Photo of cotton grass growing on Glassom Moss

Why peat is good for the climate and nature: a guide

Peat is a natural ally against climate change and an important wildlife haven. So why is so much peat still on sale? Paul de Zylva does some digging.  
portrait of Paul de Zylva, Friends of the Earth campaigner
By Paul de Zylva    |      Published:  21 Feb 2019    |      10 minute read

You might know peat as a dark, earthy substance sold in plastic bags as garden compost. But there’s more to peat than that. It’s an incredibly important natural ally in the fight against climate change; it’s a rich haven for wildlife; it improves water quality and it helps reduce flood risk.

Peat – sometimes called peat moss – is a life saver worth its weight in bags of gold.

But peatlands across the world are disappearing fast. Governments allow peat to be dug up for garden compost or burned as fuel. And the UK allows the scandalous practice of burning of grouse moorlands to manage these landscapes.

If we continue to devastate and degrade peatlands in Britain, Ireland and beyond, peat’s varied role in maintaining a healthy environment could be lost.

It’s time to stop digging.

photo of Hatfield Moor, with bog and cotton grass
Hatfield Moor, cotton grass and bog
Credit: cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Chris

What peat is and how it is produced

Peat is partly decomposed plant matter that builds up slowly over thousands of years to form peat bogs, moors and fens in areas waterlogged with rainwater.

Some peatlands are as deep as 10 metres and have taken thousands of years to form. It can take a year or so for peat to build up by just 1 millimetre. It takes far less time to deplete and destroy these rich natural habitats and carbon stores.

photo of peat cutting, Scotland
Peat cutting, Scotland
Credit: Greg Morss / CC BY-SA 2.0

Where peat comes from

Most peat sold to UK gardeners and growers comes from what are called raised peat bogs in low-lying areas, especially in the Republic of Ireland. Here peat is harvested on an industrial scale to sell to the horticulture trade and as a fuel.

photo of train carrying harvested peat, Edenderry, Co. Offaly, Ireland
Train carrying harvested peat, Edenderry, Co. Offaly, Ireland
Credit: Peter Mooney/CC02

Some peat (about 700,000 tonnes a year) is still produced in the UK. But, thanks to campaigning, the use of home-grown peat has declined. Peat use is still too high, though, and most demand is now being met by imports from Ireland. Around 7% comes from Baltic nations.

So the peat problem hasn’t gone away; it’s just been passed to other countries where peat should also be protected.

Why peat is a valuable natural habitat

We don't have lush rainforests in the UK and Ireland. Peatlands are our rainforests. They are internationally significant nature hotspots and vast carbon cupboards. And, like rainforests, we are busy destroying them.

Not all peatlands are the same. Peat forms in blanket bogs, lowland raised bogs, lowland fens and upland flushes, mosses, swamps and fens – very different landscapes and locations but all requiring damp conditions.

Photo of cotton grass growing on Glassom Moss
Cotton grass growing on Glasson Moss, Cumbria
Credit: Simon Huguet / CC BY-SA 2.0

All peatlands are important natural habitats in their own right and for the other wild species they support such as: carnivorous sundew plants; and uncommon insects such large heath butterflies, four-spotted chaser dragonflies and picture-winged bog craneflies.

Photo of four-spotted chaser dragonfly
Four-spotted chaser dragonfly, inhabitant of peat bogs
Credit: Kees Guequierre/Creative Commons

Peatlands are also a natural form of water purification and flood protection. Acting as a huge sponge, peatlands soak up and retain water in the landscape, holding back potentially dangerous flood waters.

When peatlands do release water it is cleaner because peat acts as a filter. Water companies are realising they need peat to continue doing this to help them avoid having to clean and purify water so much before they supply it to us.

photo of sundew plant on Hartland Moor
Carnivorous sundew grows on peat moss
Credit: Stefan Czapski

Peat and climate change

Peatlands make up just 10% of UK land but they store a lot of carbon – even more than UK forests and other types of soil. So they help in the fight against climate change. They can’t perform this vital function if they are degraded.

Losing just 5% of UK peatland carbon would be equivalent to the UK’s entire annual greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s why we need to keep the peatlands we have and repair those that have been damaged. We need to do this as well as reforesting the UK and restoring the condition of our soils.

Peat as an offset

Ironically, peat’s role as a carbon store is now attracting the attention of the aviation industry. Heathrow Airport – which in 2018 got the go-ahead to build a third runway – is exploring paying to restore peatlands to offset the harm more flights and pollution will cause.

