Peatlands cover just 3% of the world’s land surface but contain at least a quarter of the world’s soil carbon; potentially more than is stored in all forests globally. Harvesting peat releases this stored carbon into the atmosphere and accelerates climate change. In the UK, nearly 80% of our remaining peatlands are in a degraded condition, and that degradation is responsible for an incredible 4% of our annual greenhouse gas emissions. Destroying peatlands also destroys the fragile and unique ecosystems that depend on these wetland environments.

Most peat sold in the UK is used in compost. In recent years there have been numerous campaigns to ban horticultural peat. While some retailers and producers have voluntarily chosen to produce and sell peat-free compost and plants, there is as yet no legislation that prevents either the harvesting or the sale of peat. Peat is not an essential component of compost, and there is an increasing number of environmentally friendly alternatives. However, more than a third of all compost sold in the UK in 2021 was peat.

Peatland in Edale, Peak District
Peatland in Edale, Peak District. Photo: Andrew Davies Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Recently cut peat blocks drying, near Lough Tana, Co. Galway
Recently cut peat blocks drying, near Lough Tana, Co. Galway. Photo: Keith Ewing via Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Quite simply, creating green spaces and growing plants using peat compost does not enhance the environment – it harms it. Even TV gardener Monty Don has described it as “environmental vandalism.” He, and many others, are calling for a ban on horticultural peat.

Peat is formed of partially decomposed organic material, mainly plants, that has accumulated within waterlogged environments such as bogs, swamps, fens and moors. The wet and acidic nature of these spaces prevents the organic matter from fully decomposing.

Peatlands grow incredibly slowly; in a year, they will typically lay down less than a millimetre of new peat. This means they are very ancient landscapes; some peatlands are over 10,000 years old and 10 metres deep. They are found across the world, but there is a disproportionately high amount here in the UK; around 12% of the country’s land area is occupied by peatlands, which are estimated to store around 3 billion tons of carbon. This is more than the amount of carbon stored in all of the forests in the UK, Germany and France combined. Yet unlike forests, their impact on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions is not widely appreciated

Currently, almost 70% of the peat used in the UK is used by amateur gardeners. Half of all this peat is harvested in Ireland, and around a third in the UK. Peat is widely used as a growing medium for many indoor plants, too, so keep this in mind when buying your next monstera or snake plant. Instagram-worthy houseplants should be climate worthy, too!

Climate: There is 25 times more carbon stored in peatlands as there is in other types of soil in the UK. Harvesting the peat, therefore, releases enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere – yet this practice continues. According to the charity Buglife, “Since the start of the 19th century the area of lowland raised bog in the UK retaining a largely undisturbed surface has declined from around 95,000 hectares to around 6,000 hectares, a loss of 94%.”

Water: Peatlands have extraordinary impacts on our water. They act as sponges – soaking up rainfall and reducing its flow, which in turn reduces the risk of flooding. A saturated peatland can be up to 98% water! They are also very efficient at filtering this water; over a quarter of the UK’s drinking water is provided by peatlands, which the ONS estimates has a value of £888 million.

Biodiversity: According to the IUCN, peatlands form the UK’s largest semi-natural habitat. These unique ecosystems support abundant flora and fauna, much of it rare or endangered. Peatlands are home to the carnivorous sundew plant and rare swallowtail butterfly. Common cranes and rare spotted crakes are two threatened bird species that are now only found in these types of landscape.

Quite simply – we don’t. There have always been alternatives, and with the increasing awareness of the ecological importance of peatlands, many more producers are supplying peat-free composts that are sure to suit your needs.

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), for example, has stopped using peat in all its gardens, with the exception of a few specialist plants. They aim to be entirely peat free by 2025 and are trialling the use of alternatives.

What can we do to preserve peat?

First – stop buying products that contain peat. This generally includes compost, but you’ll also need to check that any plants you buy have been grown in a peat-free medium. There are a number of ways you can do this:

Organic, peat-free compost
Organic, peat-free compost. Photo: Emma Doughty Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Cold compost method
Cold compost method. Photo: Tiffany Woods, Oregon State University Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Second – spread the word! Anyone who has a garden, balcony, allotment or houseplants may be using peat unnecessarily, and without knowing the damage it causes. Speak with family and friends, and join the #PeatFreeApril campaign on Twitter.

Finally, support the organisations campaigning to end the sale of horticultural peat. You can sign this petition from the Wildlife Trusts, and become a member of or donate to organisations such as Plantlife, Buglife  and RSPB that are working to raise awareness of the issue. They also actively manage and conserve the UK’s remaining peatlands.

Further reading:

Banner photo: Peat dams in ditch on lowland raised bog, Rusland Valley Mosses, Cumbria © Natural England/Jacqueline Ogden. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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