Conserving Peatlands.

Edited by L. Parkyn, R.E. Stoneman and H.A.P. Ingram.

CAB International, 1997. ISBN 0851989985.

Review by Nicki Whitehouse.

This book was produced as the result of the Peatlands Convention, held in Edinburgh in 1995 and organised by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. The purpose of the conference was to bring together professionals involved in the study of peatlands in order to channel the knowledge and expertise of peatland ecologists and conservationists, and to secure positive action for peatland conservation across the European Union (EU). This volume is intended to act as a valuable reference book to guide, enthuse and educate peatland conservationists, a function which I think it achieves admirably.

The foreword of this volume, written by David Bellamy, emphasises the uniqueness of peatlands in terms of their animal and plant communities. As Bellamy explains, this precious resource is being destroyed by drainage for agriculture and urban development, mining for power generation, the horticulture trade and even to produce landfill sites.

Peatlands are a world-wide phenomenon. They are also a resource of great interest and value; an unusual slice of global biodiversity; an archaeological and palaeoecological treasure trove; a vast store of carbon, regulating climate change; a hydrological control system; an economic asset. As Rob Stoneman points out in his excellent introduction, peatlands in Britain have been described as the jewel in the UK's nature conservation crown, yet, for raised bogs at least, total destruction appears to be not far away. The scale of the destruction has led to mire protection initiatives, such as the European Union's 'Habitats and Species Directive' (a legal instrument of the European Union for the conservation of natural habitats and wild fauna and flora), which picks out peatlands as particularly worthy of conservation.

The book is divided into twelve parts, covering such areas as peatland ecosystems of the world, the functioning of peatlands, mires as cultural landscapes, commercial uses of bogs and conservation management and legislation effecting peatlands. Given the variety and range of articles presented in this volume I have attempted to provide a 'flavour' of some of the work presented, but I have not tried to examine all of the articles in detail. Of particular interest to readers of assemblage will be the sections on the 'Peat Archive' and 'Mires as Cultural Landscapes', which highlight the considerable importance of wetlands as a historical archive. Daniel Charman highlights the need for a protection and conservation policy for palaeoecological resources within British wetlands, whilst Bryony Coles argues for an integrated approach to wetland conservation, which would include both the archaeological/palaeoecological dimension and the interests of nature conservation. Both are worth reading for a synthesis of this issue. Other chapters in the section illustrate some of the types of evidence which can be obtained from the peat archive, as well as their potential: for example, volcanic ash (Jeff Blackford) and pollution records (Jennifer Jones).

The consideration of mires in a cultural context is examined in 'Mires as Cultural Landscapes', which provides some practical insights into the way mire sites are managed. Many mires have had a long association with human cultural activity and many have been managed in the past through a combination of burning and grazing. Many bogs in the British Isles seem to have developed under a regime of human intervention and this aspect is considered by Frank Chambers, who goes on to suggest that many of the management practices devised for peat bogs seem to ignore this. In relation to current concerns regarding the recent invasion of some mire sites by trees, which has resulted in managers attempting to kill off trees on bogs, he discusses the presence of trees on many of these bogs in the past, suggesting that mires were not necessarily always treeless nor are they naturally treeless. This article makes some very salient points, many of which have great relevance to nature conservation and illustrate the potential of an approach which combines palaeoecology and nature conservation.

'Peatland Biodiversity' is considered in another section. Professor Clymo's chapter provides a good overview of the ecological characteristics of Sphagnum moss, showing how this important bryophyte creates the unusual conditions of waterlogging, high acidity and low nutrients characteristic of mires. Philip Whitfield highlights the importance of peatlands for their breeding of rare bird species; some of the rarest species in the UK live on peatlands. The cost of the damage of afforestation to these habitats is revealed by the drop in the number of birds such as Waders.

'Functioning Peatlands' examines how peatlands operate: how hydrology, peat formation, plants and other variables interact with each other and the surrounding biosphere. Kevin Gilman looks at hydrology, pointing out that the future management of mires will need to be based on a better understanding of the role and significance of the water regimes which govern them. Indeed, new research is constantly altering ideas regarding the hydrology of mires (see for example Glaser et al. 1997). Professor Maltby writes excellently on how the analysis of peatland functions can strengthen the case for conservation, since some of these functions can be valued against standard economic criteria.

'Commercial uses of Bogs' are considered in part seven. Such a section may seem out-of-place in a book about mire conservation, but, as Rob Stoneman points out in his introduction to this section, some of these 'exploiters' play a positive and constructive role in the conservation of peatlands. Particularly productive has been the development of partnerships between conservationists and these sectors. However, this relationship has been subject to problems, as outlined by Dinnin, Whitehouse and Lindsay.

