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Protecting our peatlands

Peatlands are precious wild landscapes that are being lost across the world – but we can help save them

Ancient and amazing, peatlands are some of our wildest places. These wonderful wetlands are fed by rainfall, and can include moors, bogs and fens, and some farmed land.

They are made up of peat, a black, spongy soil that is unique to peatlands. Peat is formed from compressed layers of decomposing plants, a process that – because of the anaerobic, waterlogged conditions in the bogs – only takes places partially and very slowly.

This means that peat bogs grow slowly. They accumulate around 0.5 to 1 mm of peat each year – so it can take 1,000 years just to develop a metre or so of new peat. Some areas of UK peat bogs have been accumulating gradually for as much as 10,000 years, and can be up to 10m deep.

Because of this slow accumulation, peat is often classified as a fossil fuel. It is not a renewable resource – or at least, not in human timescales.

Why peatlands matter

Healthy peatlands, formed at a pace we struggle to comprehend, are important for all sorts of special plants and the wildlife that depends on them – and for people too.

They are vital allies in the fight against climate breakdown, being the most efficient carbon sinks on Earth. Although covering just three per cent of the planet's surface, peatlands store more carbon than any other habitat on land – including the world's rainforests. The UK's peatlands alone store around a 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon.

The plants that grow in them capture carbon released by the peat, maintaining a vital equilibrium. And unlike woodland – which once mature becomes saturated with carbon  – peatland keeps on drawing down carbon over centuries, and even millennia, as layers of peat continue accumulating.

Aapa mire in Pyhä-Luosto National Park, Finland © Izzy Bunting


Sphagnum © Izzy Bunting

But degraded and extracted peat bogs do the opposite – they release a lot of carbon dioxide.

The benefits to people don't stop there. Peatlands act like giant sponges – helping reduce flood risk by soaking up rainwater. And they improve water quality and help provide freshwater. Water filtered through healthy peat bogs is higher quality than that from degraded bogs, making it cheaper to treat as drinking water. In Britain, around 70% of our water comes from our uplands – with more than half of this passing through peat.

At the same time, these globally precious places are home to insects, birds and plants, some of which aren't found anywhere else. They offer important nesting and feeding grounds for birds such as curlew, dunlin, greenshank, merlins, skylarks and snipe. They are a habitat for insects such as large heath butterflies and the black darter dragonfly.

Plants found in peatlands include carpets of sphagnum mosses and cotton grasses. Sphagnum moss is a common type of peat moss that can hold up to 20 times its weight in water. In heavy rainfall, sphagnum can slow the flow of surface runoff down hillsides and help to protect downstream communities from flooding.


Sundew © Izzy Bunting

Peatlands are also home to bog asphodel, common butterwort, cuckooflower, marsh violet, sundews, marsh cinquefoil and marsh willowherb, and rare sedges. Some of these fascinating plants are carnivorous. Sundews have hundreds of pin-shaped tentacles that wrap sticky digestive juices round their prey, while butterworts trap insects using the strongest glue known in nature.

Because of a lack of nutrients, everything in a peat bog grows slowly. Sphagnum moss, for example, will grow just 2.5cm in a century.

We need to protect these precious landscapes that take so very long to form. But peatlands continue to be decimated in Britain, Ireland and beyond.

UK peatlands

Peat bogs are an important feature of the British Isles. We have a particular responsibility for their management and protection because the UK is amongst the top 10 nations of the world in terms of its total peatland area.

In the UK, we have two main types of peatland habitats – lowland raised bog and blanket bog Blanket bogs and lowland raised bogs are both globally threatened.

Together these two types of peat bog cover around 10% of Britain's land area, with half of this being in Scotland. Because they are fed by rainwater and snowmelt, rather than ground water, both habitats are highly unusual.

The UK has between 9-15% of Europe's peatland area, and about 13% of the world's blanket bog, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies as one of the world's rarest habitats.


Although the UK is home to so much of the world's rare blanket peat bog – and although peatlands are the UK's single most important terrestrial carbon store – years of damage by drainage, extraction, burning and overgrazing have left 80% of our remaining peatlands in poor condition.

One major cause of damage is drainage – to dry them out for sheep grazing, grouse shooting or plantations of trees. This involves channels being cut into the peat to move rainwater off the land.

Burning, air pollution and the actual grazing by sheep cause more damage. Peat is also burnt for fuel, and huge amounts are used for mushroom growing.


