South West Peatland Partnership: Counting sheep to help restore peat across the UK's South West

March 14, 2023

Peatland restoration isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. It takes a range of innovative techniques and indepth monitoring to make sure that methods to raise the water table and prevent further degradation are as effective as possible. By working collaboratively, the South West Peatland Partnership (SWPP) are doing just that on Dartmoor whilst understanding impact, supporting farmers and taking steps to restore vital peatlands.


Area of Dartmoor undergoing restoration methods, January 2023 SWPP

The peatlands of Exmoor, Dartmoor and Cornwall are of global importance, holding significant amounts of carbon-storing, water-filtering, wildlife-supporting peat in the form of blanket bogs and valley mires. However, over centuries, human activities such as draining the moorland, peat-cutting, tin streaming and reclamation have dried large areas. This has impacted habitats and waterways, with ecological diversity lost and the carbon storage capacity of peatland reduced. This also has a knock-on effect on the traditional grazing of the landscape, with minimal water for livestock found across the landscape other than in streams and rivers, and areas of the ground that crumble underfoot.


By working together, the South West Peatland Partnership is aiming to restore 2,634 hectares of degraded peatlands across the region before 2025. A £13 million project delivering peatland restoration in the UK's South West, the majority of the funding comes from Natural England’s Nature for Climate Peatland Restoration scheme (NCPGS) with significant match funding from South West Water, the Duchy of Cornwall, the National Trust and Cornwall Council, with support in kind coming from many other vital partners involved in the project.


Sheep wearing tracking collars. DigitanimalA key feature of the partnership is working closely with farmers and commoners to understand traditional methods of managing the peatlands and how they want to see the landscape shaped over the coming years for the benefit of people, livestock, wildlife and the planet. In Dartmoor National Park, the Dartmoor Commoners Council is the statutory body responsible for good livestock husbandry on the commons. They know that the future conservation of the area is heavily dependent on the survival of hill farmers and their ability to graze animals. Farmers and commoners have a key role in year-round food production, upholding animal welfare and acting as stewards for nature and the countryside, such as those part of a collaborative approach to restore and champion the vital peatlands, by combining the latest technology with traditional farming practices.


To support this, the SWPP is investing in a range of monitoring methods to survey the peatlands and to better understand how people and livestock interact with areas before, during and after restoration. In a first for peatland restoration in the area, 100 sheep were fitted with Digitanimal GPS-tracking collars before being put out to graze on Dartmoor National Park in early summer 2022. These collars allow the farmer and SWPP monitoring teams to track stock movements in real time over the next few years, identifying how livestock are adapting to the peatland restoration that happens on the ground and gathering insights on how they interact with the changing landscape across the centre of the North Moor.


Colin Abel, a farmer involved with the sheep monitoring said:

“By tracking the sheep before, during and after restoration we will be better able to understand how the work affects our livestock’s ability to move across the area, so we can ensure the peatland restoration doesn’t create barriers that prevent the grazing that is so important to the management of these areas.”

Colin added the benefit of this project to assessing the farmer and commoner interactions with the landscape:

“We are also using phones to track how we move across the area, when checking and gathering our sheep, so the restoration team can keep these routes useable by creating wider dams that quadbikes can cross. This means we will still be able to look after our sheep without compromising the benefit of the restoration."

Data from Digitanimal collars showing sheep in designated areas.This monitoring is particularly important with the influence of climate change and the drought conditions seen on the moorland across the region in 2022. Further data will also be collected on access routes for farmers themselves, identifying any changes in traditional patterns of how livestock are gathered or checked on. The SWPP restoration team can work with farmers using this data to assess any changes that occur and how methods can be adapted to ensure continual easy access across the area, such as creating bridges and stream crossings.






Deborah Deveney, SWPP Monitoring Manager said of the importance of working alongside farmers in peatland restoration and monitoring: 

‘The knowledge and sensitive relationship that upland farmers have with the land is intrinsic to the long-term success of the peatland restoration ambitions, so working with the farmers to help us monitor these areas is key. 

Farming in these marginal areas is challenging but these extensive grazing systems are integral to the recovery of peatland, ensuring the survival of wildlife which depends on these habitats whilst supporting carbon & water storage, improving water quality, protecting cultural landscapes and supporting vibrant local communities.”

Very soon SWPP will be recruiting for a monitoring role within the team, keep an eye on their twitter for this and other opportunities to join them in the UK’s South West.