England needs a peat strategy.  The widespread recognition of the importance of our peatlands for nature, for climate control and for livelihoods, does not match the parlous state of much of our peat soils.  Clear direction and commitment from Government is needed to turn this around, so that our use of peatlands changes from damage and exploitation to harnessing the benefits healthy peatlands provide.  

And indeed such a strategy has been in development at Defra for several years, with the RSPB engaged from the outset.  Painfully slow progress from a really promising early start has brought things to an invite-only consultation which closes today (4 August).  Disappointingly, the short discussion paper produced for this exercise falls well short of what’s needed.

The broad aim for our peatlands to be functioning healthily for the needs of wildlife, people and the planet is the right one.  But where detail is provided, it fails to match either this ambition, or other Defra commitments and timelines.  The Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan commitment for all soils to be sustainably managed by 2030 is not reflected in the timescales in this draft peat strategy. 

Yes, it’s good to see that ‘our peat habitats will support healthy well-functioning ecosystems rich in wildlife’.  But seeking to achieve this by bringing 75% of peatland SSSIs into good condition not only fails to deliver for even our highest priority areas, it ignores the peatland habitat outside these protected sites.  Nature Climate Fund resourcing to restore 35,000 ha covers only 10% of the upland peatlands in England.

Bog pools returning to a former peat extraction site  Photo: Olly Watts / RSPB  

Of course, not all of that 355,000 ha of our blanket bog will be in poor condition, although RSPB data shows that 95,000 ha of upland peatland in the highest priority, European designated SAC sites are subject to burning.  Actually, we have very little up to date data on the condition, depth and even the extent, of peat habitat and soils in England. Defra’s strategy should remedy this with detailed surveying and mapping as an urgent priority, to protect the resource and prioritise areas for early action.

Longstanding Defra promises to end both heather burning and the use of peat in gardening and horticulture, receive no new action or even urgent attention. This is particularly disappointing for practices that are entirely unnecessary, easily preventable and which damage peatlands.  Heather burning also adds to wildfire risk, maintaining both dry soil and an ongoing supply of combustible heather – blanket bog in its natural wet state, with a low fuel load of Sphagnum mosses, is much more resistant to fire.

In the lowlands too, the strategy indicates low ambition.  Here, much of the considerably smaller peatland area is under intensive agricultural production.  The soil is being lost at an alarming rate, with extremely high greenhouse gas emissions, far greater overall than in the uplands.  Current farming activities are on a pathway to extinction from soil loss and even without this ultimate threat, they need to address the shift to Net Zero farming.  We know how to achieve a sustainable future for lowland peat areas, through new approaches to water management, by developing wetland farming and economic uses to continue to support livelihoods and society’s needs, and to enable these potentially rich areas for nature to contribute appropriately to the recovery of nature and our biodiversity targets.  But this won’t happen without clear Defra direction and support, which we’d expect this strategy to provide.

First planting at fenland paludiculture trial  Photo: Olly Watts / RSPB

Inviting discussion for a peat strategy is of course welcome. But progress over the years, with engagement through stakeholder meetings and workshops, should have passed this stage long ago.  We urgently need Defra to set out clear policy on peat soils with targets, timescales and actions to get our peatlands functioning healthily for nature, for people and for the climate.  We expect the peat strategy to provide this, but this consultation exercise has fallen far short.  Our detailed consultation response (attached below this post), and those of other NGOs, reflect this and we’ll be pressing Defra to up its game for peat, a most remarkable Cinderella resource that has been largely treated so poorly for far too long.

England Peat Strategy Consultation RSPB final.docx