Little Green Space
by Penny Bunting
Sundew. Photograph © Izzy Bunting
Ancient and amazing, peatlands are some of our wildest places. These wonderful wetlands are fed by rainfall, and can include moors, bogs, fens, and some farmed land.
They’re made up of peat, a black, spongy soil that is unique to peatlands. Peat is formed from compressed layers of decomposing plants, a process that – because of the anaerobic, waterlogged conditions in the bogs – happens very slowly.
So it takes a long time for peat bogs to form. They accumulate only around 0.5 to 1 mm of peat each year – and it can take 1,000 years or more just to develop a metre of new peat. Some areas of UK peat bogs have been accumulating gradually for as much as 10,000 years, and can be up to 10m deep.
Because of this slow accumulation, peat is often classified as a fossil fuel. It is not a renewable resource – or at least, not in human timescales. Why peatlands matter Healthy peatlands, formed at a pace we struggle to comprehend, are important for all sorts of special plants and wildlife – and for people too.
They are vital allies in the fight against climate breakdown, being the most efficient carbon sinks on Earth. Although covering just three per cent of the planet's surface, peatlands store more carbon than any other habitat on land – including the world's rainforests. The UK's peatlands alone store around 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon.
The plants that grow in them capture carbon released by the peat, maintaining a vital equilibrium. And unlike woodland – which once mature becomes saturated with carbon – peatland keeps on drawing down carbon over centuries, and even millennia, as layers of peat continue to accumulate.
The benefits to people don't stop there. Peatlands act like giant sponges – helping reduce flood risk by soaking up rainwater. They also improve water quality and help provide fresh drinking water. Water filtered through healthy peat bogs is high quality, making it cheaper to treat. In Britain, around 70% of our water comes from our uplands – with more than half of this passing through peat.
As well as helping humans, these globally precious places are home to insects, birds and plants – some of which aren't found anywhere else. They offer important nesting and feeding grounds for birds such as curlew, dunlin, greenshank, merlins, skylarks and snipe. They are a habitat for insects such as large heath butterflies and the black darter dragonfly.
Plants found in peatlands include carpets of sphagnum mosses and cotton grasses. Sphagnum moss is a common type of peat moss that can hold up to 20 times its weight in water. In heavy rainfall, sphagnum can slow the flow of surface runoff down hillsides – helping to protect downstream communities from flooding.
Peatlands are also home to bog asphodel, common butterwort, cuckooflower, sundews, marsh cinquefoil, and rare sedges. Some of these fascinating plants are carnivorous. Sundews, for example, have hundreds of pin-shaped tentacles that wrap sticky digestive juices round their prey, while butterworts trap insects using the strongest glue known in nature. Protecting our peatlands Peat bogs are an important feature of the British Isles – the UK is amongst the top 10 nations of the world in terms of its total peatland area.
We need to protect these precious landscapes that take so very long to form. But peatlands continue to be decimated in Britain, Ireland and beyond. Years of damage by drainage, extraction, burning and overgrazing have left 80% of our remaining peatlands in poor condition.
One major cause of damage is drainage – to dry them out for sheep grazing, grouse shooting or plantations of trees. This involves channels being cut into the peat to move rainwater off the land.
Fires, air pollution and grazing by sheep cause more damage. Peat is also burnt for fuel, and huge amounts are used for mushroom growing.
Because peat grows by just a millimetre a year, our current use of peat is clearly unsustainable. Commercial extraction can remove over 500 years-worth of growth in a single year – bad news for nature, tackling climate breakdown, reducing flood risk, and ensuring water quality.
The moorland landscape of the South Pennines, the Dark Peak and West Pennines has been described as the most degraded upland landscape in Europe – and possibly the world. Blanket bogs here have been badly damaged by 200 years of atmospheric pollution and many other causes – resulting in a severe loss of vegetation on the moorlands, with huge areas of bare peat exposed to the elements.
The Moors for the Future Partnership (www.moors forthefuture. org.uk) is working to restore areas of blanket bog in the Peak District and beyond. By stabilising and revegetating bare peat, rewetting the blanket bog, and planting sphagnum and native moorland plants – the key peat-building and blanket bog species – the Partnership’s conservation work is helping to improve the moorland landscape. How to help – go peat free! Tackling peat use in gardening is something we can all influence today. Amateur gardening accounts for a massive 69% of peat compost used in the UK. We currently use some three billion litres of peat every single year in our gardens.
One simple action is to stop buying peat-based compost. The ingredients will be listed on the back of the bag. Instead, only buy peat-free compost – we’ve been using it for years and the results are just as good!
Ask your local garden centre or other retailers to commit to being peat free, and to stock and promote more peat-free options to make it easier for people to make this choice. For national garden centre chains, you can also email or write to their headquarters. And support organisations campaigning for peat-free gardening and horticulture. Plantlife, the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts and Friends of the Earth are all calling on government and industry to take action.
The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) is committed to reducing peat use wherever it can, and 97% of its gardens are now peat-free. The RHS also provides advice on what to look for in peat-free alternatives. And many of the National Trust's gardens have been peat-free for years.