It’s a superficially attractive idea until you realise that the peatlands could not make up for the extra emissions an expanded Heathrow would cause. Peatlands should be restored in any case. They shouldn’t be used as an excuse for a grossly polluting sector to carry on polluting at will.

The aviation industry should cut its own greenhouse gas emissions directly. It shouldn’t pass the buck while other people have to cut their emissions even more to make up for aviation’s failure to act.

Peat protects Britain’s buried treasure

Peat is a great preservative because the lack of oxygen in its waterlogged conditions slows the rate at which materials decay. For this reason, peatlands are a treasure trove for historic and scientific research, giving rich insights into our past.

Peatlands have preserved archaeological interests, such as Neolithic and Iron Age settlements and artefacts. They’ve also preserved palaeo-ecological remains such as plants, pollen and animals.

Threats to peat

Peat is on sale in garden centres, DIY stores, supermarkets and online. In the UK it's a £5 billion business.

Because of its water-retaining properties and consistency peat has been used as a compost for growing anything from garden flowers and fruit and vegetables to pot plants to hanging basket displays.

It is marketed to domestic gardeners as a convenient product to buy in bulk because it’s easy to cut to size, process, bag, transport and present in convenient stackable blocks. Each year we buy some 2 million cubic metres (imagine 23 Albert Halls full of peat) to grow our begonias and tomatoes. And peat makes up about half of the growing media used by the commercial horticulture trade.

Rampant peat sales and bad decisions about land-use have left peatlands exploited and drained. Many have been reduced to just a few inches thick. They’re in urgent need of restoration if they’re to play their part in restoring nature and storing carbon.

Slabs of cut peat drying in a field
Cut peat, drying
Credit: Pixabay

How much peat is left and how it's protected

The UK has lost most (94%) of its lowland peatlands. They’ve been damaged or destroyed by extraction or drained for farmland. Few peatlands remain in a natural state.

What’s left of England’s lowland raised peatlands covers a handful of locations across just 10,000 hectares – that’s about 10,000 sports pitches. Yorkshire’s Thorne and Hatfield Moors represent about a third (31%) of this. These sites are among the UK’s top nature habitats for a huge range of wildlife including more than 5,000 types of insect, some of them endangered species. These sites are internationally significant.

It’s no coincidence that our remaining peatlands are protected as nature havens. For example, peaty National Nature Reserves include the following:

  • Cumbria’s South Solway Mosses. This comprises Bowness Common, Glasson Moss and Wedholme Flow, and has all 3 native species of sundew carnivorous plants present.

  • Between Shropshire and Wrexham, Fenn’s, Whixhall and Bettisfield Mosses are some of Britain’s best raised peatbogs. They’re home to water voles and other priority species for conservation.

  • Somerset’s Shapwick Heath – a Neolithic treasure trove and home to water voles, otters and rare and endangered lesser horseshoe bats.

Photo of peat workings, Solway Moss, Kirkandrew
Peat workings, Solway Moss, Kirkandrew
Credit: Andrew Smith

What Friends of the Earth has done to protect peat

Friends of the Earth first drew attention to the threat to peatlands in 1996. We called for an end to peat being dug up, bagged and used in gardens and hanging baskets.

In 1998, with the RSPB and local campaigners, we won protection from peat cutting for Ballynahone Bog nature reserve in Northern Ireland. We also ended threats from peat cutting to England’s richest peatland at Thorne and Hatfield Moors in Yorkshire.

Photo of re-flooded peat workings, Thorne & Hatfield Moor
Reflooded peat workings, Thorne & Hatfield Moor
Credit: Christine Wilmot/CC BY-SA 2.0

Leading retailers and organisations – especially B&Q and the National Trust – started championing peat-free composts.

As a result, peat use declined significantly between 1999 and 2009.

What the UK government has done to protect peat

Public concern about peat loss led to government action: in 2011 the UK government set voluntary targets to phase out peat use in gardens by 2020 and by the professional horticulture industry by 2030.

Since 2012, however, progress on ending peat use has stalled. Peat consumption has been rising despite government targets to phase it out.

The government has trusted the horticulture and gardening trades to act. Instead, the sector has dug in and continued to profit.

Peat is still readily available in garden centres. The burning of grouse moors – where peat forms – goes on. Peatlands are being destroyed and their ability to function as natural habitats and carbon and water stores is being lost.

The government’s reliance on the sector to stick to a voluntary approach has failed – as Friends of the Earth predicted it would. The peat trade has had enough time to behave responsibly. Now peat use is rising and the government will miss its targets.

