Protecting the Moorlands

How Fellrunners can help to protect the Saddleworth moorland

Authors: Colin Bishop & Mark Bowden

Since 2003 Natural England, United Utilities, the National Trust and more recently the RSPB have been involved in a project to restore the moorland habit on Saddleworth and the surrounding moors.

This work is part of a multi-million pound scheme to protect the SSSI environment in the Peak district and Southern Pennines. If you have run out on the tops around Dovestones then you have probably seen the activity in this area. Most noticeably the big white bags of heather brash and the stockpiles of lime & fertilizer. But what is going on and how do we figure in this environment as runners?

Problems we face

Much of the damage to moorland vegetation can be traced to atmospheric pollution, an effect of the industrial past so prevalent in this area. The pollution levels have killed off plants like sphagnum moss which form peat. In addition, much of the moorland was grazed heavily and burnt extensively in the past which has led to high levels of erosion. The loss of covering vegetation also leaves bare peat open to erosion. Simply put, this starts a cycle which could eventually lead to a desertification of the moor producing a sterile landscape of bare peat and rock which reduces the value  of the land for wildlife. As this area provides a large amount of drinking water, its importance is magnified.

Lime and fertiliser

The plan to restore the heather, cotton grass and moss to the moor is a multi layered approach. In some areas lime, fertilizer and grass seed is spread to make the peaty moorland less acidic and promote the growth of some vegetation on the bare peat. Grass seed is spread over the bare areas along with heather brash (clippings). The lime and fertilizer helps the grass seed take which binds the surface of the peat together. This provides the best conditions for the heather seeds in the brash to germinate. As the fertilizer fades the grass dies and the heather returns.

Fibre nets

In some area like bankings and ridges, geojute fibre nets are used to stabilize the banking and help the grass and heather take hold. Other areas of the moor need different treatment and many of the gullies need blocking up to keep the moor wet. This is done using wooden planks or stone for narrow gullies, or heather/bracken bales on larger flatter areas. The dams prevent water from washing off the exposed peat and build up pools behind them which are ideal areas for sphagnum mosses to grow.

Paved paths

You will notice in some areas that footpaths have been flagged, this is because of the wet nature of the moor. As people have walked across it they have understandably tried to avoid the puddles and as a consequence the path has expanded several meters wide. The aim of the flagging work is to provide  a solid route for people to walk across and prevent further erosion of the moors. This is a simplified account of the moorland restoration techniques being undertaken in the area.

Regrowth plans are succeeding

The process to restore heather and grasses in the bare peat areas is a long and difficult one. Over £3,000,000 has been invested and the process is starting to see results after about five years hard work. Some of the new growth could be damaged by even a few people walking over it. Which is why we have re-routed some of our races.

After talking with United Utilities and the RSPB it looks like growth will have recovered in the next few years to allow more access to restored areas but up until then there are a few things we can do in order to help the project on it’s way.

Know where you can run to minimise damage

Most damage occurs when the moorland is wet, after heavy rain avoid ‘bog trotting’ in reseeded areas. Please try and stick to paths in these parts.  Bankings are very susceptible to cutting up. United Utilities have tried to stabilise the worst areas with jute netting. Running down slopes can tear the netting or just plough up the bare peat. Choose your route with care.

When you plan a run try and steer clear of restoration areas (map shown below) In these areas please stick to the paths. In a couple of years the vegetation will be strong enough to stand up for itself.

We are part of this environment and have a duty to keep the place we love in good order for the next generations of Saddleworth Runners. By avoiding areas pointed out by land owners as sensitive or out of bounds we get plenty of cooperation when staging races and events.

Find out more information

Moors for the Future – Restoration Programme

National Trust – Marsden Moor

RSPB – Dovestones

United Utilities – Sustainable Catchment Management Programme

Natural England – Uplands Conservation