A share of a £5 million UK Government fund aimed at solving challenges with lowland peat is to make Harper Adams University the first UK center for the study of peat farming.
The funding was announced by DEFRA for a series of projects aimed at improving lowland peat and tackling carbon emissions and included a proposal from Harper Adams to launch the Paludiculture Innovation Project (PIP).
Peat soils are highly productive; of the 325,000 hectares of lowland peat in England, 74% percent is farmed. However, as peatland is drained and cultivated for farming, the peat oxidizes, which leads to the decomposition of the organic matter in the soils, resulting in increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Re-wetting peat has the potential to reduce GHG emissions by keeping carbon in the soil. However, there is much that is yet to be understood about the science and practice of farming on peat following re-wetting and how changes to these practices could influence GHG emissions, which is where PIP comes in.
Adeney Yard, a field on the Harper Adams University estate, will be re-wet and used to grow crops and assess the impact of re-wetting peatland.
A cross-disciplinary team from Harper Adams will assess the work undertaken, its impact, and its effects to try to start building more information about paludiculture, the science behind crop production on wet peat, and the best ways to grow and harvest crops using these new approaches.
Team members among the University's employees will include Dr. Julia Casperd, Dr. Lucy Crockford, Professor Jim Monaghan, Professor Karl Behrendt, Dr. Simon Jeffery, Dr. Iona Huang - and Future Farm Executive Project and Programme Consultant Scott Kirby.
Scott said: "The problem with peat is that when it is cultivated, decomposition takes place. This is the oxidation of the organic matter in the soil. It results in a large emission of greenhouse gasses, up to 10 times more than mineral soils. It also means that the soil is disappearing at 10-30 mm per year. Many of these fields have only 30-100 years left before the peat is gone."
"New reporting rules mean the Global Warming Potential values of peatland are set to change, and this change is likely to shift the Land use, land use change, and forestry sector in carbon calculations from being considered a net sequester to an emitter of carbon."
"For farmers on lowland peat who are focused on their carbon footprint, that represents a real problem because as carbon calculators catch up and start to differentiate soil types and adopt new IPCC guidelines, they will see a massive increase in their businesses' reported carbon emissions."
"The PIP project will use Adeney Yard on our Future Farm - part of the naturally occurring lowland peatlands present in Shropshire - to examine if re-wetting lowland peat can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ultimately find ways to turn farmed peat back into a carbon sink, something it was for millennia before drainage and cultivation began."
"It's a significant challenge; peat-based soils currently contribute to food production out of proportion to the area involved, so we need to develop solutions that can be equally productive. This will mean examining new crops suited to wetland production and new techniques to cope with wetter soils."
"One of the project's biggest focuses will be water management. Can paludiculture in the landscape become a water tool, gathering winter floodwater and holding it for slow release through the summer when catchments suffer low flow rates? It's a concept that would see farmers as more than food producers, and it offers real income potential as landscape services markets are beginning to emerge."
As the work at Adeney Yard develops, Harper Adams will become a paludiculture research, development, demonstration, and knowledge transfer facility.
The project will establish baseline data, develop re-wetting techniques, and determine and quantify responses. The research and findings from the Paludiculture Innovation Project will both inform actions taken by farmers and contribute towards the development of policies regarding lowland peat.
Knowledge exchange will be a key part of the project, with workshops and conferences at the University and elsewhere, as well as training being provided for those working with peat to help them manage their land more effectively.
An inaugural conference and symposium for the project will take place this September. Partners on the Project will include the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and LEAF – Linking Environment and Farming, with the Centre assisting with the delivery of research and innovation and LEAF working to develop a LEAF Marque Standard.
Supporters will include the Shropshire Wildlife Trust, the School of Sustainable Food and Farming, Agri-EPI, and the North Shropshire Farmer Cluster.
Further links for collaborative work will include the Lancashire and Lincolnshire Wildlife Trusts.
Dr. Julia Casperd added: "We are delighted to be collaborating with a fantastic team of interdisciplinary academics from various universities, farmers, NGO's and industry stakeholders to drive this area of cross-cutting research at such a significant point in the history of our climate."