Planting under way on ‘wet farming’ trial to protect peat in climate fight


Volunteers are planting crops that could flavour gin, clean up air pollution or provide materials for lithium batteries in a “wet farming” trial to protect peat.

Drained peat soils release carbon but raising the water table and restoring the peat can reverse the process as part of efforts to tackle the climate crisis, experts say.

So Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire (BCN) Wildlife Trust is testing out alternative crops in East Anglia’s Fens that can tolerate growing in a wetter landscape that stores carbon, cleans water and boosts wildlife.

The £1 million Water Works project, funded by the People’s Postcode Lottery, also aims to “future-proof” the farming landscape of the Fens.

The lowland peat, drained in the past for agriculture, faces reverting to wetland again in the next 100-150 years, as sea levels rise and the dried-out peat erodes, experts warn.

A five-hectare (12 acre) area of the Great Fen project – a 14-square mile scheme to restore fenland in Cambridgeshire – has been given over to trial planting beds to demonstrate the crops could be commercially viable.

Crops are being planted that can tolerate a wetter landscape (Emily Beament/PA)
Crops are being planted that can tolerate a wetter landscape (Emily Beament/PA)

Planting was delayed in the spring by coronavirus, but in the past month, volunteers have been taking part in Covid-safe work parties to plant the perennials by hand.

The main species being planted include manna grass, a wild grain which could provide a new cereal crop, and reed, which has uses such as thatching and even the potential to make silicon which could be used in lithium batteries.

Bulrush, which can be used for bioenergy and building material including insulation, and sphagnum moss are also being grown.

Sphagnum helps restore peatland and can be used as an alternative to peat in horticulture, as well as for wound dressings and food wraps because of its anti-microbial properties.

Crops for food such as water cress, as well as plants for flavourings are being grown in the trial (Emily Beament/PA)
Crops for food such as water cress, as well as plants for flavourings are being grown in the trial (Emily Beament/PA)

And it could be used for barriers that catch pollutants and reduce air pollution in urban areas, according to Richard Lindsay, from the University of East London (UEL), one of the partners in the project.

Sphagnum also provides habitat for other wildlife, such as insects, which could be maximised by harvesting areas of the sphagnum in rotation, and a place to grow carnivorous plant sundew which is a valuable crop for a medicinal cordial.

Meanwhile, the scheme is trialling a series of “novel” crops for food, including water cress and wild celery, meadow sweet and bog myrtle for flavourings and plants with medicinal potential such as comfrey and yellow flag iris.

Carbon levels are being measured and wildlife is being monitored – with species such as snipe and badgers already spotted.

It is hoped the scheme is on a big enough scale that farmers, who are being encouraged to visit, can see how they could make it work on their land.

Kate Carver, Great Fen project manager, said they were also hoping to attract chefs and gin companies who might want to use the flavourings in their products.

She said BCN Wildlife Trust was interested in “nature-based” solutions to problems such as looking after the soil, cleaning water and locking in carbon.

And she said: “Our community is a farming community, we want to work with them to find ways they can look after the natural environment through nature-based solutions and make a living.”

Mr Lindsay said: “The whole idea is future-proofing the Fens.

“Sea level is rising faster than expected and the ground is sinking, and 150 years from now this land will be wetland, so do we just abandon the land to nature or do we begin future-proofing the agriculture system now?”

He added that wet farming or paludiculture was “coming whether we want it or not, so we can either stick our heads in the ditch and pretend it isn’t coming, or face it and say ‘how do we enable farmers to carry on having an income from this land?’.”