Moorland drainage

Q: Why were our moors drained?
Grip blockingA: Although some moorland drainage is centuries old, in the 1960s and 70s government subsidies were paid to moorland owners to dig drainage ditches (sometimes called ‘grips’). Drainage was performed with the purpose of lowering the water table and removing surface water to improve the vegetation for livestock grazing, as part of the post-war drive for “more food from our own resources”. At the time there were thought to be benefits to grouse as well in improved food, cover and reduced disease transmission.

Q: What else did successive governments encourage drainage for?
A: Large areas of British moorland have been drained for commercial forestry, and woodland planting on the hill and hill edge continues to affect our hydrology. More than half of the agricultural land in Britain has been drained.

Q: Did the GWCT advise moor owners to dig drains for grouse?
A: No. As far back as 1970 our advice was that draining on level waterlogged peat was slow, costly and usually ineffective, and could lead to gully erosion.

Q: What are the effects of drainage?
A: Upland drainage has been associated with several negative effects on moorland, including changes in water flow over and through the soil, with increases and decreases in flood peaks, lowered water table, altered sediment flow, erosion, increased colouration of water and reduced invertebrate populations. For these reasons, many upland landowners, including grouse moor owners, are actively blocking drains to restore moorland at their own expense. The Moorland Association has reported an estimate by Natural England that around 18,000 hectares of moorland habitat on grouse moors has been restored across northern England.

Q: How are moors being ‘rewetted’?
A: Various methods are being used on a site-by-site basis. Typically, drains are physically blocked at intervals. Drains can be blocked with peat if they are small and on a flat area. Larger drains have been blocked with bales made of woody stems of heather, wood or plastic dams. Innovative drain-blocking uses old fishing nets filled with crushed glass. Some drains can also be ‘reprofiled’ where steep edges are flattened out, reducing flow rates and encouraging plant growth.

Q: Will this solve downstream flooding?
A: No, because eventually all these peatlands will be full of water with no more capacity. The National Ecosystem Assessment indicated that the opportunities for peatland restoration to modify runoff regimes were likely to be slight and were uncertain, but should be taken. In the long run, however, fully rewetted systems will not contribute to slow water release as saturated peat is 98% water and the water table so high that there would still be the likelihood of rapid runoff response.

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