Abstract

Peat moorlands are important habitats in the boreal region, where they store approximately 30% of the global soil carbon (C). Prescribed burning on peat is a very contentious management strategy, widely linked with loss of carbon. Here, we quantify the effects of prescribed burning for lightly managed boreal moorlands and show that the impacts on peat and C accumulation rates are not as bad as is widely thought. We used stratigraphical techniques within a unique replicated ecological experiment with known burn frequencies to quantify peat and C accumulation rates (0, 1, 3 and 6 managed burns since around 1923). Accumulation rates were typical of moorlands elsewhere, and were reduced significantly only in the 6-burn treatment. However, impacts intensified gradually with burn frequency; each additional burn reduced the accumulation rates by 4.9 g m−2 yr−1 (peat) and 1.9 g C cm−2 yr−1, but did not prevent accumulation. Species diversity and the abundance of peat-forming species also increased with burn frequency. Our data challenge widely held perceptions that a move to 0 burning is essential for peat growth, and show that appropriate prescribed burning can both mitigate wildfire risk in a warmer world and produce relatively fast peat growth and sustained C sequestration.

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Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available in: DataCat: the University of Liverpool Research Data Catalogue with the identifier https://doi.org/10.17638/datacat.liverpool.ac.uk/531 for peat and C accumulation rates65; and the NERC Environmental Information Data Centre with the identifier https://doi.org/10.5285/0b931b16-796e-4ce4-8c64-d112f09293f7 for species change66.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Nature Conservancy for having the foresight to initiate the Hard Hill Burning Experiment and the UK Environmental Change Network for its continuation. This work was funded by the Heather Trust and NERC/DEFRA (FIREMAN BioDiversa project (NE/G002096/1). S. Yee provided graphical support.

Author information

Author notes

    • K. A. Allen

    Present address: Institute of Integrative Biology, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, UK

    • J. G. Alday

    Present address: Department of Vegetal Production & Forestry Science, University of Lleida, Lleida, Spain

    • V. Santana

    Present address: Center for Environmental Studies in the Mediterranean, University of Alicante, Alicante, Spain

    • H. Lee

    Present address: National Institute of Ecology, Seocheon-gun, Republic of Korea

Affiliations

  1. School of Environmental Sciences, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, UK

    • R. H. Marrs
    • , E.-L. Marsland
    • , R. Lingard
    • , G. Milligan
    • , K. A. Allen
    • , J. G. Alday
    • , V. Santana
    • , H. Lee
    • , K. Halsall
    •  & R. C. Chiverrell
  2. Environmental Radioactivity Research Centre, Department of Mathematical Sciences, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, UK

    • P. G. Appleby
    •  & G. T. Piliposyan
  3. Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Bailrigg, UK

    • R. J. Rose
  4. Ptyxis Ecology, Lambley, Brampton, UK

    • J. O’Reilly

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Contributions

R.H.M. and R.C.C. planned and carried out the field sampling with R.J.R, E.-L.M., R.L. and K.H.; R.C.C. led the geochemistry/stratigraphy with E.-L.M. and R.L.; P.G.A. and G.T.P. were responsible for the radiometric dating. The vegetation survey and analyses were planned and performed by J.G.A., K.A.A., H.L., G.M., R.J.R., J.O’R. and V.S. The manuscript was produced by R.H.M. and R.C.C., with all authors contributing to the final version.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to R. H. Marrs.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-018-0266-6