RSPB Scotland’s Allie McGregor explores why we should be using peat-free compost; especially as the climate crisis heats up.

The time is now to stop using peat in the garden

Or, more accurately, the time has already passed. While peat-free compost options are reasonably accessible, a quick search online and their prevalence in garden centres tells us that there are still plenty of peat composts available for purchase. Whether knowingly or unknowingly gardeners are purchasing peat products and our planet is taking a hit for it.

What is peat?

Peat is vegetation and other organic matter which is partially decomposed and has accumulated in wet, acidic conditions. It might not sound terribly exciting, but some peatlands have formed over thousands of years and have become our most incredible wildlife habitats.

Scotland has around 1.7 million hectares of peatland - around 60% of the UK’s peatland. It is estimated that more than 600,000 hectares in Scotland are in a degraded condition.

close up of mosses at forsinard flows

Why is it important?

Peatlands make a huge contribution to our wildlife and our environment.

One of the major reasons we should be protecting our peat is because of climate change. Despite covering only 3% of the world’s land area, peatland contains nearly 30% of all carbon stored on land. The carbon held in Scottish peats has been estimated at around 1,600 megatons. When peatland is damaged, degraded or drained it releases carbon dioxide, becoming a source of greenhouse gas emissions. Restoring and protecting peatlands will be a key tool in using nature-based solutions to manage the climate emergency.

As well as storing carbon, Scottish peatlands support incredible biodiversity of national and international importance. One key plant group is the sphagnum mosses, which could have a whole blog of their own, lots of invertebrates thrive in peatlands such as dragonflies and some species of spider. Some of Scotland’s birds benefit greatly from peatland habitat as well such as golden plover, black-throated diver, greenshank, short-eared owl and dunlin.

two people with peat monitoring instruments
RSPB staff measure depth of peat (rspb-images.com)

How is compost a threat to peat?

Despite growing awareness of all the reasons peat is so important, it is still used in compost products sold at many stores and online. Whilst the majority of the UK’s peat is now imported, there is still commercial extraction in Scotland. The degradation of peat has an impact both locally and globally, given the nature and climate crises we face.

Removing peat for gardening contributes to this degradation. Commercial extraction drains the wetland bog and removes valuable peat that could be sucking up carbon, and releases carbon into our atmosphere, alongside destroying the habitat for the array of the rather special wildlife that lives on peat bogs. A healthy, wetland bog only ‘grows’ peat at a rate of around a single millimetre in a year, and they need our protection.

There are plenty of peat-free composts available that do the job just as well. So, if you’re an avid gardener, or just like to hang about in the garden every now and then, do your bit for the planet and buy peat-free.

Some good news

I don’t want to leave you thinking the future of our peatlands is all doom and gloom! Ambitious and amazing conservation projects are being undertaken in Scotland and beyond with the aim of bog restoration and connecting more people with this special habitat. RSPB Scotland has been working on restoring peatland across many of our reserves. Some of our projects include Yell in Shetland, where we’ve completed 150ha of restoration, the Muirkirk Uplands where we’ve worked with Tardoes Farm to restore 400ha which had been damaged by drainage ditches, Moss of Kinmundy where we’ve reprofiled 2,300m of eroding peat, and of course The Flow Country where we do a huge amount of incredibly important restoration and education with out partners.

forsinard flows
RSPB Forsinard Flows (rspb-images.com)

It’s fantastic that projects and work to restore peatlands and protect nature are being done, but restoration takes time. It’s so important that each of us does what we can now to prevent further degradation to these important places.

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