only at government level but to the general public.  He is already looking ahead to the time beyond 2015, and the ongoing need to continue to maintain the quality of the moors.  “The most important things when all our work is done is to ensure that the south Pennines moors remain on an upward trajectory,” he says. He adds that the public can help enormously:  “A huge proportion of the basic but really important information we need, for example, for understanding climate change is not derived from high science but from members of the public. There is a role for people who are going for a walk to log on to a website and note things, which is 20 or 30 years time could be very valuable information,” he explains.

As Professor Lawton put it, it’s a question of education.  “Before I came here, I didn’t realise myself how deep the peat is,” he said.  He called for members of the public to be encouraged to appreciate the value of their local peat moorlands. “We have to let people see that this is important,” he added.