Bog Life student wins Innovation Prize

Left: Emily Howes in the Lancaster Environment Centre building smiling to camera. Right: Emily Howes and a colleague sat among bog vegetation in the sunshine taking gas measurements using a transparent plastic dome placed on the ground between them

Emily Howes became curious about the workings of the natural world during family holidays in the Lake District and Snowdonia. She became increasingly fascinated by the landforms and wildlife she could see around her.

“I think it is really important to understand how the planet works if we are going to solve the issues that it faces such as pollution and climate change and sea levels rising,” explains Emily, who decided to study Physical Geography at Lancaster University after being impressed by the lecturers’ passion for their subject at the Open Day.

When it came to choosing her final dissertation research project, Emily wanted to do something practical and decided to apply for one working with Natural England at its peatland restoration site at Bolton Fell Moss near Carlisle in Cumbria. “I’m really interested in soil science, and knew I wanted to do a dissertation with a company and to work in conservation, so that project stood out to me.”

A few weeks later Emily found herself in the middle of a desolate brown expanse which, over 60 years, had been stripped of surface peat to be used in compost. It was a shocking sight.

“It was like a massive brown carpet with nothing growing on it, all the surface peat had been ripped out. There was one area where the peat was left undisturbed and you saw all the natural vegetation. It made me realise what a mess people could make.”

Other areas of the stripped bog were being restored by Natural England as part of the Cumbria BogLIFE Project, funded by the EU LIFE Programme. Natural England is monitoring the Fell to see how peat restoration can help mitigate climate change by increasing carbon storage. Emily’s project was supporting this process.

“Natural England is using a range of restoration methods,” said Emily. They are putting in sphagnum moss all over the place, hoping it will recolonise. A peat bog naturally has some hummocky areas, so they are building artificial hummocks and are putting in bunds to block drainage channels to stop water draining off. They are also removing trees from some areas, to stop them draining the bog.”

Emily’s job was to collect samples of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) from the different areas, seeing what affect difference the innovative restoration methods were having on emissions of these greenhouse gases.

“I had dome shaped chambers that I put over collars which been put into the peat, and then extracted the gas using a syringe. I brought the samples back to the Lancaster Environment Centre to measure the CO2 and methane using a gas chromatography machine. I went back every two weeks for ten weeks, to see if there had been any changes.”

Emily, who had joint supervisors from Natural England and Lancaster University also measured peat temperature, vegetation type and water table levels at each different area.

Her results showed that the areas with restoration treatments did have lower CO2 emissions, but these weren’t statistically significant.

“It was interesting, you could see that there might be a direction of change developing on a very small scale, but I’d have needed a lot longer than ten weeks to show if the restoration was going well.”

Emily’s work also supported earlier studies that show that increasing water table levels to restore natural peat habitat is likely to increase methane levels.

Andrew Cole, Emily’s supervisor from Natural England, said: “The restoration work has increased water levels and introduced native peatland plants to re-vegetate the bare peat surfaces. These changes will have consequences for greenhouse gas emissions and carbon storage across the peatland sites. Emily’s project was the first time the spatial variability of these net greenhouse gas emissions has been measured after restoration on a lowland Cumbrian site.”

Despite the inconclusive results, Emily enjoyed the research and felt she learnt a huge amount.

“It was the first time I’d planned and run my own research project: I learnt a lot about planning and time management, and about lab skills and statistics. I ended up with a much better understanding of how the environmental sector works, and how these restoration projects are managed. It was very helpful because I want to go into conservation as a career."

Not only did Emily’s dissertation project win her the Innovation Prize and help her get a first class degree, it was also invaluable when she applied for her first graduate job, a year-long paid placement at the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.

“The experience at Natural England informed everything I said in the interview: having quite specific knowledge about a particular habitat really helped and I got asked my views about restoration projects, so I had plenty to discuss. A lot of the skills I developed during this project were useful as well.”

Emily got the placement and is starting her new role in September.

“I get to travel around Yorkshire, getting involved in public engagement, in surveys and managing different habitats, as well as running my own environmental campaign. I get to do lots of different training courses, which will be brilliant.”

Emily’s prize was sponsored by the Lancaster Environment Centre Enterprise & Business Partnerships team, who match students up with organisations who have a research project they want doing or have student internships or placements available.

Find out more about studying Geography at the Lancaster Environment Centre.

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