By Thomas Langford
Cambridge, where I live, is a small city amid the East Anglian wetlands in the U.K, known to us as fenlands.
Fenlands are one of the most carbon dense environments on the planet, which, if protected, reduce flooding, support diverse life systems and capture and lock in CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis.
The wet conditions of fenlands stop the plants from fully rotting, trapping CO2 which otherwise would be released into space. Peatlands in general store approximately 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon in the UK. Left undisturbed, they are a carbon sink but farmed they are an immense carbon and methane source.
Research shows that fenlands do not always act as carbon sinks: the fenlands themselves must be maintained as “healthy” fenlands. The National Trust’s Wicken Fen , for example, a local protected fenland, demonstrates within it both a carbon sink and source: one fen, Sedge Fen, is uncultivated and is a carbon sink whereas another, Baker’s Fen, has been farmed disturbing the carbon, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere and making it a carbon source .
To keep unprotected fenlands healthy, they need to be: kept wet (to prevent erosion which releases carbon into the air), to be planted appropriately with, for example, reed and sedge; and for wildlife areas to be created to encourage and protect the ecosystems. It is greatly important to ensure that the water flow in fenlands is free from obstruction. Reducing litter and re-planting the fens are areas with which the community and local councils can help once awareness of the problem has been raised.
There are community organisations which are currently working to promote restoration projects across our county and beyond, such as the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
The UKCEH is working with the government to monitor CO2 emissions over a 2 -year period resulting from different levels of water within the fenlands. Their work so far indicates that when the water levels are raised, it improves the quality of the soil and cuts back CO2 emissions.
The UK government has compiled a strategic wetland action plan to support the UK’s climate change programme and the EU’s L.I.F.E funding has assisted many wetland restoration projects. Such projects are a cheaper alternative to other methods being used to reduce greenhouse gases and, what is more, have the happy benefit of increasing biodiversity and enhancing the precious wetland ecosystems.
Government action is not enough though: they should be organising more ways to stop climate change, to raise awareness and to financially encourage people to change their habits to support the fenlands. Litter pick-ups are free, for example, but have a big impact on our planet.
Farming practices in fenlands are crucially important in keeping fenlands as carbon sinks. Across East Anglia, soil in the fenlands, when drained, is extremely rich and fertile and so has been heavily farmed for food production – our fen farms produce one third of the fresh vegetables farmed in the UK! .
Traditional farming practices require machines to cut into the land, churning up the earth, destroying the delicate ecosystem of worms and roots and, importantly, releasing CO2 stored within the carbon-rich fenland into the atmosphere.
Some local farmers that I interviewed are instead using the method of cover crops and direct drilling. This entails planting shallow rooted seeds such as clover and winter peas which take nitrogen from the air into the soil and block weeds, then planting the main crops directly into the covered field without ploughing or cultivating the land.
This reduces the need to pass over the field multiple times which would otherwise use a lot of diesel: farmers using this method are reporting a reduction of at least 50% in their diesel usage.
With this method, soil structure is maintained as it is only disturbed at a shallow level, allowing the worms and plant roots to thrive and create healthy soil as well as keeping carbon locked in.
The cover crops reduce the need for chemical fertilisers and provide food for grazing animals such as sheep (who, in turn, provide manure to further fertilise the land).
The farming community need more assistance and incentives for farmers choosing organic and conservation farming methods. Members of the public need to be made more aware so that consumers can choose to buy food from more climate smart, local food providers.
Fenlands are a crucial weapon in this climate war. Our planet has provided the means to heal itself if we take steps to protect them. Please help to spread awareness that fenlands are not just a wonderful place to spend time in but that they are also working hard to undo the damage we are doing to our planet. Small steps taken by individuals can make as much difference as big steps taken by governments.