Charles Darwin, the great naturalist who unlocked the secrets of evolution in the 19th Century, was obsessed with sundews. He grew them for years, conducting experiments involving them and a succession of unfortunate insects. In 1860, he wrote, “At the present moment, I care more about Drosera [sundews] than the origin of all the species in the world”, a bold statement coming from the author of the seminal On the Origin of Species.
However, the story of the sundews, and other carnivorous plants besides that shared the damp surroundings of their north-westerly home, begins some 10,000 years before they caught Darwin’s eye, at the time when the bogs of north-west England began to form. On the surface of those early mosses, a tapestry of sphagnum moss and other acid-loving plants abounded and, year by year, added just a little bit more fallen organic matter to the heavy black mass of saturated peat upon which they grew – an incremental accretion of plant material that, thanks to the wet and acidic ground conditions, didn’t rot, and instead compressed to form peat, locking millennia of carbon safely in the ground. Peat bogs cover just 3% of the Earth’s surface, but they store more carbon than all the planet’s forests combined.
Yet what took millennia to form was the work of short decades to undo. As Manchester grew as a city, drainage channels cut by man began to bisect the mosses, slowly but surely drying the elevated peat around them. Peat was extracted and sent into Manchester and, in return, Manchester’s inhabitants fertilised the drying, nutrient-poor soil. By the 1880s, the city was producing 200,000 tons of refuse annually, 75% of which was coyly known as “night soil”. Much of this was transported into the mosses and spread as fertiliser on what was perceived to be an unproductive wasteland. In time, much of the former peat bog became fertile, workable agricultural land.
Peat extraction, for fuel and compost, continued there well into the 20th Century, by which time 98% of the Manchester mosses had been destroyed. It’s only in recent decades that the scale of the loss of habitat and biodiversity has become recognised, let alone steps taken to address it.
Lancashire Wildlife Trust (LWT) has spearheaded the drive to save what’s left, working with landowners to improve the condition of the fragments of peatlands they own, campaigning for protection of peatland sites and, critically, purchasing key peatlands to protect them from destruction, restore them to their former glory and conserve them for future generations.