With 85,000 tiny green celery plants glowing brightly against the dark, murky ground, the Lancashire countryside looks as ordinary as any.
But this crop is a pioneering test of “wetter agriculture” that could demonstrate how degraded peatlands can be restored to capture carbon and increase biodiversity while providing a livelihood for farmers.
Rindle Field, a 5.4-acre former potato plot in Greater Manchester, has been bought by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, which is running Britain’s first trial of malaria, or wetter farming, using traditional cash crops.
By growing celery in wetter conditions than usual (allowing the water table to rise 10cm to 50cm below the soil surface, instead of draining it), peat soil can store much more carbon and not dry out nor dry. emit carbon as occurs in peat-rich farmland across the country.
Peatlands make up 12% of Britain’s land area and store huge amounts of carbon when in good condition. Yet only a fifth of Britain’s peat is in “natural” conditions: the vast majority is drained for agriculture or forestry, grazed by livestock, dug up for horticulture, or burned. Greenhouse gas emissions from degraded peatlands account for about 4% of Britain’s total annual emissions.
In Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside, 98% of lowland peatlands have been destroyed, releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
If peatlands are restored to swamps, emissions can be reduced rapidly: research by Manchester Metropolitan University at the Winmarleigh ‘carbon farm’, also owned by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, has shown an 86% reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases from a rewetted area. peatland in just one year compared to a drained area converted to grassland.
But farmers may not be able to afford to restore productive peat soils to wetlands or want to reduce food production, so the Wildlife Trust is testing whether wetter farming could be a compromise to reduce emissions in some areas.
“We are pragmatic and believe it is unrealistic to expect farmers to remove land from food production and restore it as bog,” said Sarah Johnson, project manager for the Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s Lancashire Peatland Initiative. “We also have to think about the livelihoods of the people who live and work in this area. Are there other ways of managing agricultural peat soils that are better for biodiversity and the climate with soils in conditions where they can also store and sequester carbon?
The Wildlife Trust employed the grandson of the farmer who first drained Rindle Field to block the drains and drainage ditches.
“He didn’t dare tell his grandfather what he was doing,” said Mike Longden, senior project officer for the Lancashire Peatlands Initiative. “But it is an indication of how agriculture is changing.”
Researchers from Liverpool John Moores University will measure greenhouse gas emissions from the test site.
Scientists calculate that by halving the typical depth of the water table below deep peat cropland to 1m below surface, wetter agriculture could reduce carbon emissions from degraded peatlands around the world. the UK by 3.3 million tonnes each year, almost 1% of total emissions, with a negligible increase in methane emissions.
“If we could see significant reduction combined with profitable farming, then this could really be an exciting path forward for lowland peatland management for both people and our planet,” Longden said.
The celery trial is using conventional farm machinery, to assure farmers that expensive specialized equipment is not required. A concern among farmers about wetter agriculture is how to prevent it from flooding all fields. To create the test field, the Wildlife Trust installed embankments, low walls of compressed peat that form an impermeable barrier, to allow the water table to rise without flooding adjacent fields.
“We want to use the knowledge and experience of farmers,” Longden said. “It’s an LWT-led project, but we’re also working with one of the local farmers to prepare the land and he will continue to farm it and his input has been really valuable.”
Although the Wildlife Trust is farming conventionally with herbicides to ensure there aren’t too many variables to confound scientific assessment, they are already seeing biodiversity benefits in the celery field, with irrigation canals, filled only by rain, home to five species of dragonflies.
The rewetted field also helps maintain water in Rindle Moss, 16.5 acres of degraded peatland that is now a Lancashire Wildlife Trust nature reserve. Rewetting this patch of bog could attract the rare large heather butterfly with other species already present, such as black dart dragonflies, lapwings, hobbyists, brown hares and long-eared owls.
“Protecting that biodiversity is really crucial to what we want to do as a Wildlife Trust,” Longden said. “We’re trying to show how agriculture and biodiversity can really live together, by managing a high water table that will also protect the key flora and fauna of the remnant swamp and also create some really nice natural connectivity.”
In addition to celery, the three-year trial will test other moisture-loving crops such as blueberry and cattail, or cattail, which can provide livestock fodder, ecological insulation and biofuel.
If the first celery crop is successful in six months, a conundrum arises: what will the Wildlife Trust do with 85,000 celery plants?
The charity plans to donate some to community food banks and, with the help of a competition for the best celery recipes, fill cafes in its nature reserve with celery soups and salads.