John Craven: Why the world needs to love wetlands

John Craven on the need to protect our British wetlands.

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We’ve never thought much of wetlands. Over the centuries, the human race has exploited and destroyed them to a degree that can only be matched by our chopping down of the rainforests. During the last century, well over half of the world’s wetlands have disappeared. And why? Because, squelchy, boggy and unloved, they get in the way of what we call progress. The UK has lost more than 90 percent of its peat bogs, fens, marshes and water meadows since William came and conquered back in 1066, and the majority has gone since the Industrial Revolution.

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They have been dried out so we can build on them (which is often followed by disastrous flooding) and so that crops can grow and livestock can graze. Peat bogs are converted into fuel and fertiliser. As a result many plants, animals and insects have become extinct or endangered. We’ve also lost an amazing amount of our heritage, because wetlands preserve the remains of plants, animals and artefacts that can tell us much about how life used to be.  So it is high time we changed our attitude and recognised the true importance of these Cinderellas of our landscape.

The earth’s remaining wetlands contain 771 billion tons of greenhouse gases and one-fifth of all carbon, trapped in the soggy soil. If they continue to harden due to our interference and a warming climate, they will release that cocktail into the atmosphere to devastating effect.

“Too often in the past people have unwittingly considered wetlands to be problems in need of a solution, yet they are essential to the planet’s health,” UN under-secretary-general Konrad Osterwalder told more than 700 scientists at a recent conference on global warming. Delegates agreed it was easier and cheaper to save and protect these endangered areas now than to try to rebuild them later. Even today they still account for 6 percent of the world’s land surface, produce a quarter of all its food (think of paddy fields!), recharge aquifers, act as buffers against violent coastal storms and are vital habitats for many forms of wildlife.

I’ve seen for myself the result of wetland destruction all around the UK. In upland areas like Plynlimon in the Cambrian Mountains of mid-Wales and the North York Moors, farmers were paid to drain peat bogs in the mid-20th century to make the land more suitable for sheep.

Over the years, the thousands of ditches cleaved through the uplands expanded as the peat dried out. They became covered with vegetation, turning them into hidden death traps for sheep and danger zones for unwary walkers. Heavy rainfall, which happens regularly in those areas, results in surface water sweeping in torrents through the ditches and down into valleys, adding considerably to the hazards of flooding.

The Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust owns a large stretch of the Plynlimon uplands and it is taking action. Volunteers are starting to plug ditches there and I saw some impressive results when I visited. The sponginess is returning and mosses are replacing grass, which doesn’t grow easily on wet peat. And it looks as though the message is finally getting across that we need more wetlands to replace the ones that have gone. A Wetland Vision Partnership of government departments and conservation groups has been set up in England with the very purpose of creating new ones. It has been boosted by a £6m grant from Natural England.

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The Great Fen Project in East Anglia, that aims to create 3,700 hectares of wetland between Huntingdon and Peterborough, is already under way in an area that has lost 99 percent of its traditional fens. It will link two National Nature Reserves, Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen, by converting the farmland that lies between, while the Hanson RSPB wetland plan in Cambridgeshire will transform a quarry into 700 hectares of wetland. Fifteen other projects, from the Somerset Levels to the Solway Firth, will benefit from the Natural England funding so, not before time, wetlands are moving higher up the agenda.Let’s not forget that they are, quite simply, wonderful places to enjoy. What a pity the alarm didn’t sound sooner. And how much will the world listen to it now?