The UK hosts 15-19% of global upland ombrotrophic (rain fed) peatlands that are estimated to store 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon and represent a critical upland habitat with regard to biodiversity and ecosystem services provision. Net production is dependent on an imbalance between growth of peat-forming Sphagnum mosses and microbial decomposition by microorganisms that are limited by cold, acidic, and anaerobic conditions. In the Southern Pennines, land-use change, drainage, and over 200 years of anthropogenic N and heavy metal deposition have contributed to severe peatland degradation manifested as a loss of vegetation leaving bare peat susceptible to erosion and deep gullying. A restoration programme designed to regain peat hydrology, stability and functionality has involved re-vegetation through nurse grass, dwarf shrub and Sphagnum re-introduction.
Our aim was to characterise bacterial and fungal communities, via high-throughput rRNA gene sequencing, in the surface acrotelm/mesotelm of degraded bare peat, long-term stable vegetated peat, and natural and managed restorations. Compared to long-term vegetated areas the bare peat microbiome had significantly higher levels of oligotrophic marker phyla (Acidobacteria, Verrucomicrobia, TM6) and lower Bacteroidetes and Actinobacteria, together with much higher ligninolytic Basidiomycota. Fewer distinct microbial sequences and significantly fewer cultivable microbes were detected in bare peat compared to other areas. Microbial community structure was linked to restoration activity and correlated with soil edaphic variables (e.g. moisture and heavy metals). Although rapid community changes were evident following restoration activity, restored bare peat did not approach a similar microbial community structure to non-eroded areas even after 25 years, which may be related to the stabilisation of historic deposited heavy metals pollution in long-term stable areas. These primary findings are discussed in relation to bare peat oligotrophy, re-vegetation recalcitrance, rhizosphere-microbe-soil interactions, C, N and P cycling, trajectory of restoration, and ecosystem service implications for peatland restoration.
A press release is available at http://www.mmu.ac.uk/news/news-items/3550/