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Peatlands and native woodlands are best for carbon storage

Words: Laura Edgar
UK native woodland / Diana Mower, Shutterstock_243810757

Peatlands and native UK woodlands have the greatest capacity to store carbon, according to research by Natural England.

Carbon Storage and Sequestration by Habitat 2021 considers the impact that different UK habitats have on taking carbon out of the atmosphere.

It suggests that peatlands and native woodlands have the greatest capacity in the UK, but others – such as coastal and marine habitats (salt marsh and seagrass meadows) – have a “significant” role to play in helping the UK to attain net-zero by 2050.

Additionally, the report maintains how important it is to protect traditionally managed habitats such as hedgerows, hay meadows, heathlands and old orchards as a way of preserving carbon stocks, all of which may have taken centuries to develop.

Opportunities will be forthcoming, according to Natural England, offering farmers and land managers a reward for creating and maintained habitats, such as native woodlands and peatlands, or hedgerows within farmed landscapes. The Landscape Recovery scheme, for example, is being designed to incentivise major land management changes and habitat restoration within wooded and peatland areas across England.

Dr Ruth Gregg, senior specialist for climate change at Natural England and lead author of the report, said: “Our natural and wild places will play a crucial role in tackling the climate crisis. This study gives the most complete picture of the impact of habitats around us in delivering carbon storage and sequestration. As well as highlighting the well-known importance of carbon stores such as peatland and woodland, we now have a much better understanding of the full impact of other habitats such as hedgerows and salt marshes, and how we should manage these going forward.

“Not only do our habitats capture carbon, but they provide many other benefits for biodiversity and the wellbeing of society. For habitat creation and restoration to achieve its full potential in helping the UK achieve net-zero by 2050 we need to act now, basing decisions on robust science and taking a strategic approach. This report will support Natural England, the government, and environmental organisations across the country to do just that.”

The study found:

  • Woodlands have high rates of carbon sequestration – depending on the species, age and location. New native woodlands can support biodiversity at the same time as taking up carbon. Old woodlands can become substantial carbon stores, with a hectare of native woodland sequestering the equivalent CO2 each year as flying London to Rome 13 times.
  • Salt marshes can be highly effective carbon stores, as well as helping coasts adapt to future climate change. Restoration of seagrass meadows also has potential to capture carbon from the atmosphere in its vegetation, and also trap carbon from elsewhere in sediments. One hectare of salt marsh each year buries the carbon equivalent of an average car’s annual carbon emissions.
  • Orchards and hedgerows are effective at storing significant amounts of carbon but generally cover a smaller area than other habitats and are cut regularly, limiting the amount of carbon gain. Their sensitive management, however, can increase carbon storage while providing benefits for wildlife and the cultural heritage in farmed landscapes.
  • Peatlands are the largest carbon stores. When in a healthy condition they soak up carbon slowly but can go on doing so indefinitely. Peatland soils can be over 10 metres deep, holding huge carbon stocks that have developed over many millennia. Carbon is held in the deep peat soils of fens and raised bogs hold eight times as much carbon as the equivalent area of tropical rainforest.
  • Heathlands and grasslands store more carbon than modern agricultural landscapes but less than peatlands, salt marsh and old woodlands. Protecting these old, established habitats is important for biodiversity, as well the carbon stocks they hold, as both may have taken centuries to accumulate.

Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England, added: “By combining different policies and strategies on land and at sea, then major climate related benefits can be achieved. Woodland creation incentives, peatland recovery, action on farms, renaturalisation of the coast and landscape-scale nature recovery projects can all contribute. The climate change and nature emergencies are two sides of the same coin and with this kind of information the UK can lead in showing how we can go low carbon and high nature at the same time.”

Earlier this month, the Woodland Trust's The State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021 found that native woodlands in the UK are “‘isolated and in poor ecological condition”, with just 7 per cent in good ecological condition.

Darren Moorcroft, CEO at the Woodland Trust said: “The Woodland Trust’s State of Woods and Trees 2021 report provided new evidence for the substantial levels of carbon held in ancient woods, storing 36 per cent of total UK woodland carbon, despite comprising only 25 per cent of all woodland.

“These carbon stores are expected to double over the next 100 years, demonstrating the importance of protecting and restoring these irreplaceable habitats. Acknowledging the significance of native woodlands and other valuable habitats as natural solutions to climate change and nature recovery is vital for tackling the climate crisis and we welcome this contribution from Natural England to the growing evidence base."

Carbon Storage and Sequestration by Habitat 2021 can be found here.

Read more:

UK’s native woodlands in ‘poor’ ecological condition

Image credit | Diana Mower, Shutterstock