For Peat's Sake

Article excerpt

Sue Wheat reports on how a lowland raised peatbog is the subject of fierce campaigning by conservationists who are concerned that the peat extraction process is destroying the `rainforests' of the UK

SO WHAT'S HAPPENING ON HATFIELD MOOR?" I asked amateur naturalist, Helen Kirk on the telephone, before my visit to the lowland raised mire, lying close to the town of Doncaster in the north of England. "Rape and pillage," came Helen's reply. "It sounds dramatic but that's what it is." Hatfield Moor had been the playground of Kirk's youth and her research-field and personal haven in later life. Over the last decade, she has watched as the moor has been largely destroyed by industrial peat extraction. Located within the Humberhead Levels, Hatfield Moor comprises around 1,200 hectares, which, with its neighbour Thorne Moor, make up a total of 3,000 hectares of peatland. They consist of the remnants of an extensive complex of lowland raised mires which started to develop around 4,500 years ago. Also referred to as `quaking bogs' because the waterlogged peat shudders underfoot, they have formed since the last glaciation through dead plant and animal remains building up in shallow lakes, or when land has become sodden with decomposing sphagnum mosses retaining vast quantities of water. Covered by a thin layer of moss and grasses they are beautiful as well as environmentally precious. Thorne and Hatfield are now the two largest surviving lowland raised peatbogs in England.

Britain's peatlands are gradually becoming a new cause celebre. Prince Charles has described them as "our nation's tropical rainforests", so great is their ecological importance, acting as `global coolers' by removing carbon from the atmosphere, and harbouring a unique biodiversity of plant and animal life. But since 1945,96 per cent of the UK's lowland raised bogs have been lost to peat extraction, forestry and agriculture. The Peatland Campaign Consortium (PCC) -- a coalition of over 14 British environmental groups including Friends of the Earth (FOE), the Wildlife Trusts and Geologists Association -- opposes extraction by the peat companies.

Our bog hog and other animals

Both Thorne and Hatfield moors became Special Sites of Scientific Interest (SSSI) in the 1960s and certain parts are proposed as EU `Special Areas of Conservation' under the EU `Habitats Directive' (1992) and qualify as `Ramsar Sites under the Convention on the Conservation of Wetlands of International Importance'. As Hatfield's rare species are under-recorded, it is often seen as a poor relation to Thorne, which has 3,000 species of invertebrates, about 150 of which are nationally scarce or endangered. However, surveys show both are exceptional. For example, approximately 40 churring male nightjars, totalling one per cent of the country's endangered population, were recorded on Hatfield Moor last breeding season making it eligible for an EU `Specific Protected Area' designation. Hatfield also harbours invertebrates found nowhere else in the UK.

Kirk shows me some beautifully-drawn paintings by world renowned entomologist Dr Peter Skidmore. "We call this one `the Thorne Moors beetle' although it's also on Hatfield," she explains. "This is `the hairy canary fly', and this `the bog hog' -- which is tricky to monitor as it's only two millimetres long." Skidmore believes that Hatfield's insect population is significantly different to that of its neighbour Thorne and with one of the richest insect faunas in north England, deserves protection in its own right.

Scientific surveying is done by Kirk and other members of the Thorne and Hatfield Moors Conservation Forum (known as `the Forum') -- a coalition of conservation and scientific institutions such as Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Council of British Archaeology and Doncaster Naturalist Society. "We are naturalists that have been dragged into the campaigning arena," says Kirk. …