Wherever peat soils form - there is a conservation story - often of loss and damage, occasionally of restoration and hope. They form a fragile home for distinctive and often threatened wildlife and the properties of the peat provide life-giving benefits for us - in the next in our series of blogs looking at the stories behind the UK's peatland landscapes with the help of Olly Watts I look back at the challenge of saving Thorne and Hatfield Moors.

I never met William Bunting but his name and his fight to save Thorne Moors was a constant challenge and inspiration as a bunch of us came together to challenge the scaling up of efforts to strip peat from the vast wetlands of Thorne and Hatfield Moors stretching across the boundary of South Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

Bunting had good reason to be live up to his label as ‘an irascible old sod’ living in pain from a chronic back condition he fought to protect the bigger of the two sites at Thorne and to restore lost rights of access.  To mount his legal challenges he learned Latin, and with a supporting cast of activists he turned to direct action as ‘Bunting Beavers’ nightly filled the drainage ditches carved through the peat to drain the site for peat ‘winning’ to meet the insatiable demands of the horticultural industry for peat.

Back in the 1970s Buntings efforts produced results and some measure of protection – but as so often in conservation a win is only temporary and the responsibility has to be passed to the next generation.

Historical habitat destruction on an industrial scale to the meet the insatiable demand og gardeners and the horticultural trade.

I helped to set up the Thorne and Hatfield Moors Conservation Forum in response to the intensification of efforts to mine the peat for horticulture – and I recall the weight of history in the room as two of Buntings Beavers – Colin Howes and Peter Skidmore joined the group.  Generous with their support – but clear that we had big shoes to fill!

By organising and bringing in expertise, by surveying and pressing for protection the threatened and special wildlife of the two moors came into focus – the Thorne beetle Bembidion humerale and the mire pill beetle Curimopsis nigrita had their day in the sun and concessions were won. The areas of the two sites that had not had their vegetation bulldozed were saved … and eventually the peat mining rights were bought out by the Government – saving significant areas of these precious places.

Today these two enormous sites, almost 3,000 hectares, are a National Nature Reserve and are re-named the Humberhead Peatlands.  Natural England has been working to restore the sites, with mixed success: some areas now have thriving Sphagnum gardens, others have a daunting degree of scrub growth, a legacy from years of drainage.  Yet overall, it’s becoming a marvelous place for nature, and a huge step forward from the barren dry soil of peat excavation. 

Thorne Moors - now on its way to recovery. Photo credit Tim Melling.

So the best thing you can do to find out why Bunting, the RSPB and others spent so much time fighting to save these peatlands, is to go there.  It’s a remarkable place to visit – a true, vast and interesting wild area in lowland England.  Visitor information, including a programme of events in May, is at the Humberhead Peatlands website and you can follow on Facebook.  Enjoy the myriad colours of the peat-building mosses, dragonflies hunting over bog pools, the lonely cries of wading birds.  Just be sure to stick to the paths – it’s easy to forget that these wonder wetlands are exactly that – oozing, glorious wetlands! 

Lowland raised mires are wetlands formed where peat builds up in areas where there is no drainage.  Plant remains are preserved in rainwater trapped in a bowl of clay; and given 5000 years a fragile habitat forms which is rich in wildlife. The dome of peat rises and falls with the seasonal rains and the sundews bejewel the peats surface as the air hums with insects. And this is an entire habitat we nearly lost.

Peat is useful – and where there is usefulness there is exploitation. When peat was dug by hand the damage was limited and, indeed across Thorne and Hatfield the historic patterns of ancient peat workers added diversity to the habitat and preserved part of our human history. But with profit comes industrialisation and the drainage and landscape stripping that followed threatened to destroy site after site. The hunger for peat knew no end, filling growbags and garden centres to colour our gardens and grow our plants to build our little Edens meant destruction of the life that the mires already sustained.

Ending peat extraction on the Moors has always only been solving half the problem – why peat is extracted in the first place.  Its commercial use in gardening took off in the 1960s.  Campaigning against its use started in earnest around 1990, and there’s been growing acceptance over the years that using peat is a bad thing -  and since then, we’ve come to understand how seriously drained and poor condition peat bogs add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. 

The Government started introducing peat reduction targets in 1995, with subsequent revisions requiring more reduction – and in 2012, the new target sought to end peat sales by 2020.  But because the target has no legal underpinning, progress has been slow, because there’s easier money making and selling peaty composts.  Peat still makes up half the market and I’s often hard to find peat-frees in the stacks of garden compost at the garden centres.  So search them out, and let your gardening retailer know that the time for peat – in the garden at least – is drawing to an end.  The time for peat in the bog, as one of our treasured wildlife habitats, places for enjoyment and inspiration, is at hand. 

Next time, we’ll hear from Clifton Bain Director of the IUCN UK Peatland Programme (and veteran of the campaign to save Thorne and Hatfield Moors) who will talk about the work of the organisation and its plan for restoring our peatlands over the next two decades.