We should opt for strict nitrogen standards, not least to make it possible to create new raised bogs. Because we owe a lot to this most important wild ecosystem that we know in the Netherlands.
Nature conservation subjective choice
Nature conservation is subjective. Why do we protect the lion and not the AIDS virus? Both are wondrous results of evolution and both are deadly to humans. Subjectivity is not a science, but we do need it when making important decisions. We can biochemically unravel the process of falling in love and can say a lot about the circumstances in which falling in love arises, but this does not lead to a prediction about your future life partner, nor whether it will be a success. Beta science is hard and clear, but makes no statements about the most essential matters. We need subjectivity for that.
Collective subjective decisions require a story that society accepts. In the case of nature conservation, it is structured like this:
1. We believe we should share the Earth with other organisms;
2. We look for criteria on which we make choices. One is preserving the naturally occurring wild ecosystem. There are also other criteria, but these are sidetracks for nitrogen problems.
Beta science is hard and clear, but makes no statements about the most essential matters. We need subjectivity for that
The wild ecosystem is climate dependent and therefore changeable. In the Netherlands, the climate has been more or less stable (temperate and rainy) for about 10,000 years. In this climate, swamps and peat bogs have developed in flat areas. After all, there was a lot of rain and the rain was difficult to drain. After a while, rainwater became dominant in those swamps and peat moss was formed. Nowhere on earth has this happened so massively as in the flatter parts of the Netherlands. Between about 8000 and 10,000 years ago, 60% of the surface of the Netherlands was covered with peat and the lion’s share of those peats consisted of peat moss.
Special properties of sphagnum moss
Sphagnum moss is a moss without roots, without transport tissue, without flowers and without seeds. In our hierarchical taxonomy, it is a primitive plant. However, this ‘primitive’ plant is world champion of water retention. The plant can contain up to 95% water, which it stores in cavities. Peat moss is able to turn off evaporation because once dry, it changes from green, red or brown to white. White surfaces reflect heat and a dried out sponge does not conduct heat.
Photo credits: Ed Buijs
Sphagnum moss can function as a group, just like humans. That offers enormous advantages. Growing close to each other, they can expand endlessly when there is a rainwater surplus, in horizontal and vertical direction. A sphagnum peat can be tens of kilometers in diameter and some are up to 25 meters thick. If you see a peat as an organism, you are talking about a tree with a diameter of 10 km and sometimes tens of meters high.
Something else special: Sphagnum moss can grow almost without fertilizers, and this is – as it turns out later in the story – crucial. A few other world records: 50% of all carbon in the soil is stored on 3% of the land surface, in peat bogs (the rest is in forests and grasslands). Most of those peat bogs are peat moss.
Raised moors are our most important wild ecosystem
Sphagnum moss, in turn, forms raised bog. The Netherlands was largely covered with raised bog because our country offered excellent conditions for raised bog formation. Raised moors are our most important wild ecosystem. Peat moss is important in our history, for several reasons.
Peat moss has, first of all, been important for the formation of our national borders. It is no coincidence that a chain of raised bogs lies on our border between the Rhine at Beek and Nieuwerschans. Raised bogs are inaccessible, even for soldiers. You can’t make a better waterline. The eastern border of the Netherlands is formed by peat moss. This peat moss border has made a major contribution to defending the prosperity that Holland has built up. After all, Eastern armies could almost only invade the Netherlands north (near Nieuweschans) or south of the Rhine. Two strongholds, at Bourtange and at Coevorden, were enough to guard 150 km of border.
Second, this wild ecosystem played a role in commerce. In the 8th century the Frisians (later also known as Flemings, Zeelanders, Hollanders) rediscovered the medium of exchange money. They started trading with the inland areas. This trade really expanded when they were able to make something special that they could transport and sell well: salted herring. The brackish drowned raised bogs in Zeeland and Flanders were burned for the necessary salt (including for herring jaws) (selnering). Names such as Moerkerken and the Irish moer remind us of the peat past of Zeeland and Flanders.
