Peat extraction is draining the landscapes for agricultural use. Credit: Jamie Davies via Unsplash

Our native peat bogs can play a crucial role in reversing the damage of climate change, but if we want to avoid inflicting irreversible damage our habits must change now. The Wildlife Trusts‘ senior media officer, Harry Shepherd, explains why.

Where is peat found?

Peat is extracted from peat bogs, many of which have been affected by considerable changes to the landscape in the last 50 to 100 years. So that’s draining the landscapes for agricultural use but also cutting it up either to be used in compost or potentially for burning as a fuel.

In the UK, we have some of the most precious peatland resources. Some of the peat we have – it’s unique. There’s not a great deal of it around the world but you’ll find it in places like the Congo, underneath a lot of the rain forests. It’s really great stuff there as well.

We don’t do as much extraction in this country as we’ve done previously, which is great. But that doesn’t mean there’s not people still buying peat compost – a lot of that comes from Belgium, Holland and elsewhere in Europe.

Regardless of where the peat’s coming from, the fact of the matter is we’ve got to stop extracting it – we’ve got to stop selling it and we’ve got to stop using it in gardens.

Why do people continue to use it in their gardens?

Peat is such an important resource because it is so powerful in the way it’s able to help things grow. It’s been used in gardens for a long time – people have just become used to it.

It can take time for things to change. People might have said to you: “I could never drive a car that wasn’t petrol or diesel. And now look – you’d be mad for thinking that an electric car wasn’t the next car you were going to get. It’s the same thing with peat compost.

Sometimes it can take a little bit of time for change to happen. But when it comes to peat, we just don’t have that time any more.

Why is it so important to stop extracting peat?

We know that if our peatlands are restored and kept in good shape they can help play a massive part in tackling climate change. And really, for the UK to be playing its role on a global stage in tackling the climate crisis, its peatlands have to be at the forefront of that battle.

When it comes to restoring peatlands, we’re talking about rewetting these landscapes.

When a peatland has been drained for agricultural use all that’s left is dry and eroding peat. Obviously, it doesn’t keep the water in the ground. The carbon is exposed, the ground’s exposed – the carbon goes out through the cracks.

That’s obviously very problematic for climate change and the wildlife. Sphagnum mosses keep the peat wet, which is extremely important. Whenever the water’s taken away from peat, the sphagnum is not able to retain that moisture in the ground and the peat becomes eroded. It doesn’t function as a beneficial ecosystem for all those different species: raptors, hen harriers – birds of prey feeding on small wildlife that live in and around the peat as well – invertebrates, insects, small mammals, birds.

Peatlands are really important for storing carbon, extracting carbon from the atmosphere and then retaining it under ground so it is not being released back into the atmosphere. There’s only so much peat in the world and it takes a very long time to form. If you take it away it’s impossible to replace it.

What is already happening?

The government’s outlined its initial response and its peat strategy. One of the things that they’ve outlined is exploring different ways to ensure that farming on peatland soils remains productive, whilst keeping peatlands wet and ensuring that the water levels remain or are improved for that peat to retain the carbon.

The Great North Bog project in Yorkshire is a huge project to restore vast swathes of peatlands to their former glory. Its aim is to rewet peatlands to reverse some of the damage caused from draining them and making them too dry and exposed.

What simple change could make the biggest difference?

I think it’s the scale at which peat is extracted and sold as garden compost that is just not acceptable in the 21st century. People have been campaigning and asking for peat to be brought off supermarket shelves for about 30 to 40 years now. Unfortunately, that’s still not happened.