Today’s blog is from Nick Hawkes, RSPB UK’s Uplands Communications Manager on the importance of keeping our gardens peat free. 

UK peatlands store ten times as much carbon as UK’s forests. Peat has no nutritional value as a compost for your garden and when you spread it the carbon stored is quickly converted into the gas, adding to greenhouse gas emissions. 

On the surface, it can be easy to dismiss the importance of peat. Waterlogged and found in bogs, many people know peat as something they spread in their garden but when we look a little bit deeper we see how vitally important peat and the peatlands in which its forms are in helping us turn the tide in the climate and nature emergency.  

The origins of peatland 

Peat is a type of soil made up of partially decomposed wetland plants. Formed in peatlands over thousands of years, peat develops when plant material fails to fully break down due to the absence of oxygen or in the presence of acidic conditions. Over time the decayed plants become compacted, leading to the formation of peaty soil layers, which hold water and help to further expand the bog. It also supports the growth of peatland creating plants, like sphagnum moss, which secrete tannins that help to prevent the breakdown of plant life and have special water-retaining cells that can help to ensure that the bog remains wet. 

All of those layers of semi-decomposed plant life mean that, when healthy, peatlands are packed full of carbon.

On the surface, it can be easy to dismiss the importance of peat. Waterlogged and found in bogs, many people know peat as something they spread in their garden but when we look a little bit deeper we see how vitally important peat and the peatlands in which its forms are in helping us turn the tide in the climate and nature emergency. 

The #forpeatssake campaign

Last year the RSPB launched their #forpeatssake campaign, asking gardeners to go peat free and 11,000 people signed up to help keep peat out of their garden and in the ground.

Why is peat important? 

Peatlands cover only around 3% of the Earth’s land surface but are the largest carbon stores, estimated to hold almost 500 gigatonnes of carbon. UK peatlands cover around 12% of the land area and store 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon, more than ten times that of the UK’s forests. Peatlands also provide a home to some of the UK’s most amazing wildlife, from plants like bog asphodel to dragonflies, butterflies and birds like snipe, merlins and skylarks. 

However, around the globe this habitat continues to be threatened by commercial peat extraction. This along with other harmful land management practices has left many of our peatlands degraded and net emitters of carbon. 

Peat has been extracted for hundreds of years as a source of fuel and to improve the land for grazing and since the 1970s peat has also become a staple of compost found in garden centres and back gardens. Whilst its nutritional value to growing plants is limited, its ability to retain water and absence of pests and disease has meant that in the UK it has become commonplace in many gardens. 

Peatlands form very slowly, on average around 1mm a year, but commercial peat extraction takes much less time. One year of extraction can lead to the destruction of 500 years’ worth of peat formation. The extraction requires the bog to be drained by digging long ditches and stripped of any vegetation before the peat is removed and transported for processing – leaving behind a barren piece of ground devoid of life. 

When peat bogs are drained and the peat removed, the water loss results in the release of carbon dioxide and when peaty compost is spread on a field or garden, the carbon stored within the compost is also quickly converted into the gas, adding to greenhouse gas emissions. It may seem obvious but the extraction of peat also prevents new peat from forming, meaning that carbon is no longer stored. If we were to lose just 5% of the UK's peatland, that would be the equivalent of the country’s entire annual greenhouse gas emissions. 

Whilst overall there has been a decline in commercial peat extraction over the last few years in the UK, the demand for peat compost has remained high, particularly as many people have taken up gardening throughout the pandemic. Much of this peat comes from peat bogs in Ireland and the Baltic nations however around 1,000,000 tons come from UK peatlands, enough to fill 23 Royal Albert Halls

Alternatives to peat-based compost are available in most garden centres and DIY stores or you can try making your own using the RSPB's compost guide

How can we make sure peat stays in the ground?  

Our peat bogs are vitally important to our people, climate and nature. If we are to tackle the climate and nature crisis and protect the iconic wildlife that calls our peatlands home we need the UK Government to ban the practice in England of commercial peat extraction as soon as possible and commit to supporting peatland restoration. 

Following the consultation from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, ministers in Westminster are deciding what comes next in England.

This May, the RSPB is asking people to join their call for MPs across England to support a ban on the sale of horticultural peat and encourage gardeners across the UK to buy peat-free compost.

You can join the campaign by writing to your local representative and letting them know that we want to see peat kept in the ground and not in your gardens. You can also help by keeping your garden peat-free. 

Together we can help keep peat in the ground and  protect our amazing peatland spaces for people, climate and nature. 

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