The land beneath the Lakes

Lake District

30 August 2013 by Tom Marshall

The carbon in soils and vegetation needs careful management if it's to stay put. But what does this mean on the ground? Tom Marshall talked to those responsible for the Lake District's landscape to find out.

To the casual visitor, it might not look like the Lake District National Park's carbon emissions need much management. Splendid vistas, rolling uplands and the odd brooding crag, fine. Heavy industry and power generation? Not so much.

For all its beauty, though, this is a working landscape. The activities of the people who work it emit greenhouse gases that add to climate change. And not only by burning fossil fuels; changes to how we use the land itself can have an even bigger effect, releasing carbon that's been stored for centuries or millennia in woodlands and peat soils.

It's a global problem; there's more carbon in soil and vegetation worldwide than in the whole atmosphere, so even marginal changes can make a big difference. The Lake District itself is estimated to hold the equivalent of 84 million tonnes of CO2 in peat, which underlies some 40 per cent of the park, and some 13 million more in woodlands.

The Lake District National Park Authority decided to take action on emissions, collaborating with the University of Cumbria on a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP), funded by NERC and the Technology Strategy Board. Aimed at getting scientific expertise to where it's needed, KTPs involve scientists acting as information conduits between researchers and those who could put that research to work.

In this case that's Sam Hagon, a geographer whose job over the last three years has been to develop and implement a plan for landscape carbon management across the national park. This has involved a lot of conversations with everyone involved - from farmers and park rangers to water companies, landowners and bodies like the National Trust, Environment Agency and Forestry Commission.

"The National Park Authority aims to be a leader in addressing climate change, and there's a growing awareness that long-term decisions about land management need to take carbon into account," she says. "So they knew they had to do something, but weren't sure exactly what. My job has been to find out."

The park emits around 2·3m tonnes of CO2 a year. (For comparison, total UK greenhouse gas emissions are around 550 million tonnes a year.) The Authority and its partners have agreed to cut this by one per cent every year for the long term. The KTP has helped provide the information needed to maximise carbon savings from land management, contributing to this reduction target.

Hagon's first job was to meet the different groups who manage and use the park. "We wanted to learn where they are now, where they'd like to be and how to get there," she explains. Their knowledge of the issues turned out to be mixed. Some doubted climate change is even happening. Others were concerned about it - unsurprisingly, given the weather's impact on their work - but didn't realise that how they manage the land could make a difference.

Sam Hagon addresses a group of users of the Lake District National Park.

Sam Hagon addresses a group of users of the Lake District National Park.

Once the first phase had revealed this serious information deficit, Hagon moved on to designing ways to plug the knowledge gap and help the park's users understand practical steps they could take to help.

"If we wanted to engage with individual farmers and land managers, we knew we needed to explain the science in a relevant way - things like expressing the carbon emissions per acre of land in terms of the equivalent number of plane flights," Hagon says. "You can't expect busy farmers to read long scientific reports; they want clear guidance on things they should and shouldn't do."

Launched in June 2013, Hagon's 'information toolkit' has three main parts. She created a booklet that explains the basics of land-based carbon and how it's affected by land management in a way that's accessible to readers with no scientific background. It sets out things to consider when managing different habitats. So if a farmer's land contains large areas of bracken, say, they can easily find out that they should avoid soil erosion on these sites, which often sit on deep soils and so can contain substantial quantities of underground carbon that soil erosion will release to the atmosphere.

For recently-drained bogs, on the other hand, they could think about blocking drainage ditches to re-wet the peat. This should mean no more peat carbon is lost to the atmosphere, and eventually peat may start forming again. The booklet sets out the key points about each possible action, with guidance on how to find out more.

The second is an interactive carbon map of the park, drawing on satellite data to show exactly how much carbon is contained in soil and vegetation in different places. And Hagon has also created detailed case studies of particular farms, looking at how much carbon they contain, which good practices are already happening and what further changes could be made. The case studies look at cheap options, like tweaking how the farmer tills the land, and more ambitious ones like planting new woodland to absorb more carbon.

The information isn't aimed only at those directly managing the land; it's also designed to be used by those who advise them - park rangers and bodies like Natural England and the Forestry Commission.

The KTP recently ended, but the carbon-management programme continues. As new Environmental Stewardship Agreements take effect, farmers, foresters and estate managers sign up to five or ten-year plans for how they'll make sure their land absorbs as much carbon, and emits as little, as possible.

And while the early consultation showed more information was needed, the picture wasn't all bleak. Those managing the land agree they're well placed to help with managing its emissions - after all, they know it best. But many didn't feel they could afford to do much without outside support. "They're trying to run a business; you can't ask them to spend lots of money for purely altruistic reasons," Hagon says.

Funding is available, though, from various agri-environmental schemes already in place. Three quarters of the Park's farmers are already involved with such schemes in some way, and although most of them were intended primarily to protect wildlife, many also have carbon benefits. For example, low fertiliser inputs and hedgerow maintenance both deliver carbon benefits. More recently, money is available for woodland creation from private businesses wanting to support UK climate-change projects, and Hagon has been trying to spread word of the opportunity to farmers.

Her project's overall goal is to bring all these different considerations together so they can be tackled holistically. "Peat is good for biodiversity, for the climate, for water quality and for flood reduction," she says. "Or with grassland, increasing soil organic matter both helps from a carbon perspective and improves productivity, which is good for farmers - it's win-win."

The National Park and its partners also hope to use the knowledge gained from the KTP to set up an innovative carbon brokerage facility, which will put farmers looking for money for such carbon-friendly projects in touch with companies that want to finance them to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility.

Other problems are harder to solve - the answer to overgrazing is generally to graze less, which farmers don't like. But in general, addressing environmental problems doesn't have to be bad for business. "We want to work in partnership with the people who are using the land, not just dictate to them," Hagon says. "The KTP is over, but our goal all along has been to build something that lasts much longer."

More information
The carbon management toolkit is available on the Lake District National Park website - external link