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Salford's 'rainforest': fighting for peat on Chat Moss

peat extraction on Chat Moss
Peat has been extracted to a depth of up to five metres on Chat Moss

Campaigners have dubbed it Salford's 'rainforest' - a 10,000 year old peat bog being dug up for garden compost. So how important is Chat Moss?

Chat Moss, a large peat bog, or mossland, to the west of Manchester, has been farmed for generations.

However, it is a plan to extract peat from the site for the next 15 years that has angered environmentalists.

Sundew plant
Sundew plants supplement their diet by digesting small insects

They argue that peat bogs like Chat Moss store huge amounts of carbon and allowing its excavation would release huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

It's also claimed that, as a unique habitat for plants such as sphagnum moss and the insectivorous sundew, it should be protected - much like nearby Astley Moss -now a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

David Crawshaw is mossland advisor for The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside.

"This is our rainforest," he said. "It has a crucial role in helping to prevent climate change."

Adding: "We've already lost 99% of moss lands in this area and allowing this application would remove two metres of peat which, in the southern part, would take it below the permissible limit."

Chat Moss campaigners also claim that if the area was protected and 're-wetted', it would eventually attract bog flora such as the bog myrtle, bog asphodel, bog rosemary, cranberry, cotton grass and purple moor grass.

They also say it would also encourage the return of creatures such as voles and lizards.

Peat-free?

Peat extraction began on an industrial scale after the War for use in horticulture to put nutrients back into the soil.

Since then, campaigners estimate that more than half the original 10m depth of peat has been lost.

Chat Moss
This is our rainforest. It has a crucial role in helping to prevent climate change.
David Crawshaw, mosslands advisor

Deep ditches are dug to drain the bog, the peat being 'milled' or skimmed off the surface then supplied to garden centres as compost.

But from this year, government targets require 90% of composts to be peat-free in an effort to preserve lowland peat bogs.

Bernard Burns is the chief executive of William Sinclair Holdings, which is applying to Salford City Council to renew its peat extraction licence.

He dismissed environmentalist claims that Chat Moss should be handed over for their protection.

"Lancashire Wildlife Trust are likening this to the loss of rainforest saying it's 'irredeemable' but it's just not true," he argued.

"When we have finished with the bog, we will restore it. We've done this in Scotland and, after five years, 86% of the original bio-diversity has returned."

Mr Burns said he also believed that Chat Moss was 'the most environmentally-friendly peat bog in the country' because of its low carbon footprint: 95% its peat, he added, is used locally, offsetting the three million cubic metres imported into the UK each year.

Adding: "If the scientific evidence exists that peat should be banned, I would support that. But I don't think [the environmental lobby] has a cogent argument yet."

History

Chat Moss is a 10 sq mile area of peat bog in Salford to the north of the River Irwell.

railway across Chat Moss
View of the railway across Chat Moss, by T T Bury (1831)

Formed by glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age, it provides a type of habitat found almost uniquely in the North West of England.

For a long time, it was a formidable boundary to the west of Manchester. In 1724, on his tour of Great Britain, the author Daniel Defoe wrote:

'From hence (Warrington), on the road to Manchester, we pass'd the great bog or waste call'd Chatmos, the first of that kind that we see in England.

The surface, at a distance, looks black and dirty, and is indeed frightful to think of, for it will bear neither horse or man, unless in an exceeding dry season, and then not so as to be passable, or that any one should travel over them... What nature meant by such a useless production, 'tis hard to imagine.'

Indeed, it was Chat Moss that offered the biggest obstacle to the construction of the world's first inter-city railway between Manchester and Liverpool .

Unable to drain the bog, rail pioneer George Stephenson ordered his engineers to tip stone and earth into the bog until a wooden foundation could be laid to carry the line.

The future of Chat Moss, certainly for the next 15 years, will be decided by Salford City Council this summer. The deadline for objections is Friday 4 June.




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