Study to look at wildfire impact on peatland

01 September 2019

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UK/ENGLAND – A NEW study is set to investigate the impact on peatland of this year’s major wildfire in north Sutherland.

The Fire Blanket project will focus on the effects of the blaze on some 60 square kilometres of land between Melvich and Strathy in May.

The area is part of the Flow Country, which is under consideration for World Heritage Site status. Peatlands are renowned for their ability to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and to promote biodiversity.

The project team, led by researchers from University of the Highlands and Islands, will explore how the wildfire affected features such as vegetation and water quality. It will also follow the fate of carbon once it enters the streams and rivers draining from the site.

While data collection will be the main focus of the project, the team will also hold a workshop with land managers and other stakeholders to consider whether changes in management practices could help to reduce fire risks.

Such changes could include restoration of drained areas by drain blocking, removal of brash material (branches from coniferous trees left on site after harvest and extraction) or creation of fire breaks in areas where forestry on peat is removed as part of ongoing restoration efforts.

The year-long project is being funded by the Natural Environment Research Council. It will include researchers from the Environmental Research Institute at North Highland College UHI, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the National Oceanographic Centre, the University of Nottingham and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Scottish Natural Heritage, the James Hutton Institute, the Flow Country Rivers Trust and Scottish Water are also partners.

It is a unique opportunity to fill important gaps in knowledge.

Dr Roxane Andersen, a senior research fellow at the Environmental Research Institute, is leading the Fire Blanket project. She said: “Understanding how land use interacts with climate extremes in peatlands is essential to inform which management practices best maintain and enhance peatland carbon storage.

“However, this is notoriously challenging to achieve because climate extremes are rare and ephemeral. In addition, their effects can only be truly assessed where high-quality, ground-based observations predate an extreme event and where data from both impacted and similar control areas can be compared afterwards.

“All these conditions have come together in the recent Flow Country fire, providing us with a unique opportunity to fill important gaps in knowledge required to improve management of peatlands to minimise fire risk and maximise resilience. We also hope it will open up avenues for further research.”

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