Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.

The words of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, written more than 200 years ago, are more pertinent today than ever.

Long, dry summers leading to drought, coupled with unseasonal flash floods causing contaminated drinking water, have moved a bountiful and clean water supply up the political agenda in rainy Britain.

Most people now believe that climate change exacerbated by man is the reason for increasingly erratic weather patterns over the last decade, although some still maintain that it’s all perfectly natural.

Whatever the reason, a group of conservationists involved with the moorland around Huddersfield are not waiting to find out. The reality is here, they say, we need to collect more clean water and they are heading up a £2m project.

Two years ago Yorkshire Water and Natural England embarked on the £2 million Longwood Water Treatment Works Catchment Restoration Scheme, in collaboration with Moors for the Future and the National Trust Marsden Estate, and it’s now about to finish. Its aim was to capture more clean water at source.

The scheme has been an unqualified success, achieving more in two years than some thought possible in several decades. Organisers hope it can be used as a blueprint of how to quickly turn round eroding moorland, and be rolled out across the country.

National Trust Marsden Estate ranger Rob Henry said: “This has been an absolutely fantastic project. We have seen changes over the last two years that I thought it would take my lifetime to achieve.”

The moors are Huddersfield’s green lung, capturing harmful carbon from the atmosphere and providing 100% of Huddersfield’s drinking water. But over the years this landscape has become damaged by a combination of pollution, erosion and lack of maintenance.

While this is bad news for the fragile ecosystem and its dependent wildlife, it also has serious repercussions for Huddersfield’s drinking water.

Less rain is collected as peat beds dry out and leach brown colouring into the water, which then has to go through one of Yorkshire’s four MIEX (Magnetic Iron Exchange Plants) to remove the unpalatable colour.

Yorkshire Water hopes that the moorland restoration project will mean that no more plants have to be built and ultimately to eliminate this extra chemical process completely.

Over the last two years, conservation workers have set about restoring the moorland habitat and creating conditions to keep the peat wetter for longer and covered with vegetation.

The peat above Huddersfield is estimated to be 3,000 to 4,000 years old and up to 4.5 meters deep, growing at a rate of around one millimetre per year.

Peat can not only hold up to 16 times its own weight in water, it has another invaluable quality. It sucks carbon from the air and holds on to it, only releasing it when exposed to air. Incredibly, the UK’s peat moorlands store more carbon than the entire woodlands of the UK and France.

Using helicopters and much elbow grease from small teams of workers, more than 7,500 small dams have been built using heather bales, wood, stone and plastic. Heather brash (chopped up heather) has been spread by hand to stabilise the peat.

Wessenden Moor above Huddersfield, where much of the of the £2 million Longwood Water Treatment Works Catchment Restoration Scheme to improve the quantity and quality of water has been taking place. Andrew Walker, catchment strategy manager for Yorkshire Water,inspects a plastic dam
 

A mixture of native and amenity grasses have been planted and treated with lime and fertiliser dropped from helicopters. The fertilised grasses take a hold in the peat giving native plants, such as crowberry, bilberry and cotton grass, a chance to establish.

But the lynchpin in this whole system is the unassuming sphagnum moss, which project manager Chris Fry, of Moors for the Future, describes as “the carbon of the future.”

Thanks to the £2 million scheme, sphagnum is spreading itself across the moor, rehydrating the landscape by storing up to one billion times its own dry weight in water and releasing it slowly during dry periods. This reduces the risk of flooding and almost single-handedly creates a more sustainable water supply and a healthier moorland.

Chris said: “An active moorland which sucks in carbon and locks in water benefits the whole of society. We are really pleased to have made an important change in this big chunk of moorland, which is evident in the vegetation growth and reduction of bare peat. Instead of the vegetation struggling, it is now thriving.”

Andrew Walker, catchment strategy manager for Yorkshire Water, is delighted with the outcome: “Yorkshire Water is very pleased to have been able to work with the National Trust to help achieve their vision and ours on this scale in the landscape.

“It shows that it can be done and it will help to convince other landowners who may be reticent about moorland restoration.”

Plans are already in place to introduce more sphagnum on the moors and to maintain the existing works.

Anyone walking up on the moors above Marsden or Meltham can see the project in action. Look out for the thousands of small dams as well as tiny green shoots of grasses and plants growing in water. These are all tell-tale signs of the landscape healing itself -with a little help from man.