Friday, November 23, 2018

Project Peat

Kerry Morrison – socio-ecological artist

As part of the peat restoration work on Pendle Hill Summit, throughout 2018 and 2019 artist Kerry Morrison will be researching and developing creative ways to highlight the value of peat and engage local communities in deepening understanding around peat restoration.

Kerry is particularly interested in the parallels that can be drawn between the process of peat restoration and textiles: the knitting of the landscape, the repairing and stitching together of the hill. A performance involving local people and groups in early 2019, finishing off the restoration works, will further explore these links.

This research will inform a socially engaged interdisciplinary art and ecology project in 2019. There will also be two Peat Art and Ecology Conferences that join up this work with other Landscape Partnerships that have involved artists nationally, for example, Galloway Glens, working with artist Kate Foster.


A blanket over the hill
Locking in carbon
Supporting wildlife
Holding in water


In a broad brush stroke  

peat is a type of soil

a covering of earth
formed over decades and centuries and millennia
from decaying plant life
in particular, sphagnum moss species
strands clumped together
forming deep pile cushions

(Some Sphagnum Species, drawings by Kate Foster 2015)

(photo by Kate Foster)

There are a number of things that make peat particularly special and massively important:

  • As the plant material breaks down into peat it locks in the carbon dioxide stored in the plant matter. Peat landscape are incredible carbon sinks
  • Peat and the moss vegetation it supports hold water. They swell and shrink with wetting and drying. Like sponges, mosses and peat soak up and store rain water, helping to prevent storm water run off and flooding
  • Peat landscapes support wildlife. Peat, as a very specific type of soil supports a specific ecosystem. The acid loving vegetation that grows on it, the insects that feed from that vegetation and the birds and mammals that feed on them are all supported by peat - and some are unique to upland peat landscapes. 

Bringing all this back to Pendle Hill…
the geology that is Pendle Hill is covered in peat formed over thousands of years
a blanket if you like
but sadly, this blanket’s quilt of vegetation is, in parts, missing
the peat is bare

to erosion
nothing holding it in its place
nothing growing that will decay and form more peat

with the wind and the rain
and footsteps of people and animals

the peat a top o Pendle Hill is washing, blowing and wearing away

this erosion is happening at a rapid pace
but it can be halted and the hill’s landscape can be restored
With thanks to Heritage Lottery Funding
The Pendle Hill Landscape Partnership is currently restoring Pendle hill’s peat landscape
and I
as an artist commissioned by In-Situ as part of The Gatherings strand of the Pendle Hill Partnership
will be communicating the process of restoration in novel ways
spreading the importance of peat
the importance of protecting the peat
at the top of Pendle Hill
to towns and villages and communities
around Pendle Hill

many ideas are flowing
the performative patterns of restoration
choreographed in the landscape
stitching the landscape together
weaving metaphors
spinning the connectivity
and interconnectivity
at the top of the Hill
and around the Hill

As an artist
exploring Pendle’s peat
It’s importance
It’s complexities
Why it is necessary to restore the peat landscape on top of the hill
The process of how it is being restored
will, over the next 12 months, be expressed through imaginative and engaging creative processes…

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Importance of Peat...

Over the last few weeks you may have seen that whilst the summit path works have been completed, the diggers have still been busy on the top of the hill. This is because we are continuing to work with the specialist restoration contractors Conservefor, this time to restore the damaged peatland habitats on the plateau of the hill.

But what is all the fuss about? What is peat, and why is it so important?

Peat is a type of soil which is formed in places where rainfall is high and temperatures are just about high enough for plants to grow, but no so high to allow the dead plant matter to decompose quickly. Lack of oxygen and acidic conditions help to slow the rate of decomposition further, leading to an accumulation of peat over time, at a rate of around 1mm per year. These conditions allow for the preservation of organic materials within the peat, and so the peat becomes a time capsule and a direct connection to the past. Cores taken down through the peat contain pollen from the plants which inhabited the surrounding countryside up to 5000 years ago! Many of you will have heard of Lindow Man, or Pete Marsh, a local lad who was murdered and dumped in a peat bog around about 90AD, and whose preserved remains can now be seen in the Museum of Manchester. The lack of oxygen and acidic conditions of the bog meant that even the parasitic worms in his stomach were preserved!

