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Water Works is a two-year project which is piloting Wet farming (also known as paludiculture) using field scale trials, the first in the UK, at site within the Great Fen, Cambridgeshire. This system could change the face of farming in the Fens, whilst protecting peat soils, locking in carbon, supporting wildlife, and creating new economic opportunities for farmers, growers and producers.

Peat soil is one of our environmental assets. In good condition it helps us fight climate change, clean water and provides a home for wildlife. But as a society we are not looking after this asset as well as we should.

The traditional system for growing crops on peat started in the 17th Century. Land was made suitable for crops by draining the peat.Food production on peat intensified during the World Wars to meet growing demand. However, we now know that this traditional system is unsustainable. Dry, drained peat is blown away or lost during crop production. This ‘dry’ farming system means that peat is a large source of greenhouse emissions, which contributes to climate change.

There is an urgent need to change the way we care for and use our peat. One option is to move towards ‘Wet’ farming. This idea is not new to the world, rice is grown in wet paddy fields. But this idea is new to the UK and we have much to learn.

A wet farming system will allow us to grow food and other crops while protecting our climate and remaining peat soils. Wet farming reduces the CO2 emissions from peat, it even allows peat take up and store carbon from the atmosphere. It is estimated that for every 10 cm increase in the water table, there is a corresponding reduction in emissions of 3 tonnes of CO2 equivalents per hectare.

Change is needed. Dry farming systems result in the loss of 4.5 million m³ of peat a year across the fens; with up to 52% of CO2 emitted by farming in the UK comes from lowland peat soil. Water Works aims to reverse such losses. Working with partners University of East London (experts in wet farming) new crops that grow and thrive at higher water tables are being tested. These crops have wide applications in industry and medicine, these trial crops can also be used for food and flavourings.

The crops being trialled incude: Typha, Sphagnum moss, Reed, Glyceria and a range of novel crops. All the wet farming trial crops have the potential to create new, sustainable income streams for the region’s farmers and growers.

1 W. Wichtmann, C. Schröder and H. Joosten (eds.) Paludiculture – productive use of wet peatlands: Climate protection – biodiversity – regional economic benefits. Schweitzerbart, Stuttgart. pp. 100- 101. (ISBN: 9783510652839)