In 2018 the government put £10m into projects to restore England’s peatlands and help store 23,000 tonnes of carbon a year. The government must commit to ensuring peat use ends in keeping with its original 2020 and 2030 targets.

The UK should now end peat use – through an outright ban if necessary.

Effects of peat loss

Why do people burn grouse moors and drain peatlands?

The burning of peaty grouse moors is degrading peatland’s ability to store carbon. Burning is a deliberate act and is claimed to regenerate plants which grouse reared for shooting will enjoy more.

Yet studies show that burning peat moorlands dries out the soil, degrades the natural conditions and releases harmful carbon emissions. It also leads to more flood waters flowing downstream instead of being retained safely on the peat moors.

photo of moor burning at Stanghow Moor
Moor burning, Stanghow Moor
Credit: Mick Garratt/ cc-by-sa/2.0

Meanwhile, in East Anglia’s peat fens, modern arable farming methods and drainage are causing the loss of large amounts of carbon. Every year, some 380,000 tonnes of soil carbon is being lost as the fens are farmed and drained, according to a Cranfield University study for the RSPB. That’s 9% of the total carbon loss from soils in England and Wales even though the peaty fens form just 0.12 per cent of the land. This is the same as the emissions from 65,000 households.

Growing without peat

There is no shortage of alternatives to using peat for gardening. Some peat-free composts have been awarded best-buy status by consumer magazine Which? The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) also advises gardeners: “Preferably, choose peat-free compost with good on-label information.”

But right now garden centres and DIY stores are not giving consumers enough peat-free choices for gardens, window-boxes, potted plants and hanging baskets.

A 2017 survey of retailers selling peat found a lack of product choice, price incentive or clear labelling to encourage consumers to buy peat-free:

  • Only 19% of almost 1,300 products on sale were clearly labelled as peat-free.

  • A third of customers did not find peat-free composts clearly available.

  • Half of customers who checked prices found peat-free compost to be more expensive than peat-based options (this is because, unlike peat which is ready made, most peat-free alternatives need much more processing); and,

  • Retailers' staff were often unaware or unconcerned about the problems with using peat.

The survey results show how difficult it still is for amateur gardeners to buy peat-free even though many products exist.

Leading gardeners back peat-free growing

“I urge you not to buy any peat products for the garden. Look for alternative potting composts. Make your own. Every time you use a peat-based compost in the garden, you are deliberately participating in the destruction of a non-renewable environment that sustains some of our most beautiful plant and animal life. No garden on this earth is worth that.” – Monty Don

“Peatlands are fragile, important habitats that act as huge carbon sinks, absorbing greenhouse gases from our atmosphere. It makes no sense to damage one home to make another.” – Alys Fowler

“Is it right that we should destroy peat bogs and the wild plants they contain just so we can grow them in our gardens? I don’t think so. Our peat bogs are so intrinsically important to the future of this planet as carbon stores, flood defences and natural habitat for wildlife that we can no longer look lightly on the use of peat in our gardens.” – Robbie Blackhall-Miles

photo of compost heap
Home composting is one way to avoid using peat
Credit: Joi Ito/CC BY 2.0

What needs to happen to save peat

The government must:

  • Ensure peat use ends as planned, using publicity and fiscal and other measures – if not an outright ban.

  • Abandon the unrealistic expectation that the garden and horticulture trade will voluntarily end its addiction to peat.

  • Invest funds, including from a levy on peat sales, in re-foresting the UK and restoring its peatlands.

  • Require proper labelling and descriptions of all products to help consumers avoid peat and use alternative products in the right way.

  • End the harmful practice of burning grouse moors in favour of proper management of the peat moor habitats.

  • Ensure the aviation industry cuts its own emissions without passing the buck by paying toward peatland restoration, which should be happening anyway.

The garden trade and retailers must:

  • Take urgent action to end and replace peat use.

  • Give their customers proper choice to buy peat-free composts and other products (pot plants grown without peat etc).

  • Talk with customers about peat-free composts and products, why they cost more and why the price of peat needs to rise.

  • Support local authority collections and processing of kitchen and garden waste to provide new materials for growing.

How individuals can help

  • Avoid peat in all forms – bagged compost, in potted plants and other pre-prepared plants and horticultural products.

  • Go peat-free – if products don't say they're peat-free they won’t be. They will contain peat even if they are labelled as reduced peat.

  • Promote peat-free to friends, family, neighbours and community contacts.

  • Tell your local retailer to stock and promote peat-free choices, to help all of their customers to go peat-free permanently.

  • Cut costs by turning your own kitchen and garden waste into compost. Or contribute these to local compost collections.