Last updated: April 2015
Peatlands and biodiversity
Joanna Richards from the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust looks at the rich flora and fauna that live in the UK’s peatlands.
Peatlands provide an essential habitat for many special and exciting species that are otherwise scarcely seen. Their unique mix of flora and fauna make them interesting places to explore as you never know quite what you might uncover. The bleakness often associated with peatlands gives way to a sense of wilderness and isolation, which can make them attractive places to visit when in need of respite.
Peatlands National Nature Reserve, South Yorkshire. Photo credit: Natural England
The plants found on a peat bog are particularly distinctive, containing an assortment of sphagnum and star mosses, as well as fairly unusual carnivorous plants which chomp their way through insects. These carnivorous plants are known as common sundew and are bright green, with red and green hairs that have sticky dew on them – these are the entrapping agent. Insects get stuck in the dew and the leaves close around the unsuspecting prey item, which it then digests. These plants are able to survive in this low-nutrient habitat due to the supplements they receive from their prey.
Sphagnum moss is another species characteristic of Britain’s blanket peat bogs. There are several different species, although you need to be quite the expert to tell them apart. They can create a colourful carpet over a healthy peat bog, with reds, oranges and greens predominantly showing through.
Sphagnum is incredibly important in a functioning peat bog, as they store a huge amount of water. This water prevents dead plant material from decaying and over several hundred years this organic matter is continually compressed, which results in the formation of peat. This is no quick process. It is also why so many interesting archaeological finds can be made, including ancient peat-bog men which have been preserved for many, many years.
Other than mosses and herbs, several shrub species thrive on peatlands, including heather which provides a beautiful purple haze during the summer months; bilberry with delicious little berries that resemble blueberries; and a small evergreen known as crowberry. Finally, grasses including the attractive cotton grass blow in this windswept landscape – its little white cottontails bobbing about.
Peatlands are also home to some of our most threatened and impressive birdlife.
Birds of prey, including hen harriers and buzzards, hover high above on the lookout for their next meal. Grouse may be seen all year round, feeding on heather, cotton grass and bilberry; whilst attractive wading birds such as snipe may be seen during the summer as they move onto our peatlands to breed.
Another attractive wading bird that breeds on the uplands is the lapwing, which is otherwise found on wetlands during the colder months. This rare bird is especially conspicuous when flying due to its wavering style, and white and black colouring. Dunlin, golden plover and oystercatcher also breed on our peatlands, making small nests on the ground amongst the vegetation. In winter, a short-eared owl quartering over the peatland in daylight can be a spectacular sight to behold.
Reptiles also thrive on our peatlands including the very rare adder, Britain’s only venomous snake. Most commonly seen in spring when they emerge from hibernation, adders may be seen basking in the sunlight. Well camouflaged with their black-brown diamond markings, peatlands provide them with good vegetation cover and plenty of prey such as small mammals and birds. Common lizards are also found on our bogs during the summer time. These breed between June and September, then hibernate from October.
Those mentioned above are only a flavour of some of the enchanting species found on the UK’s peatlands, but together they represent the remarkable wealth of wildlife this rare and important habitat provides a home and breeding ground to.
By supporting so much of our threatened wildlife it is easy to understand why it is essential to protect our peat bogs and restore the habitat where it has been degraded.