Thousands of acres of peat have been restored in conservation efforts that help cut carbon emissions in the last decade, grouse moor managers have said.
A survey of members of the Moorland Association suggests they have restored 3,157 hectares (7,800 acres) of bare peat on their land in the last 10 years.
And 2,945 kilometres (1,830 miles) of old agricultural drains, put in to make the land more productive for farming, have been blocked to rewet the upland peat to protect it, reduce run-off and prevent carbon emissions escaping – helping restore the equivalent of a further 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres).
While there is limited scope for planting trees on peat, managers of moors in the north of England have put in 1,275 hectares (3,150) of trees in appropriate areas, the association said.
The organisation said its members had already achieved 60% of the peatland restoration work required on their land, and provided a quarter of the work needed to meet Government targets to restore 35,000 hectares by 2025.
It estimates 61,126 tonnes of carbon dioxide – which is emitted into the atmosphere from dried out, bare and damaged peat – are being saved every year because of the work to restore the landscape.
Grouse moors have been criticised by environmental groups for controlled burning of heather on peatland, to promote new growth which red grouse feed on, and which managers say is necessary to reduce wildfire risks.
A partial ban on burning heather and other vegetation on protected blanket bog has been brought in by the Government, to prevent damage to peat formation, protect wildlife habitats and help meet targets to cut emissions.
Environmentalists say the Government’s move will only cease the practice on a small number of peatlands and have called for far greater ambition in protecting and restoring peat.
Moorland Association director Amanda Anderson said the new policy, which includes licences for burning of heather on blanket bog for wildfire prevention, will mean it would take place “in the right place for the right reasons”.
She said upland managers were doing what they could to protect peat, but there should be more focus on tackling the carbon emissions from lowland peatland, much of which is intensively farmed or even harvested for horticultural compost.
Ms Anderson said: “Moorland managers have invested significant time and money to play their part in carbon capture, improving habitats for rare wildlife and mitigating the risk of downstream flooding.
“These results show how our members are delivering on their commitment to restore historically damaged areas of peat, manage water storage and plant trees where appropriate to ensure the wide-ranging benefits from these conservation measures can be realised.
“However, there needs to be a concerted effort across all peatlands to meet government targets – beyond what we can contribute.”
Previous decades have seen work to restore at least 24,000 hectares of peatland and block 4,000km (2,485 miles) of drains, according to the Moorland Association, which said its members worked with partnerships across northern England on restoring peat.
Dr Tim Thom, peatland programme manager at Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, said it was “great to see moor owners rising to the challenge of climate change”.
He said the trust had worked with Moorland Association members and other landowners since 2009 to bring over 31,000 hectares of Yorkshire’s peatlands into restoration management, and looked forward to working with them on the remaining moors in years to come.
Moorland Association members look after around 200,000 hectares of deep peat, which the body said was mostly in a recovering condition and the bare patches of peat were small areas.
As well as the debate over managing upland peat, conservationists have raised concerns over threats to rare hen harriers on grouse moors, which come into conflict with shooting estates because they catch red grouse chicks to feed their young.
Hen harriers had their best breeding season for years last year, which conservation agency Natural England put down to good conditions and work with wildlife groups and landowners, but warned illegal persecution continued.