Greening The Moors

David Bocking
4 min readJul 5, 2018

It’s a glorious day on the High Peak, with a sweeping vista of the Ashop valley for the only people in the landscape, all three of whom were ignoring the view and peering at the ground instead.

Chris Wood and Jake Vink ignoring the view to look at tormentil in the Ashop valley

“Ah, at last,” said Chris Wood, picking up several small brown pieces of evidence in his fingers. “The holy trinity of poo: grouse, hare and sheep.”

Chris and his colleagues from the National Trust were scouring the heathland on the north edge of the Kinder Plateau in Derbyshire with clipboards and GPS units.

“We’ve been doing interventions to restore these habitats, and we’re doing these vegetation surveys to track the progress of the changes we’re seeing,” he said.

A hare dropping

The ‘poo trinity’ was a sign that the plants growing on the edge of Kinder were supporting a good variety of grazing animals and wildlife: in addition to hare, sheep and grouse, Chris found signs of voles, and a small frog crossed his path while nearby curlews and ravens flew over the rocks.

Over a three year cycle, the surveyors are checking 99 sites of special scientific interest scattered around the miles of Peak District moor and heath looked after by the National Trust: the most regular monitoring yet done on a UK landscape recovering from centuries of industrial pollution, acid rain and years of heavy grazing.

“The evidence we collect can help to educate people about how this landscape impacts on the people in the cities down the road,” said Chris Wood.

“We know that rewetting the moors by building dams in the eroded gullies and diversifying the vegetation is improving the water quality, holding more rainwater on the moors and reducing the peak river flows to lessen the risk of flooding. The moorland plants also help provide clean air for the nearby cities and capture carbon rather than allowing it to escape into the air through erosion. But people don’t realise that the moors can provide all these benefits.”

Recovering moorland and heath below the Kinder plateau in the Peak District

The interventions made over recent years are building a resilient moorland landscape “from the ground up,” Chris explained. Blocking gullies with dams raises the water table, and reseeding with a ‘nurse crop’ of quick growing grasses allow dwarf shrubs like bilberry, crowberry, cloudberry and some heather to get established. The final link is when thirsty sphagnum mosses can gain a foothold and spread.

“I think of this landscape as being like a blancmange that’s been in an oven,” said Chris. “It’s cracked and dry. But if you get sphagnum moss to grow over it like a wet flannel it will hold moisture underneath like a blancmange again.”

At present the healthland surveys below Kinder are likely to show that the landscape is ‘unfavourable but recovering’ — meaning that as long as the site’s recovery work is sustained, the landscape will reach ‘favourable condition’ in time, with a diversity of plants, animals and ‘ecosystem services’ (like carbon capture and flood prevention) much closer to the High Peak landscape of centuries ago.

You can even see a change over the last twenty years, said Chris. “It had been overgrazed, so there were shorter shrubs and much more mat grass, which sheep find unpalatable.” Nowadays, tenants have drastically reduced the number of sheep on the moors, and are encouraged to move the flocks around to allow vegetation like bilberry to recover.

Frog on the heath near the river Ashop

“These moorlands really are the lungs for the nearby cities,” Chris said.

“But they’ve experienced the same as a smoker’s lungs after years of pollution. What we’re seeing is that the damage from those years of pollution can be reversed.”

> Help the National Trust charity’s conservation work in the Peak District via their #peakdistrictappeal