So, to start with the basics. Peat is plant material which is partially decomposed and has accumulated in waterlogged conditions. Peatland habitats include moors, bogs and fens, as well as a small amount of farmland. Perhaps the most commonly referenced of these habitats are peat bogs. These are a type of wetland that have become waterlogged by direct rainfall. Peat bogs grow very, very slowly, accumulating around 0.5 to 1 mm of peat each year, and the waterlogging prevents the plants from fully decomposing. As a result of this process many areas of UK peat bog have been building up for as much as 10,000 years, and can be as much as 10m deep.
Large-scale commercial peat extraction in the UK and Ireland is mainly from raised bogs in the lowlands with a little coming from the ‘blanket bog’ habitats more commonly found in the Scottish uplands and some western parts of the UK.
Peat and peatlands are hugely important habitats both for biodiversity and the health of the planet – and therefore humans as well. They store huge amounts of carbon which should be left ‘locked’ in the ground to avoid contributing to climate change. Healthy peat ecosystems are the most powerful carbon sinks on Earth. Rather than storing carbon, damaged peatland becomes a significant source of greenhouse gases as it becomes oxidised and released into the air as Carbon Dioxide. Ecologists estimate that whilst peatlands only cover about 3% of the Earth’s land surface, they store about 30% of terrestrial carbon – a good example are the peatlands of the ‘Flow Country’ in Scotland which result from over 10,000 years of plant decomposition and are around 15 metres deep. They store roughly 400 million tonnes of carbon, twice the content of all the woodlands and forests in Britain.
The continued use of peat in domestic gardening and commercial horticulture is devastating some of the most precious habitat that exists in Britain and Ireland. Despite a political ‘commitment’ to phase out peat use in gardening by 2020 and the gardening industry thinking about reducing it by 2030, these special areas continue to be destroyed. In a single year, commercial peat extraction can remove up to 500 years of accumulation which obviously cannot be quickly replaced given the slow rate of growth. Gardening (as opposed to professional horticulture) accounts for nearly 70% of peat compost used in the UK with a staggering three billion litres of peat going into our gardens per year. (Roughly 60% comes from Ireland, 30% from the UK and 10% from Europe, particularly the Baltic region).
Our use of peat is unsustainable and causing irrepairable damage to the environment. We don’t need to use it. For hundreds of years plants have been grown using home-made or locally produced growing mediums – leaf-mould, sand, grit, biodegradable plant materials and so on. By the 1970s peat-based compost was promoted by the horticulture industry as the only way forward and British and Irish peatlands were extensively drained for use in gardening and there has been little genuine progress in changing the situation since.
If you garden then you have a choice whether to use peat or not. There are alternatives and there is peat-free compost. If you can’t find it then be vocal - the more people ask for peat-free options, the more likely it is that shops will stock them. If they don’t then ask why - they should be accountable for the decisions they make. (It’s worth noting that ‘environmentally friendly’ or organic composts aren’t always peat-free). Ask retailers if they are aware of the damage caused by peat extraction and that we have lost or damaged about 95% of lowland peat bogs and a huge amount of wildlife as a result. What we choose to do in our homes and gardens has a direct impact on biodiversity loss and climate change. You can make a difference.