Anyone who has old memories of tramping through thick black bog on Black Hill, a summit on the Pennine Way in the Peak District, will appreciate the work that has been put in to regenerate these moorlands. The work here, and on many other areas, is critical to keep these places healthy and to protect them from erosion and collapse. This article looks at the importance of protecting the future of our moorlands, and, in particular, the work of Moors For The Future.
A boggy effort
The summit of Black Hill was for many years trodden to death, until not even a blade of grass remained. The bog was so over-trodden that it was often impossible to reach the trig point. In fact erosion from walkers was so bad that at one point the Pennine Way was facing closure from the National Park Authority.
"It was a choice of either making a major intervention and spending a significant amount of money to make the route sustainable – or close it." Mike Rhodes, manager of a regeneration research project
If you read Wainwright’s description of Black Hill in the 1960s, or look at photos of walkers floundering on Kinder Scout in the 1970s and 80s, you will realise the amount of work that has been done. There are still visible scars on Featherbed Moss where successive Pennine Way walkers have tried to dodge the worst of the bog - the average ‘trample width’ here was measured at over 170ft. Even the first mile out of Edale was once eroded into so many parallel paths, thanks to the tread of walking boots, that it was described to Andrew McCloy as the Pennine Way motorway – three lanes north, three lanes south.
Writing in 1968 in his Pennine Way Companion, Alfred Wainwright described the summit as a ‘desolate and hopeless quagmire’ where the peat was ‘naked and unashamed’. To physically reach it entailed a dirty and potentially dangerous adventure, as Wainwright himself found out when he became completely stuck in the peat bog. He was rescued by the efforts of his walking friend and a passing national park warden who managed to pull him free.
Half a century later, the summit of Black Hill is almost unrecognisable and has become a success story. The ‘Moors For The Future’ project has successfully re-vegetated the moorlands with grass, bog cotton, heather and bilberry. The Pennine Way originally left the summit in two directions, but has now been confined to a single firm, dry, erosion-proof line across the moors.
Moors for the Future
Moors For The Future was launched in 2003; an ambitious partnership of public and private bodies that before long ran one of the biggest moorlands conservation projects in Europe. Such was its success that in 2015 the partnership received the largest ever award made by the European Union to a UK-based nature conservation project – the small matter of €16 million (over £12 million) for its MoorLIFE 2020 project.
It began by installing new hilltop fencing to control sheep numbers and prevent overgrazing, then launching fire awareness campaigns, since over 400 fires have been recorded on the national park’s moors since 1982, many with devastating consequences for the moorland vegetation. Around 10,000 tiny dams were constructed to prevent damaging surface run-off (a technique known as gully blocking), and systematic fertilisation and reseeding began. In addition, over 750,000 plugs of native moorland plants were planted (by hand!) and sphagnum moss was reintroduced to begin the long process of restoring the blanket bog and stabilising the peat.
Funding also came from the water utility companies, for whom discoloured water washed off the eroded peat costs millions of pounds to treat each year. There were separate initiatives to replant clough woodlands on the edges of the moors and a community science project to help people better understand moorland ecology, since research into moorland conservation techniques was integral to the Moors for the Future programme.
The transformation has been startling
The transformation has been startling, and walking the Pennine Way through the Peak District is now a much more pleasant experience. Black Hill seems like a place reborn. It’s still a big, stern lump, but these days it’s more green than black. ‘I have a special affinity for Black Hill,’ admits Martyn Sharp, Peak District ranger. ‘It’s not as busy as Kinder Scout but to me it’s every bit as special. There are mountain hares and short-eared owls up here now, it’s a place that’s alive once again.’ And he says the views can be just as commanding as elsewhere on the trail. ‘If you stand on the northern side of Black Hill, a little beyond the trig point, you can see Pendle Hill and even Pen-y-ghent on a clear day. It’s an exhilarating place.’
And as for that famous trig point, once the only piece of dry and recognisable land amid the summit bog, it also seems to have an admirer. ‘Every year a local man walks up the hill along the Pennine Way to repaint the trig point,’ says Martyn. ‘I try and get up to see him and I’ve even offered to supply the paint, but he politely refuses.’
What's the deal with peat?
Peat, formed from plant material some 10,000 years ago, sits behind the gritstone edges and on the slopes down into the valley at a depth of up to four metres. On the high moorlands the peat has been eroded, producing deep incisions called groughs where it has been eroded down to the underlying bedrock. This came about partially through natural processes but also through deliberate human activity. In the 19th and 20th century drains were cut into the peat in an attempt to make the moors drier for agricultural purposes. The effect of such drainage was to reduce the moors’ ability to hold water and also to take sediment from the moor down into the valleys. New peat could not be generated from rotting material, further reducing the moors’ water-retention abilities and affecting the delicate natural balance of plant and wildlife where drainage had occurred. Along with the peat, the Dark Peak is one of the world’s most important sites for blanket bog. Blanket bog enables the growth of plants such as sphagnum moss, a key plant for the production of new peat. The Moors For The Future Project seeks to reverse the damage caused by moorland peat erosion and promotes the development of new peat by the seeding of grasses, sphagnum moss and other plantlife that will increase the moors’ capacity to produce new peat material. The peat is also a major component of flood defences for the surrounding cities, the moor holding water for longer periods to allow floodwater to disperse without damaging settlements downstream.
The future of the moorlands
The Dark Peak is a unique landscape within Britain and as such is designated as a National Character Area with a Special Protection Area and a Special Area of Conservation, and almost 50 per cent of the National Character Area has been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
Today, many agencies are involved in the conservation of the area, ensuring that it remains special for generations to come. The National Trust, the RSPB, the Peak District National Park, the Wildlife Trust and Moors For The Future are changing the landscape, providing new woodlands of indigenous species and increasing the diversity of plants and wildlife.
The Dark Peak, and the rest of the Peak District, is a major source of enjoyment and recreation for people who use the area. From walkers to climbers, mountain bikers, photographers, runners, bird watchers and people who just sit and enjoy this landscape, it has plenty to offer everyone. Let's do our bit to keep it that way.
"amid so much wider ecological destruction that we have been wreaking on the planet for the last couple of centuries, we still have it in our gift to step back and, through purpose, ingenuity and hard work, rectify the damage." Andrew McCloy
Read more about the Pennine Way and the Peak District
This blog post has been created using extracts from the following books:
The Pennine Way: the Path, the People, the Journey by Andrew McCloy
The Pennine Way guidebook by Paddy Dillon
Dark Peak Walks by Paul Besley
Moors for the Future
Read more or support Moors For The Future