So many of you have have signed the Flight of the Swans petition, which we hope will bring about a government commitment to reinstate 100,000 hectares of wetlands to the UK, providing vital habitat for Bewick's swans and other species in decline. We spoke to WWT's chief scientist, Geoff Hilton, about why wetlands are so essential.
Most of the water on earth is seawater, some is ice but the rest of the watery places on this planet are wetlands - mountain streams, lakes, rivers, marshes, bogs, even the pond in your back garden.
“Think of them as a system of wetlands that makes up our planet, all heading ultimately back into the ocean,” says Geoff Hilton, WWT’s chief scientist.
At their most basic, wetlands are essential for our planet simply because water is essential for life on earth. But they give us so much more than that, they provide food and habitats for humans, animals and plants and they perform an important ecological function too by cleaning our water.
Think for a minute of your home. What do you flush down the toilet, pour down the sink or slosh down the drain? Where does it all go? The answer is ultimately into a wetland. As the water passes through that wetland powerful microbes perform a biological process cleaning up the water so that by the time the water runs off again it is cleaner.
Their time is now
Today wetlands have another important role to play. Flood defence. In the last few years, serious flooding has brought desolation to some areas of the UK. Engineered ‘hard defences’ have a role to play, but they are increasingly expensive, and if they do fail, the results can be catastrophic. Engineers and flood defence experts are increasingly looking to natural solutions as part of our efforts to keep our towns above water.
“Rainfall in the hills is carried into streams and rivers, and then down to the lowlands where most of us live. The way we have managed land and rivers in recent decades is speeding up the flow, meaning that more water arrives more quickly into the pinch points – which are often our towns and cities. The result is a deluge of water bursting riverbanks and flood defences, leading to mass flooding in the valleys many of us live in," explains Geoff.
A healthy wetland, on the other hand, acts like a giant sponge, helping to slow down the water when we have heavy rainfall. A peat bog, a floodplain or a marsh will absorb water, and release it steadily over a longer period which is exactly the effect we want.
“Part of the answer is having a healthy system of wetlands in place - meandering streams, bogs, floodplains or marshes – so that as the water continues its journey downwards the water will arrive at its destination in a slower, more gentle manner rather than in a big, bank-breaking rush,” says Geoff.
Pioneering flood defence
Geoff and the team at WWT are working on several natural flood defence projects.
“It’s not about going back to the old ways or abandoning all those years of work on man-made flood defence it is simply about combining our resources and working with nature rather than against it,” he says.
“Flood defence experts involved have been surprised at how effective natural flood defence can be. It’s small-scale stuff but it’s making all the difference," says Geoff.
"By using debris that has fallen into streams and rivers up in the hills – a few bits of wood, a fallen willow tree – they create little hold ups here and there which slows the water down, little pools around the streams and small areas of marshland in the woods. It stops water hitting woodland tracks and rushing down the hill into our towns."
Saving the planet
If wetlands are key in the battle against flooding they could also prove to be a valuable tool in the fight against global warming.
“Wetlands store huge amounts of carbon, which is a key factor in reducing climate change,” says Geoff. “The most efficient places at doing this are peat bogs, and Britain is one of the peatiest places on earth, because of its rain.”
Unfortunately we don’t have a history of treating our peatbogs with much respect. Years of digging out peat to use as fuel and garden compost has had an impact but, according to Geoff, restoring and protecting them is one of the biggest environmental no-brainers going.
“Peat bogs suck carbon out of the air and lock it in to the ground. The mosses growing in them don’t rot and release carbon like other plants when they die but instead compress and retain the carbon, in enormous quantities. If they are maintained as healthy functioning wetlands, not drained or dug up they can really help with the problem,” he says.
There is no doubt that healthy and plentiful wetlands support life on earth. They provide food and homes, minimize flooding, clean our water and reduce carbon. They are also beautiful, inspiring places that make this planet a happier and healthier place for us to all live.
“Access to nature makes you healthier and getting close to nature really helps people get happier, hard scientific evidence shows this,” says Geoff. “We need to get across to people how much wetlands have to offer.”