KIN.DER Blog - In the Dark Peak by Jonathan Atkinson


A blog by Jonathan Atkinson. Taken from KIN.DER Zine, Issue One.


Though the 'Dark Peak' takes its name from the surrounding moors of millstone grit and black peat, the relationship between town and uplands can be remote and unlike the flooding in the Calder Valley or the Saddleworth fires, Glossop hasn't had to contend with the impacts of mismanaged moorland.

But with peat burning controversy, calls for access to land and a greater awareness of the role the moors play in climate change, the ownership and management of moorland is more controversial than ever. So perhaps now is the time to reassess and reimagine our relationship with the peat moors of Peaknaze, Chunal, Hurst and Bleaklow?

Though it may seem entirely natural, the Dark Peak moorland landscape is actually a product of many years of human and natural processes that continue to this day. Some ten thousand years ago, the hills around Glossop were populated by a post-tundra wildwood of shrubs, grasses and trees standing individually and in groves. Evidence suggests these hillsides were then cleared by a combination of cooling climatic change and Neolithic farmers moving into Britain from the continent from around 6,500 years ago. The stripped and treeless land lost its soil to erosion, became boggy and flooded and slowly peat soil accumulated and spread into the blanket moors we see today. The origins of this process can still be seen with preserved tree stumps from this ancestral wildwood to be found at the foot of peat accumulations.

The process by which peat soil accumulates has a certain amount of magic to it and it's all down to a single genera of plants, sphagnum moss, which grows in our cool, northern upland conditions. Of particular note is its relationship to water, as the moss grows in boggy, waterlogged conditions and only began to flourish here after the disappearance of the ancestral wildwood. Rather than simply sitting in water, it acts like a sponge, absorbing and locking away up to twenty times its dry weight of water - hence it's popularity as a rich peat compost. This property offers a crucial role in the moorland ecosystem, with peat acting as an important buffer, reducing rainfall runoff and the threat of flooding at lower levels. Changes to peat coverage have been blamed for the increasing numbers of flash flooding events in the Calder Valley.

The moss grows very slowly in these waterlogged conditions and as it grows its roots compact and rot down into peaty soil. It's an incredibly protracted process with the peat accumulating at the rate of just 1 mm a year and it has taken thousands of years for the soil to reach the depth we see today. Another amazing property of peat is its ability to draw down carbon dioxide from the air as it grows and lock it into the slowly accumulating peat soil. This makes it an especially important climate change sink - fixing carbon from the air into soil. Though peat covers just 3% of the earth's surface, it stores an incredible 550 gigatonnes of carbon worldwide, more than all our forests.

Just as humans first created the conditions for peat, we have now begun to degrade it. Over the past two hundred years, our rich peat moorland has been reduced, eroded and destroyed. From around 1800, the Industrial Revolution and the huge amounts of air pollution from the mills and factories of Manchester have resulted in the formation of acid rain and its deposition across the Pennines, with the sphagnum moss thinning and dying back as a result. The damage has only begun to relent in the wake of the 1956 Clean Air Act and subsequent legislation and the impact is still starkly evident in great expanses of degraded high blanket moor which more resemble the surface of the moon than natural peat.

Uncontrolled peatland wildfires have added to this damage and are more likely to take hold and spread as the moors degenerate and hold less water. Started intentionally or accidentally, they can burn for days or even weeks, over many miles of moorland and incinerate large areas of peat. An estimated 12,000 tonnes of carbon were released into the atmosphere as a result of the Marsden Moor fire that took place in April 2019.

Land management practices such as drainage and peat cutting have exacerbated these processes and further reduced peat moors. Moorland is primarily managed for grouse rearing by large landowners through periodic, rotational burning but this practice is increasingly widely criticised. The watchdog the Climate Change Committee called for an end to rotational burning of peat moors and the incineration of peat moors was more tightly regulated by the government from 2021 with a ban of fires on deep peat deposits - though with numerous loop holes and burning allowed completely on shallow deposits. Wildlife organisations are now lobbying for the ban to be strengthened and are asking for volunteer observers to report moorland fires.

