One month into my PhD at the University of Southampton in October 2004, as a rather green Bogologist with lots of ideas but little experience, I headed up to the Lake District with my two supervisors, Keith Barber and Paul Hughes, for my first real taste of peat coring and fieldwork. I had dabbled before, but this trip was my first overnighter and I found myself in exalted company. Keith could put you at ease with some fine yarns over a glass or five of red wine, but in reality were it not for his own PhD research some 35 odd years before, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I do today.
Central to research into past climate and environmental change using peat cores is the idea that the plants and animals (e.g. testate amoeba) living at the bog surface are at the influence of climate. So if the climate gets cooler or wetter, the plants and amoeba will change in response. If the climate then gets warmer or drier, they will change again. And so on ad infinitum. Over time, peat accumulates because dead plant remains do not decay fully and are gradually overgrown by new plant communities. A record of all the changes in plant and amoeba communities, related to climate is therefore preserved. This is essentially known as the Phasic Theory of bog growth and it’s one that Keith developed and that over time has led the field to where it is today.
The thinking didn’t always go that way. Further back in time, the prevailing wisdom was that of the Cyclic Regeneration Theory which held that peat grew in cycles related only to the succession of different types of landform on the bog surface – a constant cycle between pools, lawns (flat areas of moss growth) and hummocks. There remains a more refined debate in the scientific literature today about the role of internal (i.e. relating to the functioning of the bog itself) vs. external (i.e. climate) factors in influencing peat stratigraphy, but this is more a discussion of finer details than of primary influences.
Keith’s work took him to Bolton Fell Moss in Cumbria where he was able to examine cut faces of peat several metres deep and hundreds long as a result of peat cutting on the site. In these cut faces he found no evidence of the cycles of growth that many researchers of the time supported and so the Phasic Theory was developed. It remains with us today.
Back on that first field trip, almost ten years ago now (which is a slightly worrying thought!) we visited Bolton Fell Moss and I took one of my first cores from a peat face there. But what was most striking about the site was the enormous scale of destruction to the bog. Only a relatively small central area was preserved and looked like a natural bog as I knew them. The rest, a quite vast expanse, was a sea of brown, being mined and cut, extracting the peat for fertiliser. You can get an idea of the scale by the fact that railway lines crossed the bog! It was quite shocking to see and certainly not something I could condone – there are other ways of making your tomatoes grow quicker and these fragile landscapes take thousands of years to develop – to destroy them in one fell swoop seemed like folly to say the least, without even considering the carbon stored in the accumulated peat – but that’s a story for another blog.
And so this blog comes full circle. My reason for writing it is the happy fact that I recently came across the news that Bolton Fell Moss is to be restored by Natural England, with the aim of establishing a peat forming surface within 30 years. The peat works will be closed down and various measures taken to return the bog to a more natural state. I emailed Keith to mention this – of course, he replied telling me he had written several supporting documents for Natural England. I should have known!