photo of sundew plant on Hartland Moor

Why is peat good for climate and nature?

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.  
  Published:  21 Feb 2019    |      7 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, including the UK, allow peat to be dug up for garden compost or burned as fuel. And the UK still allows the scandalous practice of burning some 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 if we want to safeguard nature and climate.

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

What is peat and how is it 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. Thanks to campaigning, the use of home-grown peat has declined. But peat use is still too high, 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 breakdown. 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 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's 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 industry.

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

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.

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

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

76% of professionals in the horticulture industry (growers, retailers etc) "want to carry on using peat" according to a 2021 poll by the trade journal Horticulture.

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.

How to save peat

In order to save this precious carbon sink, the government must:

  • End peat sales to the public by 2023, as its climate advisers recommend (2024 is too late).
  • End peat use by professionals by 2025 (2028 is too late).
  • Stand firm and not give in to the sector’s demands for more time.

Minister must also use the end of peat sales to:

  • boost public skills, knowledge and confidence in home and community composting and in gardening without peat.
  • take waste out of the waste streams and turn them into a useful resource which can support new employment and skills in newly created local supply chains by selling garden waste and food scraps back to people as low-cost growing media.
  • properly protect UK peatlands (and those in Ireland and overseas) so that they can play a full role in restoring nature, storing carbon, providing pure water, and helping to reduce flood risk.

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 you 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 methods 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.