Boardwalk protecting delicate areas of sphagnum moss in Lille Vildmose Nature Reserve, Denmark © Izzy Bunting

Because degraded and extracted peat bogs release rather than absorb a lot of carbon dioxide, damaged UK peatlands are probably releasing almost 3.7 million tones of carbon dioxide every year – equal to the emissions of 660,000 UK households. About half of this comes from lowland fens that have been drained and converted to agricultural use.

Rewilding Britain wants to see rewilding of our damaged upland bogs and mires. It says that by blocking drainage ditches, reducing grazing pressure and helping native plants to thrive in these special places again, we could deliver a major win-win in tackling climate breakdown. Restoring upland blanket bogs would stop the harmful effects caused by our current use of peatland, while helping sequester significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.

The IUCN UK Peatland Programme promotes peatland restoration in the UK, and advocates the multiple benefits of peatlands through partnerships, strong science, sound policy and effective practice.

Peat extraction

Another key reason for our destruction of peatlands is extraction of peat for use in gardening and horticulture. In the UK, this is continuing or even increasing – despite the government's commitment to phase out peat use in gardening by 2020, and across the garden industry by 2030.

Commercial peat extraction in the UK and the Republic of Ireland is mostly from raised bogs in the lowlands, where peat continues to be cut or dug out – much of it destined for the shelves of UK garden centres, including in the form of bags of garden compost or growing media for houseplants or bedding plants.

More than half of the peat used for horticulture in the UK now comes from Ireland, where peat is extracted on a large scale for horticulture and for burning to produce heat and electricity. By increasing imports from Ireland, the UK is simply exporting its environmental impact. 32% of our peat comes from the UK, 60% from Ireland, and 8% from Europe.

Sphagnum moss

Sphagnum © Izzy Bunting

Because peat 'grows' by just a millimetre a year, our current use of peat is clearly unsustainable. Commercial extraction can remove over 500 years worth of 'growth' in a single year – bad news for nature, tackling climate breakdown, reducing flood risk, and ensuring water quality.

Saving and protecting beautiful peatlands

Plantlife is conserving and restoring peatlands such as at Munsary reserve in Caithness, Scotland. This huge, undulating plain of blanket bog is one of the most extensive peatlands left in Europe. It's home to a huge variety of plants and mosses.

The RSPB has nature reserves in the Pennines and Flow Country in Scotland, and fenland reserves in East Anglia and Somerset.

The Wildlife Trusts look after and restore peatlands all over the UK. The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, for example, has restored more than 100 square miles, as part of the Yorkshire Peat Partnership.

At Pumlumon, the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust is working with landowners and farmers to restore and 're-wet' peatland habitats.

The moorland landscape of the South Pennines, the Dark Peak and West Pennines has been described as the most degraded upland landscape in Europe – and possibly the world. Blanket bogs here have been badly damaged by 200 years of atmospheric pollution and many other causes – causing a severe loss of vegetation on the moorlands, with huge areas of bare peat exposed to the elements. The Moors for the Future Partnership is restoring bare peat by stabilising and revegetating bare peat, rewetting the blanket bog, and planting sphagnum and native moorland plants – the key peat-building and blanket bog species.

How to help – go peat free

Tackling peat use in gardening is something we can all influence today. Amateur gardening accounts for a massive 69% of peat compost used in the UK. We currently use some three billion litres of peat every single year in our gardens.

* One simple action is to just stop buying peat-based compost. The ingredients will be listed on the back of the bag. Instead, only buy peat-free compost, and only buy plants from people who grow peat-free.

* Ask your local garden centre or other retailers to commit to being peat free, and to stock and promote more peat-free choices – to make it easier for people to go peat free. For national garden centre chains, you can also email or write to their headquarters.

* Tell your friends and family about the issue, and encourage them to go peat-free.

* Write to your MP to call for more urgent action by the government and industry.

* Support organisations campaigning for peat-free gardening and horticulture. Plantlife, the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts and Friends of the Earth are all calling on government and industry to take action.

The Soil Association

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS)* is committed to reducing peat use wherever it can, and 97% of its gardens are now peat-free. The RHS also provides advice on what to look for in peat-free alternatives.

Many of the National Trust's gardens have been peat-free for years.

Which? has information revealing great peat-free products.

On Twitter, find out more using #peatfree.

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Little Green Space April 2020

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