In yet another conversation about excessive rainfall, somebody in the village said to me ‘Aled Richards’s house didn’t flood this time. I’m sure it’s because of what they’ve done on Penaran’. And what they have done on Penaran is block ditches.
In the hills around here, as in much of the uplands of western Britain, the gentler slopes, ridges and hollows are clothed in a layer of deep peat, sometimes several metres thick. In our wet and acidic conditions iron-pans form in the substrate, which inhibits drainage. This leads to water-logging. Such saturated conditions are starved of oxygen, which limits decomposition and so leads to deepening layers of partially decomposed plants, particularly bog-mosses. This way peat is formed. As long as rainfall outstrips the loss of water through evaporation and transpiration from plants, peat will continue to grow. The resulting blanket bog forms a distinctive landscape: rolling away in soft greens and browns, sodden underfoot, treeless and open, exposed to all weathers. I find the space and solitude nourishing – a place to unknot; but its not to everyone’s taste.
Get down on you hands (and soon to be wet) knees and blanket bogs look very different. In the wide-open space under an arching sky you can feel like Gulliver in Lilliput, peering at the details of a miniature world. There is an unexpected intimacy in the hummocks and lawns of crimson, gold and brilliant green bog-mosses patched between clumps of heather and the silk handkerchiefs of the flowering cotton grass. Lichen like tiny, bleached antlers, can be as brittle as Shredded Wheat under your boots. The red stars of insectivorous sundews glisten with lethal stickiness and green flower shoots of bog asphodel look as succulent as asparagus. On a warm day wolf spiders sprint across their killing fields of moss and azure bodied damselflies patrol the pools.
But this is sheep country and farmers are always trying to get a better bite. For many years (incentivised by governments) they cut networks of ditches thorough the peat, hundreds of kilometres of them in the UK, to try and dry the land out and encourage more palatable vegetation. In truth this proved to be of very little benefit to the sheep but highly detrimental to the specialist wildlife – which needs it waterlogged. Pools dry up, bog-mosses disappear and the peat stops growing. What is more ditching exposes peat to the air where it oxidises, releasing yet more carbon into the atmosphere. As intended, water gets away more quickly, accelerating and accumulating from ditch to stream to river – so arriving in a valley flood.
In recent years conservationists have begun addressing this. Locally there has been an impressive five-year scheme, financed by the EU Life fund, aimed at restoring blanket bogs. One of the things they did was to block ditches, 485 km in all, including on Penaran. Since then the water table has been slowly rising, bog-mosses are thriving and the peat is growing again. These bogs are huge water absorbing sponges, which allow little lateral movement, so now, when the rain pours down less water goes careering down the hill – and into Aled Richards’s house.
Blanket bogs are rare, Britain and Ireland have 20% of the global total; they are a source of drinking water, flood prevention, carbon storage and fascinating wildlife, not to mention peace and solitude. Looking after them seems like a ‘no brainer’; an elegant example of how our well-being and the natural world are inextricably linked.