Carpet of brightly coloured bog mosses
On Pendle, the peat is mainly made up from Sphagnum moss or 'bog moss', a group of species which range in colour from yellow and acid green through to vibrant reds and earthy brown and form a living carpet over the surface on the peat.  

Sphagnum mosses can hold up to twenty times their weight in water and have antiseptic qualities which were highly prized during the First World War as a dressing material. The following was written by Mrs A M Smith, a member of the Edinburgh War Dressing Supply organisation, in 1917:

The doctors and the nurses

Look North with eager eyes,

And call on us to send them

The dressing that they prize

No other is its equal---

In modest bulk it goes,

Until it meets the gaping wound

Where the red life blood flows,

Then spreading, swelling in its might

It checks the fatal loss,

And kills the germ, and heals the hurt-

The kindly Sphagnum Moss

So over time, the bog mosses continue to grow and peat is slowly formed. The high carbon content of peat means that like its drier, harder, older cousin coal, peat can be burnt as a fuel once it has been dug and dried. There is evidence of peat cutting up close to the summit, this would have been done by hand with special long narrow spades to form brick shapes, which were then brought down the hill on pony drawn sleds.

Why do we need to restore the peat on Pendle?

Peatland restoration aims to restore the moorland habitat covering the peat in order to ensure the peat continues to form. Damage to the vegetation has been caused in various ways – fire, grazing, and feet have all contributed. Once 'holes' are formed in this layer, the soft peat is very vulnerable to being washed and blown out by the wind and the rain.

Damage to vegetation leaves the underlying peat vulnerable to erosion.

The peatlands themselves are an important part of our upland landscapes and are home to many speciality species such as the aptly named Cloudberry, as well as our much loved upland birds – curlew and dunlin, meadow pipits, sky larks, raven and golden plover. They have an intrinsic value which forms part of why Pendle is so important to so many people, and habitat restoration is one of the three main reasons for undertaking this work.

Erosion of the peat soils releases carbon into the atmosphere. The peat is also washed off the hill in rivers and streams, where it then silts up important spawning gravels and needs to be removed from our drinking water. Recent work by the University of Leeds shows that over 40% of the UK's population rely on peatlands for their drinking water sources, and so we need to ensure they are kept in as good condition as possible.

Restoring moorland habitats also helps to manage local flood risk. Eroded gullies through the peat allow water from severe local rainfall events to run quickly off the hill, adding to the total amount of water reaching rivers and streams all at the same time. 'Slowing the Flow' of water down off the hill helps to reduce the risk of all the water ending up at the same place at the same time.

And how are we doing it?

Back to those diggers! Right up on the summit where there are areas of bare and eroding peat, the contractors have 're-profiled' the edges of the peat. The contractors carefully peel back the vegetation layer, reduce the angle of slope on the edge of the peat and then roll the vegetation back into place, stretching it out to cover as much bare peat as possible. This will be covered with chopped heather in the winter and seed will be added next spring.

Digger working on the edges of the peat, with coir logs already in place.


To help to slow the flow of the water down the gullies, coir logs (nets filled with coconut husk), peat and timber dams are being installed. As the speed of the water is reduced, it also drops the peat it is holding, helping to reduce siltation downstream. The sides of the gullies are also being re-profiled to stop water erosion removing more peat during high rainfall events.

 8 tonne digger down in one of the gullies on Barley Moor, showing the scale of the problem!

So if you are up on the hill, you might just see some diggers performing these delicate operations, and if not you will see the results of their efforts. If you want to get involved with the intricacies of peatland restoration, join one of our volunteer days, and in the meantime you can see some live footage on this film we shot in the centre of the Forest of Bowland in February this year.