Following the recent announcement that the Humberhead Peatlands has been awarded a £2.2m EU conservation grant – PhD student Kate Orgill writes a post about her research in the area and the importance of this habitat.
The importance of wetland environments is increasingly being recognised, which has provided the motivation for landscape-scale wetland restoration initiatives. Wetland environments provide a number of important functions, including as important habitats for species, the recycling of nutrients, the retention of water to reduce the risk of flooding and as a sink for carbon. An example of such initiative can be found in the Humberhead Levels (HHL), located in the North East of England close to the Humber estuary. Funded by Defra as part of the Nature Improvement Area (NIA) Programme, the project is run by a partnership of 13 organisations. These organisations include Natural England, the Environment Agency, the RSPB, local Wildlife Trusts and local councils. The NIA Programme aims to provide bigger habitats for species and increase the quality of these habitats, as well improving environmental education. Nearly £600,000 was given to the HHL to spend over three years, ending in March 2015. The particular aim in the HHL is to restore wetlands within the multi-functional landscape that covers 49,700 hectares.
Before the 17th century the landscape was covered in wetland habitats, but a series of land drainage programmes since then has meant that this is not the case anymore. The landscape is dominated by highly productive arable land as well as industrial and urban areas, that make it impossible to restore the wetlands to their former level. Therefore the aim is to create a wetland mosaic across the landscape with core areas of habitat connected by ecological corridors and stepping stones, following something called the Lawton principles. However, the methods of how to carry this out is not currently well defined, as it is extremely difficult to achieve and there has not been a great amount of research in this area. My research aims to understand how to make these types of environmental management decisions, especially looking at the role of scientific concepts, such as biodiversity and ecosystem services, and what gets in the way of their use in decision making. This is an interdisciplinary project that aims to examine the interactions and differences between biodiversity, ecosystem services and real world governance within wetland environments, in order to try and understand the opportunities and constraints they provide in helping to increase wetland functionality through restoration. Ecosystem services are the benefits that people obtain from ecosystem systems, such as flood alleviation and recreation.
The first part of this research was to map the extent of current wetland patches and the ones that have been identified for restoration, and analyse their configuration with patterns of biodiversity and ecosystem services. For example, I have been mapping the locations of specific species known to be good indicators for wetland environments, such as dragonflies. Ecosystem services, such as carbon sinks and food production, have also been mapped. These patterns will be used to understand where might be the best locations to restore wetlands in terms of the theoretical science, and will be used to create a series of restoration scenarios for the landscape. The decision making process for restoration by the HHL partnership is also being investigated using interviews and documentation analysis. Twelve members of the HHL have been interviewed and I am currently analysing this information to understand how they go about their decision making and what has to be included in discussions alongside the theoretical science. This information can then be fed into the scenarios to improve them, as well as using the information for exchange. The expected outcomes of this project is to create a framework for landscape scale wetland restoration and increase the understanding of biological outcomes and ecosystem services for wetland research in general, as well as providing useful information for the HHL Partnership.
Recently, the HHL has just received a piece of good news for part of the work that Natural England has been carrying out. The two Natural Nature Reserves have just received £2.2m for further restoration of the peat bogs and more can be read on the BBC website here.