Gardens Illustrated
Peat hags
© Getty

What is peat and why should we protect our peat bogs?

Published: September 1, 2022 at 8:39 pm
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Dr Paul Thomas, Senior adviser on peat and wetlands, Natural England explains the importance of peat and peat bogs and why we need to protect them

Peatlands truly are a marvel of nature. They are the UK’s largest carbon store, and globally, peatlands hold as much carbon as twice the world’s rainforests combined. They are home to an abundance of wildlife and can help act as barriers against flooding - capturing water and slowly releasing it, which can reduce flood risk and help our rivers to run more cleanly.

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But despite the huge benefits of peatbogs, they have suffered from consistent degradation and now only approximately 13 per cent of our peatlands are in a near-natural state. We have been extracting peat for centuries. Historically this has been for fuel but more recently for a growing medium in horticulture, and particularly for use in people’s own gardens.

Only approximately 13 per cent of our peatlands are in a near-natural state

When peat is cut or the bogs drained, it releases carbon that has been locked away, sometimes for over 10,000 years. As the carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere, it contributes to climate change. This destruction also prevents future sequestration – the capture and storing of carbon. The more peat we take out, the less carbon can be stored.

Peatlands being cut for fuel
Peatlands being cut for fuel © Getty

That’s why it’s important for us all to re-evaluate the way in which we have been using peat, particularly when it comes to our own gardens. The upcoming ban on peat in amateur horticultural use is a key part of this. Climate change is a global issue, and we must act now.

How are we bringing the peatlands back to life?

I’ve been working to protect and restore wetlands for more than twenty years. No peatland is the same. Each has its own unique history, having experienced its own type of land usage and different drainage techniques.

My daily role involves understanding the ecology and hydrology of peatlands and working with land managers to fix historical damage, restoring them back to healthy functioning wetland that can support wildlife and lock away carbon. We are constantly using new methods to restore peat bogs, or a combination of newer and older methods to restore peatlands, by looking to get them closer to a natural state, and back to storing carbon.

This involves rewetting the bogs and encouraging growth of sphagnum moss, a special type of moss that is essential to peatbogs due to their water retention properties – as when these habitats are dry and exposed the carbon is released.

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Is sequestration successful?

The good news is that the community of those involved with the restoration of peat is constantly sharing new and innovative methods and learning from each other’s successes in order to protect and restore these precious landscapes – progress is happening.

Just look at the success stories at Risley Moss nature reserve, or Pestfurlong Moss, both near Warrington. There is a dynamic mosaic of plants such as cotton grass, cross-leaved heath, bog rosemary and round-leaved sundew. These plants (along with sphagnum moss) are indictors of the bog being healthy and wet - 10 years ago there were absent or very rare on the Manchester mosses. Now they are common thanks to the rewetting work and show that funding and knowledge sharing are paying off. I would encourage anyone to go and visit and see the life coming back into once derelict and degraded spaces.

Further steps can and must be taken

My own garden is peat-free, and many other gardeners – both on a personal and professional scale - already avoid peat and use alternative methods to help their flowers and plants to flourish. The government’s announcement that all sales of peat and growing media containing peat to amateur gardeners in England will be banned by 2024, will further help protect our peatlands and achieve carbon net zero. It will apply to all products sold in England irrespective of where they are produced and sourced - for me, this will be a hugely positive step for our valuable peatlands and our planet as a whole.

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Read the RHS's Guy Barter on how gardeners can go peat free

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