These increasingly controversial moorland management practices can have disastrous consequences for surrounding areas - poorly maintained moorland has been highlighted as causing or exacerbating regular flooding in the Calder Valley and the Saddlworth fires. As a result it's more important than ever to scrutinise and question how our peat moors are managed and to consider different visions for how the moorland around Glossop might look in the future.

Much of this comes down to ownership, and though many would argue that the moorland around Glossop is a common good, it is at present owned and managed by private interests. The investigative project, 'Who Owns England' examines land ownership across the country. Their research indicates that Peaknaze moor is owned by United Utilities and leased to tenants and that Hurst and Chunal moors have been owned by 'The Hurst and Chunal Moors Syndicate' since just after the war. All this moorland is used for grouse hunting.

Shooting is a profitable business opportunity for owners, with a party of six, over three or four days, sometimes paying more than £35,000. In addition to this income, many owners are supported by significant government agricultural management payments, though the exact value of these and recipients is not publicly available information.

Management of moorland for grouse is an intensive process, with the heather habitat the birds require maintained by; regular cutting or burning to prevent other plant species taking over the ecosystem. In addition, birds of prey that hunt on grouse are illegally persecuted and killed to control numbers whilst the public are actively discouraged or excluded from areas.

With increased awareness of the threats to peat uplands, there are a number of initiatives and policy changes aimed at conserving and repairing the moorland. Landowners are being incentivised through a mixture of regulation, payments and conservation projects. Excellent schemes such as those run by Moors for the Future are repairing peatland, through specific management, flooding and re-seeding of sphagnum moors - and you can sometimes see their helicopters flying over Glossop to drop bales of sphagnum moss onto inaccessible moors.

But none of these schemes will change the fundamentals as long as moorlands remain in the ownership and control of wealthy private interests who manage the land for profit.

In the context of climate change and land access debates, many are arguing that moorland is too valuable to be left in private hands and should be held in public ownership.

The Greenhouse Britain project, run by artists Helen and Newton Meyer Harrison, sought to imagine upland England and in particular the Peak District over the coming decades. Climate projections predict a drier climate and rising sea levels, leading to the displacement of people away from coastal areas. Working with the University of Sheffield, the Harrisons argued for a gradual movement of settlement towards upland areas and a focus on the sustainable management and cultivation of moorland environments along permaculture, forest agricultural principles.

Others argue for a systemic repair of upland areas, the Climate Change Committee has recommended restoring at least 50% of upland peat and 25% of lowland peat - something requiring a huge and transformative project. Rewilding principles call for a return to the natural, climax vegetation of the moorland environment, increased nature corridors, the reintroduction of species now extinct from these areas and a new approach in which people work within nature rather than seeking to control it. What a rewilded moorland might look like is up for discussion. Wild Peak, an ambitious, DEFRA-funded project with the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust is examining how rewilding principles might be used to drive conservation. Towards Whaley Bridge, Sunart Fields farm aims to act as a pioneer for rewilding, developing a nature-based approach to farming and sustainable crafts.

These visions for rewilded or transformed habitats seek to reform and remake our relationship with the moors in a manner that protects both our natural and built environment. But for that to take place, fundamental land reform is required. For inspiration we can look towards Scotland where land ownership imbalances are in places even more stark than England with the existence of large private estates resembling mediaeval villages. For the past twenty years, under Scottish law, the public have the right to take ownership of assets and land and many successful examples exist under the Community Asset Transfer Scheme, ranging from community pubs to larger estates and even whole islands such as Eigg.

With public support and understanding of the natural resources that surround us, we have the opportunity to reimagine a moorland, repaired and rewilded, collectively owned and managed for the public and environmental good. What we know about the moorland landscape is that it has been created and shaped by humans and so it can be transformed again in a radically different way and for different purposes in the future.

Jonathan Atkinson is an environmentalist and co-operator who lives in Glossop. 

Follow Jonathan at @lowwintersun
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