On the bog with the data team

Fiona Hemsley-Flint of the PeatlandACTION team writes about a recent visit to Flanders Moss. And this team LOVES data!

The Peatland Action (PA) data team decided to banish any January blues (and work off some of the Christmas cake) with a trip to Flanders Moss National Nature Reserve (NNR) to find out how Peatland ACTION funded projects had been getting on, and to get a general insight into the various methods of peatland restoration and monitoring that have been used.

We were met by the extremely knowledgeable David Pickett and student placement, Ellen Bird, along with David’s stick-loving dog, Finn. At first I wondered why they had walking poles for a walk involving boardwalks and well-built paths, though I soon found out as we went off the beaten track and knee-deep into the bog itself! Bog trotting (sinking?) is definitely an excellent form of exercise.

David expertly navigated us through the bog to show us the equipment used to monitor water levels. Water level measurements are a key indicator of the health of a raised bog, I was interested to note that it is not about how wet the bog is, but its ability to retain the water during drought periods. A set of 22 monitoring devices, called WALRAGS (Water Level Range Gauges), were deployed across the site over 20 years ago. The construction of these instruments is very resourceful, and would be sure to impress Blue Peter presenters – they are made from old lemonade bottles, drain pipe and a section of measuring tape!

The changing water levels move the lemonade bottle up and down, which in turn moves wooden markers to show the maximum and minimum water levels over the period since the previous inspection. Readings are taken four times a year – usually in April, mid May, end of August and the end of October. 

This provides an extensive historical dataset that can be used for analysing the long term changes in water depth as different restoration procedures have been carried out. The data has been made available for a number of research projects from BSc through to PhD level. 

As the success of the restoration works has increased the overall water level across the Moss, this has meant that some of the WALRAGS are no longer functioning properly as they have reached their upper height limit – David hopes that these devices can be restored and upgraded so that they can continue functioning – something that Peatland Action are happy to support.

More recently (2014/15), 45 electronic monitoring devices were placed along transects which cover different sections of the Moss to monitor water table dynamics in greater detail. Some of these are sited near existing WALRAGS. These loggers produce a very large amount of data with readings every fifteen minutes – these are transmitted to a server in the offices in Stirling, and are also downloaded manually on a yearly basis. These devices can tell us a huge amount about what’s been happening beneath the surface, and Peatland Action data team are looking forward to analysing the results.

After examining these monitoring devices, David took us further through the bog to show us areas where different restoration techniques had been applied – including blocked drainage ditches, and in areas of previous forestry, mulching, ground smoothing and stump flipping. 

He also showed us some ‘untouched’ areas, which unfortunately were still affected by activities in the surrounding area, and are yet to fully recover – these were a little drier than other areas, which made for easier walking, but is of course a sign that the area still needs more time before it is a fully functioning peatland again.

I was also interested to find that low density grazing is still being allowed on the site – a small number of black faced sheep are able to graze during some parts of the year, and they help to keep emerging saplings and heather growth under control. Cattle graze in another part of the Moss, and these also help control vegetation, providing the density of animals and timing is appropriate to the site.

We all had a great day out, and learnt a lot, but what was also important was the conversations that resulted in us identifying ways in which Peatland ACTION could provide more support with the maintenance, collection and management of the monitoring devices and data. And, whilst we all enjoyed the experience, Finn definitely had the most fun.

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