In 'Peat Free Horticulture', Nigel Doar and Chris Smith show that there are viable alternatives to peat, although for professional horticulturists more time and research is required to enable them to switch entirely from peat-based products. The real challenge is to produce cost-effective non-peat growing media. Since it is the peat producers who have the expertise and facilities to produce the alternatives, there is real potential here to create a sustainable industry, producing good quality peat alternatives for local and overseas markets.

In the next section, dedicated to conservation management, rehabilitation and monitoring, Line Rochefort and Suzanne Campeau contribute an interesting chapter on rehabilitation work being carried out on Canadian harvested bogs, where vacuum-harvested surfaces can remain almost bare, even ten years after the cessation of peat harvesting. Attempts at restoration continue, but are based on the re-introduction of shredded bog vegetation, on enhanced microtopography and on providing protective covers for the re-introduced diaspores. However, the re-introduction of moss species to a peatland site does not return the peatland to a functioning ecosystem. In addition, this type of approach does not take into account problems concerning the genetic stock of mosses (i.e. introducing outside genotypes), nor does it address the problem of obtaining sufficient moss diaspores from what is an already threatened habitat. Jan Sliva, Dieter Maas and Jörg Pfadenhauer suggest that the establishment of moss species can be aided by the swift colonisation of flowering plant species from transient and raised bogs upon the bare surface. These then act as support to the moss species as well as protection. Brian Johnson examines the monitoring of peatland restoration and sets out criteria enabling this to be carried out in a standardised manner.

In 'Legislative Protection', Rob Stoneman discusses how problems with legislation are evident in the recent fight to save Rora Moss SSSI from peat extraction by a member of the Peat Producers' Association. In contrast to this, Hans Peter Nowak shows how the Swiss system of direct decentralised democracy has been used to enact strict protective measures in the face of government pressure to destroy valuable peatland habitat. Clifton Bain examines the inadequacies of some forms of legislative protection in Britain. As Stoneman suggests, there is a stark contrast between Bain and current thinking within the English Department of the Environment (DoE), as outlined by Ann Ward, Graham Donald and Tom Simpson. Bain argues that "legislation has failed to prevent losses to one of Britain's rarest habitats -- raised bogs" (p.345), whilst Ward et al. argue that "a good and balanced way forward for peatlands" (p.342) has been achieved. The recent debate over the future of Thorne and Hatfield Moors SSSI indicates that the DoE's over-optimistic view cannot be substantiated: there are still many failures within the legislative protection system. The EU's 'Habitats Directive' and its implications for peatland conservation are outlined by Geert Raeymaekers.

'Raising Awareness' examines ways in which awareness of the peat issue can be raised amongst governments, peat suppliers and consumers, through organisations such as the Peatlands Campaign (Caroline Steele) and education initiatives such as the Peatlands Park in Northern Ireland (Keith Stanfield) and the Irish Peatlands Conservation Council (Peter Foss; Catherine O'Connell).

The last section of the volume examines 'The Way Ahead'. As Rob Stoneman emphasises, "the development of sustainable uses of peatlands, largely via conservation measures, plays a significant part in sustainable development. The peatland conservation initiatives...are laudable. The challenge is working them together to form a coherent pattern" (p.409). Hans Joosten looks at the ethical considerations concerning bog conservation, and concludes that, "In deciding on preservation or destruction of living bogs, we have to be aware of our limited knowledge, the possibly high risks, and the long-term benefits and harms" (p. 418).

Conserving Peatlands is an excellent overview of all the current issues relevant to these wonderful and rare ecosystems. The way the book is organised, with its subdivision into different parts, each with its own introduction, makes it very easy to use as a reference book. In addition, it progresses in a logical order, making it accessible as an overview volume to be read from cover-to-cover. I would recommend this book not only to those working professionally within this field, but also to anyone with a general interest in peat issues.

To finish, I would like to borrow a quote from Henry David Thoreau (1854), used in Hans Joosten's article (p. 423):

A bog "is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like leaves upon a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry, like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit -- not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life, all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic."


Glaser, P.H., Siegel, D.I., Romanowicz, E.A. and Ping Shen, Y. 1997. Regional linkages between raised bogs and the climate groundwater and landscape of north-western Minnesota. Journal of Ecology 85:3-16.

Nicki Whitehouse is a fourth year PhD student at the Dept. of Archaeology and Prehistory, University of Sheffield. Her research interests focus on Holocene wetland landscape development and change from a palaeoecological perspective, using a palaeoentomological approach. Her research currently concentrates on the Humberhead Levels peatlands and floodplains. Other interests include examining natural and cultural changes which have effected Holocene woodlands and their associated invertebrate faunas, as well as conservation issues surrounding wetlands. Nicki is secretary and co-chair of the Thorne and Hatfield Moors Conservation Forum and a member of the Steering Committee of the Mires Research Group, affiliated to the British Ecological Society.

© Nicki Whitehouse 1997

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