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 - Chris Collett, our Communications Manager for North England introduces peat bogs ahead of a significant launch.

Today (19 April) sees IUCN UK Peatland Programme launch its UK Peatland Strategy, which sets out how it plans to work with partners to achieve its ambitious target of restoring two million hectares of damaged bogs by 2040. 

But just what are our peatlands, why are so much of them damaged and why should we even care about these under-loved and too often overlooked habitats?

Peat is made up of long-dead poorly decomposed plantlife, which in certain wet conditions, accumulates to form a bog. There are two main types of peat bog. Raised bogs are found in lowland areas and normally occur in poorly drained natural basins. Over a period of thousands of years, sphagnum moss and other bog vegetation develop at about 1mm a year into large domes that when, undamaged, rise above the surrounding land.

Large heath butterflies depend on peat bogs. Photo credit Tim Melling

Blanket bogs, meanwhile are characteristic of our upland areas and here the waterlogged conditions are created by very high rainfall.  Unlike the lowland basin bogs, blanket bogs form a carpet of wet sphagnum on high altitude plateaus. Like their lowland counterparts, they take millennia to develop.

Blanket bogs cover our hills and are home to wildlife as well supplying drinking water and locking up carbon. Photo credit Tim Melling

Sadly, both of these habitats are in bad shape in the UK. We’ve lost more than 90% of lowland raised bog in the UK thanks largely to large-scale peat extraction for the horticultural industry. This process involves stripping and draining the entire bog so the peat can be removed and sold to gardeners.

Blanket bogs are in similarly bad heart but for different reasons. In some areas, atmospheric pollution from the industrial revolution has stripped the surface vegetation from the bog, revealing bare peat, which then dried out. In other places, the planting of forests on blanket bogs has destroyed the habitat for the special plants and wildlife that inhabit them. The practice of burning heather on areas of deep peat, which is employed by shooting estates to improve conditions for red grouse, has also caused serious damage to blanket bog.    

Like many other nature conservation organisations, we are working hard to restore these damaged habitats as they provide important benefits for both people and wildlife. Our bogs are home to a host of specialist plants such as sphagnum mosses, bog rosemary, butterworts and insect-eating sundews. They also attract butterflies like the large heath and dragonflies including the black darter.

Wading birds such as golden plovers and dunlins like to breed on upland bogs where there are lots of insects for them to eat. Since we’ve been restoring the blanket bog at Dove Stone in the Peak District, we seen a significant rise in both of these species.

Golden plover at home amongst the cotton grass. Photo credit Tim Melling.

Both raised and blanket bogs act as huge carbon stores. Our blanket bogs alone store an estimated 2,000 Mt.  Unless we look after these bogs, harmful carbon dioxide will escape into the atmosphere adding to the risk of damaging climate change.  

Blanket bogs also play a key role improving raw water quality for domestic use. Seven out of every ten litres of water that comes out of our taps originates in the uplands, with rain water moving down from the hills into rivers and reservoirs at the bottom of the valleys. When in good condition, our blanket bogs can act as natural filtration systems that improve the quality of the water, which means less treatment is required by the water company and therefore lower bills for the customer. 

Healthy blanket bogs can slow down and disrupt the flow of water coming from the hills, which can reduce the risk of flooding on lower-lying land. With climate change causing more extreme weather events these natural flood defences are becoming increasingly important.

As you can see, our bogs are vital habitats and provide a lot more benefits than it might first appear.

In our next blog, we’ll be giving the low down on what we are doing to restore blanket bogs on our upland reserves.