Bringing back spring to Kinder Scout
How £47.5 million pounds and teams of mud workers are holding our local carbon sink together
By David Bocking
You’re probably familiar with the Greek myth of Persephone. Born to the goddess of the harvest Demeter, she is kidnapped one day by Hades while she’s playing in a meadow, and taken to the underworld to become his bride. Torn apart by losing her daughter, Demeter lets the plants, crops and flowers wither and die, which forces Hades’ hand. He reluctantly returns the girl to her mother, but it’s too late — Persephone has eaten pomegranate seeds while in the Underworld. Because she has tasted the food of the world to come, there are consequences: Persephone would have to spend part of the year, every year, in the Underworld. When she goes down to Hades, nature becomes barren. And when she is at the surface, the world blossoms again.
This is a lovely and lyrical explanation for the changing seasons, winter melting into spring. However, it’s just as fitting for the cycle of barrenness and rebirth that nature sometimes goes through.
I had to think of Persephone recently, on a tour of the bogs of Kinder. Kinder Scout is our mountain, but only just (at 633 metres tall, it just scrapes the 600-metre minimum that constitutes the dictionary definition of a mountain). If you set aside a few hours to get yourself up to the tourist photo spot at Kinder Low, after trekking up Jacob’s Ladder from Edale train station, you can carefully pick out the little grassy tuft a few hundreds yards away which is the summit of the Peak District, and the actual Peak where the national park’s name originates.
So many Sheffielders look out from their city office or bedroom window to the summit of our western moors without ever going there. This is a grave error: you’re missing out on the most breathtaking sight in the area. And after clambering up to the Kinder Scout plateau quite a few times in recent years, I’ve realised it’s the best place near Sheffield and Manchester to look out and actually see where the climate and nature emergencies came from. And more importantly, what to do about them.
A few years ago, a ranger was walking me around the bogs of Kinder and pointed out the spare and no longer satanic mill chimneys of Manchester.
“There,” he said. “That’s where it started.” The birthplace of the industrial revolution, he said, was also where the climate emergency began. Before you get to Kinder Low and further on the view of Manchester, you cross an area of black crumbly peat. It’s a control or test area of untouched bare peat among waving grass and bilberry bushes now, but not so long ago this is what much of the plateau looked like.
Talk to an older rambler and they’ll often say walking on Kinder was like walking on the moon. The factory smoke from Manchester’s nineteenth century mills drifted east and settled on the moors, where the acid and heavy metals and soot killed the plants living there, and drove out the creatures that depended on them. Heavy sheep grazing before then had also helped dry out the moorland and denude the greenery.
Shooting moor owners filled the land with heather and grouse, and burned it every now and then to encourage more heather, and more grouse to shoot. Wildfires took hold, on the highly flammable heather, and because of the views, and the hearty challenge of actually getting up there, thousands of ramblers escaping the factories on Saturday afternoon tramped over the moonscape too.
And then we learned about climate change, and realised the peat formed from thousands of years of dead moorland plants and moss was full of CO2, but now, thanks to all of the above, the peat on the western moors of Sheffield was exposed to the elements and drifting off into the air and seeping into the rivers below. If we mapped this story onto the Persephone myth, this was our Underworld era.
The comparison isn’t entirely a fanciful one, because the scale of that danger is alarming. I asked the scientists from the Moors for the Future project, and they told me that peat is the single biggest carbon store in the UK, holding 20 years worth of CO2 emissions from the whole of the country under the earth. (Bear that in mind next time you read a supermarket greenwashing story about how charging for plastic bags saves X tons of CO2.)
If you climb up Kinder now, it’s green, not black. There are skylarks on the approaches, and owls on the moorland tops. In most places the black moonscape has gone, replaced by bushes and moss and young grassland, which attracts insects and birds and bats. And in the cloughs, the steep valleys running off the top moorland, native trees are returning. This is all thanks to several years of planting, rewetting and wildlife recovery work.
A few winters ago I went out with a team of National Trust rangers helping to make all this happen, thanks to a EU funded project called Moorlife 2020.
It was cold and wet, and then the sleet drove in, and they spent their day hammering small dams into the ground on Howden Moor. More than 50,000 of these dams, and low earth mounds called bunds, have now gone in on the South Pennine Moors. Their function? Holding the water that would have otherwise cascaded off the dry and eroded peat on the tops and recreating the blanket bogs that formed up there after the last Ice Age, before the fiery mills of Manchester began to dry them out.
In between their hammering the rangers told me how they see dragonflies on the moorland tops now, which would have been unheard of only a few years ago.
