Steng Moss

This February saw peatland conservation work on Steng Moss, opposite Winter’s Gibbet, just outside of Elsdon.  This bog is a really special place, with at least 7 different species of sphagnum as well as cotton grass, bog rosemary, cranberry and bog asphodel.  This is site perfect for large heath butterfly and we are hoping this summer to go and look for signs of larvae or butterfly.

Bogs often form at the watershed of two river catchments, where water moves very slowly and Steng Moss is no exception. Part of it flows into the River Rede and part towards Fontburn Reservoir and into the River Wansbeck.  Peat that dries out and blows away is actually giving off carbon, whereas healthy sphagnum can lock it up helping to tackle climate change.

In February 2015 we organised Sitka sapling removal at Steng Moss using a mixture of volunteers for the small saplings, and contractors with chain saws for the larger ones.  Trees affect a bog by slowly drying it out, whereas sphagnum likes to be wet most of the year, in order to keep forming peat and storing carbon.

Drainage Grips

In 1960s and 1970s, drainage grips were dug on Steng Moss. This was typical of a time when upland farmers were encouraged to do so, in the belief that it would maximise the productivity of sheep farming.

These days we recognise the value of preserving a bog habitat, and so restoring the hydrology is part of peatland conservation.  Farmers are encouraged to stock lower sheep numbers, also sometimes graze with hardy cattle in summer, and farm stewardship schemes help them with this.

Five year plan

Working with Revitalising Redesdale Landscape Partnership Scheme, this peat conservation site was programmed in to be one of the first to work on in their 5-year plan.  This is partly because the Environment Agency were contributing to the funding for the work, and so it needed to be completed before the end of March 2019.

Lower down, one of the streams that drain away from Steng Moss has a noted issue of ‘rural diffuse pollution’ under the Water Framework Directive (WFD).  So, the Environment Agency had set aside some funding to contribute to the peatland restoration project.

This practical work included constructing peat blocks every 8m – 10m in the grips, which help to slow the water flow, prevent erosion and raise the water table.  This is an incredibly skilled task for a contractor using a very low ground pressure digger.

digger on steng moss and cheviot on the horizon

The diggers are mounted on caterpillar tracks which are about 3ft – 4ft wide, so even though the digger is about 9 tonnes the overall ground pressure is spread.  The tussocks are flattened where the digger moves but nowhere does it break the vegetation.

Building Peat Blocks

A short video of work on site.

Reprofiling

An additional measure of reprofiling in between the peat blocks was done. This involves pushing in the sides of the drain so they form a gentle V-shape rather than a deep and dark U-shape.  Being a shallower V-shape will mean it is easier for the sheep or lamb not to fall into a grip and struggle to pull themselves out.

It also means the vegetation will grow more naturally.  Before the work, heather was trying to grow across the top of the drains which made the grips almost disappear visually, but the water was still flowing underneath.

Completion

Over 13km of grip was worked on with the peat blocks and reprofiling, over a fortnight.  In addition, a further 3.4km of shallower peat habitat (heathland rather than bog) was just reprofiled – the banks pushed in but no peat blocks constructed.

At the same time, some of the small Sitka saplings had returned.  To remove them the Northumberland Wildlife Trust and the National Park have worked jointly on 11 volunteer days in January – March, and a few more will be needed later in the year.  As well as some investigations into the peat depths on this bog!

Volunteers on Steng Moss