Mossdale (northern England) is the location of the study. The site is mostly covered by heather-dominated blanket bog with considerable sedge and Sphagnum presence in places. Peat is mostly intact to a depth of approximately  1.5 m. Photo: Heinemeyer / SEI.

Peatlands represent a globally important carbon stock. Peat soil carbon stock assessments rely on measurements of carbon concentration, bulk density and soil depth. However, peat surface levels – and thus soil depths – change (“bog breathing”) largely as a response to peat shrinkage and expansion in relation to water table changes. This study assessed the magnitude of and potential for this mechanism to influence carbon stock calculations under field and laboratory conditions. In the UK, most peatlands are upland blanket bogs, of which a large proportion are managed as ‘grouse moors’. This currently involves rotational burning, although alternative management is increasingly considered.

Peat depth and water tables were investigated on three grouse moors on blanket bog in northern England, comparing changes under different heather management interventions (burning, mowing and uncut). One site also allowed investigation of changes in relation to slope and under the three major bog vegetation types (ling heather, cottongrass and Sphagnum moss), which were compared to observed changes in peat cores under controlled laboratory conditions simulating periods of drought and re-wetting. Changes in depth and bulk density were recorded and the potential implications for carbon stock estimates were calculated.

Results highlight site specific relationships as potential habitat condition indicators and demonstrate that previously reported surface peat carbon losses resulting from enhanced decomposition under rising temperatures might also be explained by apparent changes due to peat shrinkage and expansion. It is recommended to accurately record bulk density and total peat depth measurements as part of peat carbon stock assessments.