Nic Wilson’s series of blogs exploring the critical importance of peatland conservation and restoration as nature-based solutions to climate change continues with a look at the environmental problems created by extracting peat for use in the gardening and horticultural industry. It also highlights a case study from Bolton Fell Moss, a rare raised bog previously used for extraction that is now being restored by Natural England as part of the Cumbria BogLIFE project.

History

For centuries plants were traditionally grown in homemade compost made up of local materials such as leaf mould, sand, grit and animal manure. This practice changed during the twentieth century as the horticultural industry developed standardised growing media designed for the use of amateur gardeners. In the 1930s, the first John Innes mixes of loam, peat and sand were developed. By the 1970s, peat-based composts had become popular as they were easily transportable and easy to source. Books like The Peat Garden (1981) advocated the use of peat for its ‘moisture-holding properties and other worthwhile qualities’. Peatlands across the UK and Ireland were drained and large quantities of peat extracted for horticultural use.

 Environmental Damage

In the 1980s, the damaging effects of draining peatland and extracting peat in industrial quantities came under the spotlight. Draining and extraction removes the peatland vegetation and dries out the wetland soil, effectively destroying the natural bogland biodiversity. The resulting bare peat is also more susceptible to erosion by wind and water, and can affect water retention from rainfall and storms.

Peat extraction  at Bolton Fell Moss    Photo: Olly Watts / RPSB

More recently research has highlighted the carbon storage potential of healthy peatland and its important role in greenhouse gas balance and climate change. Rather than storing carbon, damaged peatland becomes a significant source of greenhouse gases as carbon is oxidised and released into the air as CO2. Reversing this process through restoration is now seen as a key part of the UK’s response to tackling climate change.1

 Peat Free Progress

Each year around 700,000 tonnes of peat is extracted across the UK, yet the bulk of the peat we use in gardening and horticulture originates from the Republic of Ireland, with some sourced from other countries like the Baltic nations.2 Whether the peat is extracted from the UK or elsewhere, it still has a devastating effect on landscapes, ecosystems and the climate. Peat use in horticulture has fallen in the past decade from over three million cubic metres in 20103 to two million cubic metres of peat per year4, but this is still far from the current government target of stopping peat use completely by amateur gardeners by 2020.5

Although the UK horticultural industry has made significant progress with developing peat free growing media, with considerable investment in various non-peat materials, work is still ongoing to produce these materials at the commercial volumes and competitive prices required. Responding to the issues of continuing to use peat, a Responsible Sourcing Scheme has been developed by the Horticultural Trades Association in conjunction with the Growing Media Association, DIY and Garden Centre retailers, Defra, the RSPB and the Royal Horticultural Society ‘to ensure growing media is made from materials that are sourced and manufactured in a way that is both socially and environmentally responsible’.6 The Scheme rates growing media against seven criteria: energy use, water use, social compliance, habitat and biodiversity, pollution, renewability and resource use efficiency.  Enabling consistent environmental scoring for compost products will help drive the use of more appropriate materials and allow retailers to make their product choices more knowledgably, improving business responsibility and sustainability and providing customers with more environmentally friendly products.

However, having already failed to meet the 2010 targets on reducing the use of peat in the UK market by 90% and with the 2020 voluntary targets looking exceedingly unlikely to be successful, more action on peat reduction is required.  Defra’s 25 Year Environment Plan signals that further measures will be introduced in the event of insufficient progress to achieve peat replacement targets. Suggestions for such measure include taxing peat-based products or even a ban.7

RSPB Actions

The RSPB, along with other charities including the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts, Plantlife and Friends of the Earth, has for many years called on government and industry to end the use of peat in horticulture. The RSPB was involved in getting the current targets to end peat use in place in 2011 and is pleased to see that the government has now accepted that voluntary targets have not worked.  The RSPB is working with other NGOs to ensure that government introduces compulsory measures to end peat use as swiftly as is possible, ideally in the next year.

 

Case Study – Peatland Restoration at Bolton Fell Moss

The National Nature Reserve for Bolton Fell Moss was declared in 2019 – the start of a new phase in the life of a wonderful peatland.  But it nearly didn’t happen.  It’s a place that seemed fated to repeatedly fall from what seems, in retrospect, something like a conservation conveyor belt for maligned peat bogs across the UK. 

 Back in the 1990s the UK was in the process of putting forward sites to the European Commission to become Natura 2000 sites.  Raised bogs are so rare and damaged that there’s a special category for degraded bogs capable of restoration and this commercially extracted site was ideal representation for the region east of Carlisle.  The Government however didn’t include Bolton Fell Moss in its lists of proposed sites and when the NGOs produced their list of omitted sites in 1997, a clerical error missed Bolton Fell Moss from even this list.  Soon remedied, Bolton Fell Moss’s saga of oversight continued over many years.

 

Early restoration at Bolton Fell Moss  Photo: Olly Watts / RSPB

Interest in saving commercially exploited peat bogs waned after the Government’s buy-out of three major peat extraction sites, Thorne and Hatfield Moors, and Wedholme Flow, for £17 million in 2003.  Yet Bolton Fell Moss was still identified as potential site of European nature importance – and commercial extraction was still tearing the place to pieces. Deep drains turned the wetland into dry soil which giant machines scraped away over successive summers, to be bagged up and sold to largely unsuspecting gardeners.  The RSPB continued a long-running battle to gain proper recognition for the site and end its ongoing destruction.  An insistent correspondence with the European Commission, more urging of Government and its conservation agencies, more parrying and resolving every obstacle put forward. Eventually, in 2010 the EC confirmed Bolton Fell Moss on the lists of sites of European importance.   

 The negotiation with peat extractor Sinclair Horticulture for compensation and withdrawal terms took a couple of years, including sorting out the piecemeal of land ownership behind the leasing to Sinclair.  Peat extraction finally ended in 2013 allowing Natural England to start restoration in 2014.  Five years later, as part of a Cumbria BogLIFE project, the seeds of this initial restoration future were reaped with the declaration of Bolton Fell Moss as a National Nature Reserve in July 2019, the fruition of almost 25 years work to end the site’s exploitation by the gardening industry, and reinstate a natural garden of peatland habitat. It will be fascinating to see how this develops in the future.

 

1 UK Peatland Strategy 2018-2040, IUCN, p.36.

2 https://friendsoftheearth.uk/climate-change/why-peat-good-climate-and-nature-guide

3 https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-calls-for-peat-to-be-phased-out

4 ‘How Peat Is Shaping Up To Be The Next Big Issue’, Matthew Appleby, Horticulture Week, 5 July, 2019

5 https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-calls-for-peat-to-be-phased-out

6 https://growingmedia.co.uk/responsible-sourcing.html

7 ‘How Peat Is Shaping Up To Be The Next Big Issue’, Matthew Appleby, Horticulture Week, 5 July, 2019

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