Protected moorland in the Peak District National Park is thriving once more thanks to specialist partnership conservation works worth £1.2million.

Three years of work by the Moors for the Future Partnership, funded by Natural England through the EU Agri-Environment Programme, finished on Friday 31st March, to revive and safeguard Saddleworth moor (on the Pennine Way) in Greenfield, and Deer Hill Moss in Meltham.

Both vast upland sites are protected as part of the South Pennine Moors Special Area of Conservation (SAC) as they are home to unique wildlife, including curlew and twite, and active blanket bog that is rarer than rainforest.

The Moors for the Future Partnership has worked closely with key partners including Natural England, the owner of Saddleworth moor and land managers at Deer Hill Moss, to undertake the vital conservation work.

The team has strived to reverse severe damage caused by issues including wildfire and acid rain, as a result of historic pollution. These factors have, over the decades, killed off unique Sphagnum mosses, leaving vulnerable peat exposed across the moorland.

The extensive works will ensure a number of vital benefits including the potential to reduce flooding in local at-risk neighbourhoods such as Uppermill, Marsden, Meltham and Greenfield; improving drinking water quality; enriching biodiversity including plants and wildlife, and storing carbon to help tackle climate change.

The team’s work has spanned 670 hectares across both sites – an area of more than 900 football pitches. It started by spreading cut heather onto exposed bare peat. Lime, seed and fertiliser was then applied to stabilise the soil that had been catastrophically damaged by acid rain from past industrial pollution and wildfires.

Around 200,000 tiny Sphagnum moss plants were planted, which play a huge role in helping to reduce flooding and wildfire as they hold between ten and 20 times their weight in water. Since work began on the vast areas of bare peat eight years ago, the team has been delighted to see Sphagnum colonising and spreading quickly. Conservationists are now hoping to use the abundant species to help safeguard threatened bare peat in different areas of vulnerable moorland.

More than 35 miles of eroded gullies - formed by the action of wind and rain that has washed away areas of bare peat to form deep channels - have also been blocked using materials including stone, timber and plastic, to help keep water on the hills.

Efforts to restore the landscape on both sites started in 2009 with support through Environmental Stewardship, funded by Natural England, and aimed at halting the further decline of the severely damaged landscape.

Following this, the Moors for the Future team worked closely with Natural England, landowners and managers, to progress plans for vital follow-up works. These were successfully developed into capital works through Higher Level Stewardship from 2013 until now. The two sites are already reaping the benefits of the works and there is more to come for Saddleworth, with plans in discussion as part of the Moors for the Future Partnership’s multi-million euro MoorLIFE 2020 project.

Matt Scott-Campbell, Moors for the Future Partnership project manager, said: “Working closely with partners has been key to the on-going success of these projects. Together we have effectively delivered vital work which has secured the future health of the habitats on these iconic moorlands. The Moors for the Future Partnership has been privileged to be a part of this success, and we are now working to secure further investment through our MoorLIFE 2020 project.”

Susannah Green, Natural England Lead Adviser in the Peak District Team, added: “These moorland restoration projects will provide significant benefits for recovering peat bog habitat in the Dark Peak Site of Special Scientific Interest. The agreement holders and land managers organise the day-to-day management of these moors and contribute significant and on-going efforts towards restoration of this unique upland habitat.”

Chris Crowther, owner of Saddleworth moor, said: “I have been born and bred on Saddleworth moor and for all that time there has been bare and eroding peat. The moorland has been brought back to its former glory by the Moors for the Future team and I have seen this encourage birds and wildlife back into these natural habitats which they need to survive. Since I was a lad there has been bare peat but now it has been put right, and between us we’ve made it happen. As sheep farmers we look forward to grazing for the future but we are also pleased that the public can enjoy all the benefits of the beautiful landscape.”

A spokesperson from Meltham Shoot Club stated: “In the summer of 1976, Deer Hill Moss and Meltham Moor were decimated by wildfire. Following that the Meltham Shoot Club made efforts to heal the damage including bringing in seed and heather brash. The habitat recovered to a degree over time but it wasn’t until the Natural England funded works, delivered by Moor for the Future Partnership, that significant progress was made, and the bare and eroding peat on the moor was fully revegetated. The Club and Moors for the Future Partnership have worked well together between 2012 and 2017 and we have been delighted at what has been achieved. The Meltham Shoot Club would like to thank Natural England and Moors for the Future, as well as the tenant farmer and the Lydgate Rifle and Pistol Club.”