Third, peat moss was important as a fuel. Europe experienced a fuel crisis in the late Middle Ages. There were too many people and the wood was not growing fast enough to provide enough energy. In addition, wood was needed for the construction of houses and ships. The area that escaped this malaise was Holland. Here were sweet raised moors close to places where cities arose through trade. Peat was dredged in that area and made into peat. The drying land became fertile agricultural land. This in turn led to a population explosion. The growing population brought in taxes and supplied soldiers for the counties of Holland and Flanders. These developed in a short time (two centuries) from a largely uninhabited area to some of the most prosperous and powerful counties in Europe. The indirect advantage of peat as a fuel is that fewer trees had to be felled in peat-rich areas, leaving wood for shipbuilding, among other things. In the end, the Netherlands became the richest with this.
We want to share the earth with other organisms. Raised moor is our most important wild ecosystem and as Dutch people we are particularly indebted to it. Not only does it deserve a place in the canon of our history, but also as a living ecosystem in our country
Fourth, peat moss played a role as a substrate. Flemish and Dutch horticulture is world-class and has been for a long time. This is partly due to the presence of peat moss as a substrate for young plants. Its unrivaled ability to retain moisture, along with a few other useful features (it contains no weed seeds and is very gentle) makes it the ideal germination environment for plants. Our horticulture consists of annual crops, so a lot of sprouting has to be done. The Netherlands still uses 4 million tons of peat moss substrate every year, mainly in horticulture. This makes the Netherlands one of the largest users in the world.
Finally, peat moss plays a role in making the soil habitable. The Rhine Delta is a sinking basin. It was created by sediment brought in by rivers. Raised bogs have grown on that sediment. They sometimes added up to 10 meters in height to the land, making it more habitable. In the western Netherlands we literally live on peat moss.
So peat moss is the supplier of fundamental and wealth-generating assets. That is why it deserves a place in the Dutch canon of history.
Nitrogen deposition undermines raised bogs
Sphagnum moss growing in a bandage in a raised bog is an insanely powerful ecosystem. There are therefore few natural phenomena that can harm a raised bog: glaciers, extreme drought, drowning and calving. People have added a few to that: dewatering, excavation and nitrogen deposition – more on nitrogen deposition later. Nowhere has dewatering and excavation taken place on such a large scale as in northwestern Europe, with the Netherlands as the center.
In 1880, when the first awareness of nature conservation arose, all the peat in the Netherlands and neighboring Germany was already heavily affected. The amount of peat was still enormous, but everywhere had already been dug and drained. We do not know what raised bogs in the Netherlands looked like in their original, natural state. References elsewhere in Europe are of limited use because ecosystems respond to the local climate. The reclamations created a lot of social appreciation, because at that time the Netherlands had enormous prosperity problems. And the reclamation of peat bogs helped to relieve them a bit, through the yield of peat and the availability of soil that could be worked a little better.
Origin of nature awareness
Only when we got nature ‘down’ with fertilizer, mechanical aids to clear the land, scientific knowledge to make agriculture more efficient and marketing to sell our products, did we realize a sense of nature. This follows from a simple law: when we become aware of scarcity, it becomes valuable, everything of value is defenseless, and the defenselessness mobilizes a social force. The nitrogen crisis is the result of a social struggle between awareness of nature and agricultural exploitation that has been going on for 160 years now.
Raised peat plays a key role in this battle because of all ecosystems it reacts most violently to nitrogen deposition. Under natural conditions there is hardly any nitrogen available in such raised bogs, there is only rainwater, a little pollen and the occasional volcanic ash or desert sand. Everything that falls on nutrient affects the species composition.
Nitrogen provides shade
The bog-forming peat mosses are lovers of sunlight. If, due to nitrogen deposition or other reasons, more plants start to grow that shade the area, the raised bogs will not go well. That is why the standard that the air must meet for a good ecosystem in raised bogs is so low. And that’s why people who suffer from that norm are advocating for giving up the ambition to regain at least a little bit of raised bog.
I find that objectionable. We want to share the earth with other organisms. Raised moor is our most important wild ecosystem and as Dutch people we are particularly indebted to it. Not only does it deserve a place in the canon of our history, but also as a living ecosystem in our country.