TO MOST of us, the wild, sweeping tracts of peatland covering our moors appear bleak and lifeless.

But these swathes of land, with vast areas of blanket or ‘peat’ bog, provide valuable homes for wildlife, store carbon to fight against combat climate change and help to deliver clean water for us to drink.

Decades of erosion due to atmospheric emissions during the industrial revolution, heather burning and other practices have damaged these areas and work is now being undertaken to restore them.

A £6 million project, Pennine PeatLIFE, launched last year, is helping fix large swathes of peatland, some of which lies on the moors between Wharfedale and Bishopdale in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

Other targeted areas in the national park are Fleet Moss at the head of Wharfedale, near the source of the River Wharfe, West Arkengarthdale near Reeth and Forest of Bowland.

By protecting and planting more peatland mosses, the project - whose partners are North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and Forest of Bowland AONB - will reduce soil erosion. Landowners involved in the project include Yorkshire Water.

Peatlands are naturally waterlogged systems. This slows down decomposition and enables plant remains containing carbon removed from the atmosphere by photosynthesis, to be laid down as peat meaning that they can play a key role in climate regulation.

Once the peatland is damaged it is no longer waterlogged and the plant species that make the land, such as Sphagnum mosses, cannot survive. Once these are lost bare peat areas can form and the surface dries, crumbles and cracks, rapidly eroding during severe weather.

For this reason much of the UK’s peatland is no longer gathering and storing carbon. As a result of decades of unsuitable land management practices it has instead become a significant source of greenhouse gases, currently emitting 16 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year.

Restoring peatlands aims to reverse this damage can be achieved by covering bare peat areas with vegetation, blocking drains to create waterlogged conditions, and re-introducing sphagnum moss.

“One aspect of the work is to block a small number of drainage ditches to raise the level of the water table and help to restore the surface,” says Dr Tim Thom, Skipton-based peat programme manager for Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.

“Flatter areas of peat have eroded possibly due to wildfires. We are re-vegetating and also planting sphagnum mosses. Hopefully in the next few decades the areas should recover and start functioning as peat bogs.”

Badly eroded areas are home to deep-sided gullies and peat hags - a type of erosion usually affecting the sides of gullies as a result of water eroding downwards into the peat, or where a fire or overgrazing has exposed the peat surface causing it to dry out and blow or wash away.

“Where we have vertical sides we re-profile them into 30-degree slopes and spread moss-rich heather brash on to the area as well as cotton-grass, crowberry and grasses to help bind the bare peat and re-vegetate the ground,” says Tim.

He adds: The UK’s fairly unique climate - cool and wet and not too cold in winter, is perfect for the formation of blanket bog.”

The project aims to restore 1,300 hectares of bog - an area the size of around 1,000 cricket pitches.

Peat programme manager with the North Pennines AONB Paul Leadbitter says: “We have to stabilise the peat first with a ‘nurse’ crop such as grass and then grow a native species. We use-sphagnum-rich brash, cut locally, and coir rolls to slow down the water flow. Sedimentation will gradually build up and allow the vegetation to grow again.”

Timber dams are also being constructed, one being above Grimwith Reservoir near Skipton.

Working with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the restoration work follows the UK Peatland Code, setting out best practice.

The bulk - 60 per cent - of funding comes from the EU LIFE project which supports environmental, nature conservation and climate-related projects throughout the EU, with the remainder from match funders the Environment Agency, Yorkshire Water, United Utilities and Northumbrian Water.

Rob Stoneman, chief executive of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust said: “More than 13 per cent of the world’s blanket bog is found in the UK. We therefore have a vital role to play in the protection of this globally important habitat and Pennine PeatLIFE is a major step forward in achieving this.”

Blocking drains and slowing down run off can also help to alleviate the risk of flooding in lowland areas.

Wildlife benefits from the blanket bog ecosystem-restoring project, with the areas important for birds such as the curlew, golden plover and lapwing, Insects including crane flies inhabit the bogs and special plants such as sundew - a carniverous species which catches small insects on its sticky leaves - grow.

The work also means that drinking water collected by Yorkshire Water’s reservoirs has less sediment before it is treated. The company's catchment manager Andrew Walker says: “Forty five per cent of the water we treat comes from upland catchments, so they are a really important source for us. Healthy peatlands not only deliver cleaner water, but can help reduce the impact of downstream flooding, as well as mitigate against a changing climate.”