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Peatland restoration project to grow reeds which will go to help insulate homes

A peat restoration project is to begin trialling the cultivation of a reed that can be used to insulate homes.

Peatland Progress has been awarded £8 million from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to restore 120 hectares of wetland in the Fens in Cambridgeshire and is due to begin in late March.

It aims to simultaneously tackle climate change by lowering the amount of CO2 escaping from dried-out peat, restore the region’s biodiversity and help people’s mental health by connecting them with nature.

Great Fen project manager Kate Carver of the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire (BCN) Wildlife Trust said: “The problem in the Fens in East Anglia is that it’s a drained landscape.

“So there’s a lot of peat, they were originally deep peat, and the landscape has been drained over the centuries for agriculture.

“When peat is drained, it dries out and it and releases carbon dioxide. So by rewetting peat we can prevent that loss.”

Using paludiculture, or wetland farming, the five-year trial will grow bulrush reed, or Typha, which is now being produced in Germany and the Netherlands for building insulation.

It will also grow Sphagnum moss, which Ms Carver described as a “wonder crop”.

The moss can trap additional carbon, grow soil and draw up water from underground, as well as acting as a substitute for peat compost and was used as field dressings during the First World War because it is naturally antiseptic.

Ms Carver said: “Sphagnum moss is a bit of a wonder crop really. Not only by growing at a higher water table can you prevent the loss of carbon, prevent the loss of peat etc, Sphagnum moss can be a very valuable crop because it can be used as a horticultural growing medium.

“So rather than buying bags of peat from the garden centre, or rather than the big horticultural producers importing peat from virgin peat bogs therefore desecrating nature in a different country, commercially grown Sphagnum moss could be an alternative growing medium for salad crops or vegetables.”

Restoring the wetlands will also improve the biodiversity of the region, Ms Carver said, helping the Government to honour the agreement made at Cop15 in Montreal, where 188 countries pledged to protect at least 30% of the world’s lands, inland waters, coastal areas and oceans.

Improved wetlands would help animals such as frogs, toads, cranes, water voles and predatory birds such as owls, buzzards and kestrels to thrive.

Brian Eversham, chief executive of the BCN Wildlife Trust said: “The Peatland Progress project will further develop a model of agricultural production preventing loss of peat soils to help future-proof farming while locking in carbon, cleaning water and supporting wildlife.

“This pioneering and important work is tackling climate change and biodiversity loss, while also addressing the anxieties of the next generation head-on.”

Ms Carver also said one of the project’s main aims is to improve people’s mental health by connecting them with nature.

She said: “We’ve got a lot of associated people programmes, working with community groups, working with groups that deal with mental health issues, that sort of thing.

“So it’s really a sort of a holistic approach to the natural environment. It can help support our lives in so many ways through agriculture, biodiversity and through bringing people close to nature.

“Rewetting peatlands is incredibly important for preventing loss of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon. Nearly 50% of carbon emissions from UK agriculture come from the Fens, from the peatlands, the dry arable systems.”

“We’re deeply grateful to the National Heritage Lottery Fund for supporting us.”

Eilish McGuinness, chief executive, The National Lottery Heritage Fund, added: “It is so exciting to be able to confirm our award of over £8m to Peatlands Progress, a truly ambitious and visionary project.

“The scheme, part of our Heritage Horizons programme, which focused on innovation in heritage, is a pioneer, leading the way for the Heritage Fund’s future ambition to champion large-scale, long-term and innovative solutions to climate change and nature’s crises, with people at the core.”