The Guardian Country Diary: the heather is a burnt burgundy, the grass yellowed

The moors are a tinderbox. Parched and crisped by weeks of dry summer heat, the heather is a burnt brown-to-burgundy, the moorland grass yellowed. The bracken looks all right – still a deep pea-green (it takes a lot to bother bracken) – but finger-wide cracks have opened in the colourless peat of the footpath. It’s early morning; the day hasn’t yet been fully cranked up, and the broken sky is a messy palette of blues and greys. A loose flock of a dozen meadow pipits forages for caterpillars.

Rombalds Moor covers the hump of upland separating Airedale in the south from Wharfedale in the north. Walking the sun-baked flanks of the Wharfe catchment, we’d found that Barden Moor and Barden Fell had been closed due to the risk of fire. Those are grouse moors, and so is this: every so often I frighten a bird up out of the bents, and I can hear them burping and clucking around the grit stations set up by the gamekeepers.

A dry peatland is a manmade phenomenon. “Peatland habitats form over thousands of years,” Dr Tim Thom, peat programme manager at Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, tells me. “As a society, we’ve spent decades drying them out.”

A healthy peatland should be wet, a cool, dark blanket of deep peat and saturated sphagnum moss. Breeding waders like it that way; so do raptors, lizards, cottongrasses and carnivorous sundew plants. But years of “reclamation” – ditch-digging and burning, mainly – mean that it’s now a threatened habitat in the UK.

Some peatlands amount to historical ruins: landscapes that were millennia in the making (a metre of peat represents a thousand years of steady mulching) reduced to bare dirt and ragged peat-hags. A few, thanks to backbreaking work by conservation and restoration groups, like the Yorkshire Peat Partnership, thrive. Most are somewhere in between – their fate still hangs in the balance.

From Ilkley Moor, to the north, a curlew whinnies. A short-eared owl flaps heavily along the near horizon. The sun is beginning to break through.

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