Conserving wild plants for the benefit of all.

Protecting peat

Peat cutting on bog land © Scott Butler

Peat cutting on bog land © Scott Butler

Dominated by carpets of colourful mosses and cotton grasses, and dotted with bog asphodel, rare sedges, cuckooflower, marsh violet, sundews, common butterwort, marsh cinquefoil and marsh willowherb, peatland is one of our most valuable habitats.

The wild plants that thrive on it, in turn, support a range of butterflies, dragonflies and birds, including snipe and curlews, merlins and skylarks. Peatlands also provide us with crucial ‘ecosystem services’, like clean water, and they keep huge amounts of carbon locked up in the soil.

Since the beginning of the 19th century...

Although extraction still takes place in the UK, the majority of peat sold and used here is now imported from Ireland and Baltic countries, where peat extraction is also responsible for destroying wildlife habitats. So dire is the plight of European peatlands that, unlike for any other habitat, areas of degraded peatland can be put forward for inclusion in the European network of protected sites (Natura 2000 sites).

Peat facts

- Peat ‘grows’ by only a millimetre a year

- In the UK, peat bogs hold almost four times as much carbon as forests

- Amateur gardening accounts for 69% of peat compost used in the UK - we currently use some three billion litres of peat every year in our gardens

- Of the 3 million cubic metres of peat consumed annually in the UK; 32% comes from the UK, 60% from Ireland and 8% from Europe

Why is this happening?

Put simply, our current use of peat is unsustainable.

Under typical conditions, peat is replaced naturally at a rate of one millimetre a year. In contrast, harvesters may extract to a depth of six to twenty-four centimetres across the entire surface of a bog, depending on the location and length of the season.

Meanwhile, peat bogs are one of the biggest stores of greenhouse gases. In the UK these hold almost four times as much carbon as our forests. The extraction and use of peat releases carbon dioxide, adding to global climate change. For example, the use of peat based composts in the UK is responsible for 630,000 tonnes of carbon emissions a year – the equivalent of an extra 300,000 cars on our roads. According to UK Government figures, the cost to our society of the use of peat - through its carbon emissions - is £11 per cubic metre, or around £32million a year.

We need to stop using peat.

Government attempts over the past decade to phase out peat using a voluntary approach have failed. The target for 90% of the materials for growing media and composts to be peat alternatives by 2010 was not met (2009 figures show only 58% of the market was made up of peat alternatives).

Given this experience, Plantlife believes that a new voluntary approach to tackling the use of peat (as Government is proposing) will be inadequate.

We also believe that the time scales proposed by Government for phasing out the use of peat are too long, both to drive effective peat replacement and to achieve the rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions required. Peat use in the amateur gardening sector should be phased out by 2016; use in professional horticulture should end by 2020, and peat use by local authorities can be stopped by 2013.

Why our use of peat is unsustainable

- Common peat extraction processes include dry sod production (which cuts peat sods 10 cm thick), and milling which mills/pulverises the peat to a depth of 0.5 – 1.5 cm...

- Depending on the length of seasons, milling allows for 12 harvests per annum (Ireland) or 16 (Finland): this equates to 6 – 18 cm (Ireland) or 8 – 24 cm (Finland) over the course of a year...

- Meanwhile, peat is replaced at a rate of around 1mm/year. So cutting to one sod’s depth removes 222 years of peat growth, whilst milling – at its most productive in Finland – would remove 533 years of peat formation...

Put starkly, a productive Finnish peat extractor removes over 1000 years of growth in just two years.

Across both industry and Non-Government organisations, there is strong belief that the UK Government needs to take direct action to ensure that all companies work equally and fairly to meet its objectives for peat replacement.

Shifting horticulture and growing media from its current peat base, to alternative materials, requires investments that are unlikely to be commercially viable whilst supplies of peat are still cheaply and readily available to the market.

A levy of around 4p per litre of peat composts (£1 on a regular sized bag) would give the correct market signals to facilitate a move away from peat. This intervention would help level the playing field, making peat-based products increasingly unattractive in the marketplace.

Increasing demand for peat-free growing media in this way would encourage industry investment in alternative materials, providing the necessary tangible intervention to ensure the industry takes action. This would also stimulate jobs in alternative materials and the UK recycling industry that are likely to dwarf losses in employment from the reducing extraction and use of peat. Money raised through the levy could prove vital funding for the restoration of damaged peat bogs across the UK.

How you can help:

  • Buy peat free compost. Read compost labels and ask questions at your garden centre if labels are not clear.
  • Experiment with peat-free alternatives, particularly for short-lived and easily grown plants, such as summer bedding or tomatoes. You may have to alter your technique to achieve the best results, for example, watering more frequently. Peat-free multipurpose composts, in particular peat free compost for growing plants in containers, have improved markedly in the past few years.
  • Support local nurseries that grow plants peat-free. Even if you buy peat-free compost, be aware that potted plants and house plants sold by many garden centres and nurseries are likely to have been grown in material containing peat. Use the RHS plant finder to find your nearest peat-free grower – if none are close to you, encourage your local retailer to go peat-free.