Peatlands are often seen as the poor relation of the countryside, holding little if any value. Traditionally, the nutrient-poor land was drained for arable farming, forestry, and grazing for livestock. Peat continues to be extracted for gardeners and commercial growers or to be burnt as fuel. And here in Derbyshire, the practice of rotational burning of peat to manage the habitat for grouse shooting continues today.
All of these actions have negative implications for the climate. Peat holds considerable amounts of water and helps prevent flooding. Draining the land leads to vast areas of tinder-dry vegetation increasing the risk of wildfires. And burning (whether intentional or by wildfires) contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, the carbon in peat, when spread on a field or garden, quickly turns into carbon dioxide, releasing carbon into the atmosphere.
There is significant evidence showing that the role of peatlands or bogs is critical for storing carbon. Peat is the single biggest store of carbon in the UK, holding the equivalent of 20 years of all UK CO2 emissions and keeping it out of the atmosphere.
Peat is the result of decomposing bog plants over many years. While plants normally decompose into carbon dioxide, peat is formed when plants decompose in the oxygen-free environment of a waterlogged bog. The end result is carbon which stays locked away in the peat. Peat bogs are effectively carbon sinks.
In Europe alone, peat bogs lock up about five times more carbon than forests. At the same time, they are central to supporting biodiversity, providing a rich ecosystem for rare birds, dragonflies and site-specific plants such as sphagnum moss, reeds and sedges.
The unique nature of peatlands and the centuries they take to develop mean it is much harder to restore a peat bog than to replant a forest. And herein lies the problem. Peat bogs grow by about 1mm per year while commercial extraction typically removes up to 22cm.
Climate change, compost and rotational burning
Climate change is advancing fast so our actions to mitigate it must be faster. This isn’t someone else’s problem, everyone from gardeners to government can play a part. There are alternatives to peat-based products for horticulture including coir, bark, bracken, sheep’s wool waste and green waste compost. Research by the Royal Horticultural Society shows that peat is not critical for strong, healthy plants. Local government has the ability to adopt peat-free growing media and promote the message to communities and businesses.
More from Central Bylines
- We don’t have to build on the green belt
- Can Chesterfield be plastic-free?
- Will environmental progress go into reverse?
The Third Sector is already doing its bit, calling for an end to the rotational burning of grouse moors. As Jo Smith, CEO of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust explains, “Peat bogs are a scarce resource worldwide, and our Peak District blanket bogs are too important for both people and wildlife to allow any further damage to take place.”
COP26 – time to show real commitment
Sales of peat-based compost are to be banned in the UK from 2024 but why wait so long to leave it in the ground? The UK will host the global climate conference COP26 in Glasgow in November and a ban now on selling peat in compost would be a good place to start. It would signal a commitment to put environmental concerns above commercial interests.