Water quality effects of peat rewetting and leftover conifer brash, following peatland restoration and tree harvesting

Paul p.j. Gaffney, Qiuhong Tang, Sabolc Pap, Anna Mcwilliam, Jacqueline Johnstone, Yuan Li, Ilgaz Cakin, Daniela Klein, Mark a. Taggart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Harvesting of plantation conifers on peatlands is carried out as part of restoration and forestry operations. In particular, in the UK and Ireland, conifer plantations on drained ombrotrophic blanket and raised bogs are increasingly being removed (by harvesting), along with blocking of drainage ditches to help raise water tables to reinitiate and restore bog vegetation and function. However, both tree harvesting and peatland restoration operations can have significant impacts on water quality at local and catchment scales. Previous research has suggested that leaching from leftover decomposing brash (tree tops and branches, including wood and needles) is the primary cause, while other work has suggested that release from rewetted peat also contributes to water quality changes. This research investigates the relative importance of peat rewetting, needles and branches on water quality using mesocosm experiments, to help elucidate the mechanisms behind water quality changes following restoration and harvesting operations.

Peat and brash were collected from a drained afforested blanket bog in the Flow Country, Scotland. Short-term mesocosm experiments were conducted by incubating peat, peat + needles and peat + needles + branches with rainwater in quadruplicate. Brash from Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) and lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) was investigated separately, while we also conducted experiments with fresh and aged (∼18 months) brash. Peat, needles and branches all significantly impacted water quality in the order of branches > needles > peat, while concentrations of DOC, PO43−, NH4+, K and Mn were most impacted. Water quality impacts of spruce brash appeared generally greater than pine, while fresh brash had larger effects than aged brash. In our mesocosms, relative contributions to water quality changes were estimated by elemental yields. On average, peat contributed 25.4% (range 0.6–72.3%), while needles and brash contributed 19.7% (range 3.0–37.0%) and 54.9% (range 22.1–70.2%) to yields, respectively. We further estimate that 267 kg C ha−1 (255.8 kg as DOC, 10.7 kg as DIC), 27.4 kg K ha−1, 5.8 kg P ha−1 (as PO43−) and 0.5 kg N ha−1 (as NH4+) could be released from brash, over nine days.
Original languageEnglish
Article number121141
JournalJournal of Environmental Management
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2024


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