Pioneering Winmarleigh carbon farm is fighting climate change

Plugs of sphagnum moss at the Winmarleigh carbon farm

A boggy, unloved field has been transformed into a ground breaking carbon farm, planting sphagnum mosses to absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere.
Red round leaved sundew amongst green sphagnum moss at Winmarleigh Moss

Winmarleigh Moss is home to rare and specialised bog plants including round-leaved sundew and sphagnum mosses

Winmarleigh & Cockerham Moss SSSI  is a fantastic example of the remaining two per cent of our region’s lowland raised peat bogs. Home to an amazing range of rare and specialised plants and animals, it is not only vital for our biodiversity, but it’s naturally waterlogged, peat soils are able to absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere providing a vital natural resource in the fight against climate change.

But just next to it is a mosaic of agricultural fields that were created by draining areas of the former peatland in the 1970’s. Deep drainage ditches criss-cross the landscape, but these fields tend to be low in natural nutrients and often boggy and almost unusable in winter.

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However, as part of Care-Peat, an Interreg funded EU project, and working with partners Manchester Metropolitan University and Beadamoss, the Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside has come up with an entirely new crop that could be farmed on these types of lands – carbon.

In a drained state, peatlands such as these emit carbon into the atmosphere contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, it is estimated that carbon emissions from drained and burned peatlands equate to 10 per cent of all annual fossil fuel emissions.*

However, once they are successfully rewetted and revegetated these emissions effectively cease and, as peat-forming sphagnum mosses start to take hold, these peatland areas will start to absorb (sequester) carbon from the atmosphere again, locking it away in their peaty soils for millennia. So much so that peatlands are actually able to store twice as much carbon as forests.*

This is the process which underlies the creation of the Winmarleigh carbon farm.

Irrigation ditches surrounded by areas of sphagnum moss

Irrigation ditches cross the carbon farm maintaining water levels

So, how do you farm carbon?

The first step in the creation of the Winmarleigh carbon farm was to start the process of turning it back from an agricultural field into a peatland again.

Silver pump providing water to the Winmarleigh carbon farm

The solar powered irrigation system at the Winmarleigh carbon farm

A 10cm layer of turf and nutrient enriched topsoil were removed to reveal the intact peat underneath. Drainage ditches were then blocked and low walls of compacted peat called bunds were built to raise the water table and rewet the site. A solar powered irrigation system was also installed to ensure that the area would remain nice and wet and boggy even during periods of drought.

Bunds were also used to divide the 2 hectare site into eight ‘cells’, into which over 150,000 plugs of sphagnum moss were planted, as a permanent cover crop.

Specially created by project partners Beadamoss®, each plug of sphagnum is formed from a mixture of different species that are optimised for the restoration process. This has resulted from years of research, development and expertise.

A species of carbon-capturing sphagnum moss on Winmarleigh Moss in Lancashire

Sphagnum mosses are really special ecosystem engineers

What next?

As the sphagnum moss starts to grow it will spread out to cover the entire carbon farm site, turning it into a green oasis, helping to protect the carbon already stored in the peat soils below. But not only that, through the process of photosynthesis the moss will absorb carbon into its cells. As the bottom layers of moss naturally decompose extremely slowly in the water-logged acidic conditions, they will form peat, effectively trapping further carbon in the dark peaty soils for millennia.

This trapped carbon is thus removed from the atmosphere permanently, meaning that the carbon farm will be providing a vital, effective and completely natural tool in the fight against climate change.

The carbon farm is not only helping to protect our climate, but is also helping to protect the SSSI as well, by acting as a buffer zone to the main bog site from surrounding drainage, helping to keep it wet.

Green sphagnum moss plug against brown peat

One of the thousands of plugs of sphagnum moss that have been planted at the Winmarleigh carbon farm

Could you create other carbon farms?

We are working with Manchester Metropolitan University to collect research data from the site to evidence the carbon storage capacity of this carbon farming approach, and also to develop business models to demonstrate the opportunities this alternative land management offers for other areas that have peat soils.

We are hoping that landowners could create carbon farms as part of corporate carbon offsetting schemes or potentially receive government subsidies for carbon farming as part of the new ELMS (Environmental Land Management Scheme), with their focus on “Public money for Public Goods”. Managing peatland to keep carbon in the ground, would deliver a key environmental public good by way of climate change mitigation.

Another option for a more climate friendly land management of peatlands is paludiculture (wetter farming practices) where harvestable crops such as reeds or sphagnum moss itself are grown on wet farmlands. This allows a crop to be harvested, whilst also protecting the carbon that’s in the peat below, and often also allowing it to sequester further carbon from the atmosphere.

How can you help?

Our Natural Carbon Capture scheme allows your business to help fund the North West’s degraded peatlands back to health, whilst balancing out your carbon emissions.

Find out more


*Source: UN