“It’s good to see everything improving,” Steven Hodson told me during his tea break, sheltering from the snow in a tiny shed he and his colleagues used in the coldest months. “Every day you see what you’ve achieved and think that’s benefiting future generations.”
The Moors for the Future project have been quietly going about their work over the last 20 years, high above the rest of us. The project works with charities like the National Trust and the RSPB, along with the Peak District National Park Authority, local water companies and other landowners.
Their original aim was to try and patch up the moonscape by planting sphagnum moss, and encouraging natural moorland bushes like bilberry and cloudberry to return among the peat and heather, which in turn would bring back the birds, animals and insects that used to live there before the industrial revolution. But as the work progressed, a second priority swung into view: preventing carbon escape and building up carbon storage capacity would be just as important.
I walked up the Ashop Valley above Ladybower one sunny day with ecologist Chris Wood. It was green, and there were curlews and frogs and insects rather than blackened peat.
“I think of this landscape as being like a blancmange that’s been in an oven,” he said. “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.”
Over the winters of the past decade or so, teams of volunteers have been out on the moors we see from our windows, spending a whole day planting little plugs of sphagnum moss into the black peat.
It takes time, as everything grows slowly on the windswept moors, but those four million hand-planted sphagnum plugs are now growing and meeting each other, repairing the cracked blancmange with a water storing blanket that spreads and then decays into the ground, forming new peat and storing more carbon.
And that blanket of moss and greenery also slows down the rain falling off the moors, and cleans it, which is why the water companies are involved: they have to spend a lot of money cleaning pollutants and peat out of moorland water before we can drink it, so spending instead on returning the vegetation that naturally cleans the rain falling onto the peat soil actually saves their cash in the long run.
The moorland scientists have shown that revegetated moorland slows heavy rainfall by on average 20 minutes, which should be enough to prevent flash flooding in the valleys below.
Moors for the Future (MFF) have spent just over 47 million pounds in the South Pennines so far. Since the EU had funded most of this work to repair our moors up to 2022, there was some alarm about what would happen after we cast Europe aside, and whether the work could continue on the moors of Bleaklow and beyond.
But Robbie Carnegie from MFF tells me he’s confident that UK politicians have now got the message that this is perhaps money well spent. (In light of the £100m plus profits routinely creamed off by chums during Covid PPE contracting, perhaps).
“As it stands, we’re still being funded to do the work we want to do,” he says. “But it’s impossible to know if it will continue.”
And moorland fires, in our new climate of extremes, are a risk: dry peat is a fuel, and heather has evolved to thrive from occasional fires. A dropped cigarette or abandoned barbecue can ignite a fire that can then spread underground and destroy acres of moorland and the animals, snakes, and birds that live there.
Grouse moor owners can still set ‘controlled’ fires in the winter season to encourage heather growth, and many argue this in itself can lead to drier moors and increase risk, as well as pollution to nearby towns. But the moor owners say controlled burning can provide fire breaks as well as new young heather for grouse to eat.
Robbie Carnegie won’t comment on this: his organisation has to work with all landowners, and behind the scenes there are signs that some shooting tenants, at least, are recognising that centuries-old practices need to change.
Down in the towns and cities, many of us get confused about the climate and nature emergencies, whether one is more important than the other, and what, if anything, can be done. After visiting the greening moors over the last few years it seems almost breathtakingly simple. If you give the natural world a fighting chance, it’ll do its best to do your nature recovery and carbon saving work for you.
With under 50 million pounds, along with a gang of countryfolk and volunteers happy to spend their days hammering dams and planting moss, a small bunch of scientists prepared to learn and adapt as they go have worked on the colossal problem of peat erosion and are in the process of solving it using the plants and insects and wildlife of the peatlands as co-workers.
The sphagnum and bilberries and returning moorland plants hold the peat in the ground, the bees and insects arrive to keep the bushes thriving, the bats and birds arrive to keep the bees and insects in check, and the public arrive to watch and spend their money and offer an alternative economy to heavy sheep farming and grouse shooting.
“The nature emergency and climate emergency are inextricably linked,” says Robbie Carnegie. “Climate change is driving nature’s decline, and the loss of wildlife and wild places leaves us ill-equipped to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to change. One cannot be solved without the other.”
There they are, high above our city, the carbon sink on our doorstep, and our own mountain, coming back to life. If you can, you should get yourself up there. Persephone needs a little help, and you’re exactly the right person to lend a hand.
Can you help? If you’re interested in volunteering to help maintain the moors around Sheffield and the Peak District, please contact the organisations below:
Additional reporting (and classical history references) by Sophie Atkinson.