Creating sustainable upland peatlands: turning around a crisis

Academics: Professor J. Holden, Professor M. Kirkby (retired), Dr P. Chapman  and Dr B. Irvine, Faculty of Environment

The University of Leeds was part of the Sustainable Uplands Project and showed how policy decisions are likely to affect uplands in the future, leading to the UK Government taking positive action to protect and restore uplands. 

UK upland peatlands are extremely important to society: supplying 70 per cent of drinking water and helping combat climate change (peat soils hold huge amounts of carbon). Around 80 per cent of peatlands are degraded due to factors like drainage or erosion. Conserving and restoring uplands is vital for the UK to deliver on its climate change, biodiversity and water quality obligations. 

Learning to manage future change

The Sustainable Uplands Project is a collaborative and interdisciplinary research project, combining local knowledge with cutting edge natural and social science to anticipate, monitor and sustainably manage rural change. Leeds researchers led on significant parts of the project, contributing to the development of land use and management scenarios to identify positive and negative consequences for ecosystem services provided to society by uplands (such as preventing floods and providing clean water).

Environmental and social change in the uplands has implications for all of us. This project has helped our understanding of these changes, and enabled people who live in and make use of the uplands to make more informed choices.

Sir Howard Newby, Chair of the Rural Economy and Land Use Strategic Advisory Committee

Valuing peatlands

One of the key research recommendations was the development of finance opportunities to enable payments to be offered to farmers or landowners in exchange for managing their land to provide peatland ecosystem services (PES). This influenced the government’s commitment to PES in the 2011 Natural Environment White Paper.

The research also advocated a UK peatland carbon code to facilitate corporate investment for upland protection. Project researchers worked closely with Government departments to break down barriers to implementing the code and in 2013 the Government supported the launch of a pilot code, enabling companies to develop corporate social responsibility through investment in upland restoration and protection.

Water companies have used the findings as a rationale for employing land management and PES to reduce water treatment costs. South West Water collaborated with Leeds and others to develop PES approaches, resulting in environmental benefits as well as increased water storage capacity and better regulated water flow for consumers.

The research provided evidence for International Union for the Conservation of Nature lobbying and in 2013 the Government set out an action framework to protect and enhance peatlands in the UK and British Overseas Territories.

Funder: Economic and Social Research Council