Research carried out by scientists from Earthwatch, the international environmental charity, has reinforced the urgent need to protect Europe's remaining peat bogs.
Dubbed the ‘rainforests of Europe' as they are so diverse in wildlife, peat bogs contain more than 20 per cent of the world's carbon. However, western Europe has lost most of its natural peat bogs, largely due to peat extraction for horticulture.
Over the last three years, Earthwatch scientists have conducted the first botanical survey of Yelyna, the largest raised peat bog in Europe and a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, which stretches over 26,175 hectares. In 2002 a series of fires decimated 85 per cent of the bog, resulting in considerable economic loss for local people who rely on the harvesting of swamp cranberries.
This research led to the discovery of 17 new locations of eight rare and endangered plants at Yelyna. In response, the Belarus Ministry of Natural Resources announced the creation of a national peat bog monitoring programme that will ensure plant hotspots at Yelyna are protected.
Two bogs, Velikiiji Moh and Fomino (equating to 5,016 hectares), have also been designated as protected nature sanctuaries as a direct result of the research. Between them, these bogs will absorb and store approximately 1,354.32 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year - equivalent to the combined emissions of almost 300 London households.*
"It is estimated that globally, peat bogs store twice as much carbon as forests," explains Nat Spring, Head of Research at Earthwatch (Europe). "Even if most people don't know that the bogs of Belarus exist, protecting them is of vital importance if we are to combat climate change."
The bogs of Belarus provide an important refuge for migratory birds as they travel between western Europe and northern Russia, including the most threatened species of bird in Europe, the aquatic warbler.
The long-term goal of this research project is to inform the effective conservation of all of the raised bogs of Belarus. Since 2004, 90 Earthwatch volunteers have donated their time to help survey these peat lands. They include members of the public, corporate employees and Eastern European scientists and educators funded through Earthwatch's capacity development programme.
Images © Caroline Rodgers