Wetlands are the superheroes of the natural world. They are teeming with wildlife, protecting our coastlines, keeping our rivers clean and storing climate-changing amounts of carbon.
Yet, throughout much of history, they have been ignored at best and vilified and destroyed at worst. In recent years there have been public campaigns and money thrown in for tree planting and reforestation, but little mention has been made of the recovery of the UK’s swamps, swamps and swamps. But a quick scan through famous literature, paintings and even movies and TV shows will show you how often wetlands provide the unpleasant, sinister backdrop to dark storylines.
Fortunately, that is now changing. This was highlighted with the recent announcement of a 15,000-acre Somerset Wetlands National Nature Reserve. This is the UK’s second so-called “super reserve”, after Purbeck Heaths in Dorset. These reserves comprise a mosaic of different habitats and by linking them all together as part of a comprehensive landscape management plan, it is hoped that the region as a whole will benefit.
In this case, the new super reserve includes existing reserves on the levels and moors of Somerset, an area of coastal plains, fens, reed beds and salt marshes, which form the heart of the county.
These areas are estimated to contain about 11 million tons of carbon, in the form of peat: semi-digested dead plant material. When peatlands dry out — perhaps because they are being drained to make farmland or when peat is harvested for compost — vegetation decomposes much more quickly and carbon is released into the atmosphere.
Much of Somerset’s peat deposits have been and continue to be damaged over the centuries, releasing hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases each year. Their protection as carbon-locking powerhouses is essential if the UK is to achieve its net-zero targets in the coming decades.
The salt marshes on the edge of the new reserve are also carbon-rich habitats and can protect the coastline during storms and sea level rise. Then there’s the fauna that abounds in the area, from otters and kingfishers to eels and marsh frits (one of Britain’s rarest butterflies).
It’s not just the environmental and natural benefits of the new super reserve’s wetlands that make the project so special.
Britain’s history and heritage is imbedded in this area and the acidic boggy moors make it uniquely preserved for us to explore. For example, the UK’s oldest wooden walkway, the Sweet Track, was built 6,000 years ago to help Neolithic people cross the swamps. Since it was discovered in the 1970s, it has helped archaeologists understand how these people lived.
It is also perhaps only slightly melodramatic to say that England as we know it would not exist if it had not been for the Somerset levels and the “peat-steadiness” (as described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) have existed, providing King Alfred with the refuge and battlefield his small force needed while fighting the Vikings in the 800s. (Although he did burn some cakes in the process is up for debate historically).
It’s not just the Somerset region that will see the benefits of the proposed landscape-scale management plans – the whole country will be richer. Of course, some of the area is already under surveillance by conservation organizations and they are doing a great job. But this project goes beyond those individual sites and brings them all together on a larger scale.
Well-managed individual nature reserves, however large, can be fantastic. But when we merge and expand these pockets, we can really start controlling water flows, maximizing biodiversity, reducing carbon emissions and improving our own well-being. Indeed, research shows that at this scale we can make a real impact and unlock the potential of ‘nature-based solutions’ that can help natural ecosystems to tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis.
When these areas are large enough and dominated by coastal and freshwater swamps, the benefits are magnified as they look not just at the landscape, or even the seascape, but the ‘whole landscape’.
This ‘whole’ approach should be the way forward if we are to take the use of nature-based solutions seriously this century. And nature’s superheroes – our wetlands – need super nature reserves like the one in Somerset to show us what they can do.