>>>briefing paper:taking the peat

Peat Use and Yorkshire's Threatened Peatland Habitat

What is peat?

The plastic wrapped 'multipurpose' compost sold in DIY stores and garden centres is almost all that is left of a unique primeval wilderness: lowland raised peat bogs. Raised bogs are formed by the decaying remains of plants such as sphagnum mosses. These retain large amounts of water, and on flat lowlands they trap rainfall and form a dome of peatland many metres deep. Less than 6% of Britain's lowland raised peatbog habitat remains in a near natural condition. Once considered to be wastelands, raised peatbogs are now seen for what they are - the last surviving remnants of a habitat rich in wildlife as well as social and biological history.

Why is it important?

Peatlands form a home to a unique and fascinating range of wildlife including important populations of wild birds, such as the nightjar, woodlark, curlew, merlin, peregrines, hen and marsh harriers, and long-eared owl. They contain a wealth of unusual plants, such as the carnivorous round-leaved sundew and species like bog rosemary which are found nowhere else in Britain and thousands of species of rare insects such as the bog hog and the 'Hairy Canary fly'. Over 3000 species of insects have been found on one site alone (Thorne Moor in South Yorkshire), including the unique 'Thorne Moors beetle'.

Peatlands are unique because they are acidic and low in nutrients, conditions in which only specialised wildlife can thrive and decay can barely take place. Locked into peat is an irreplaceable archive dating back 10,000 years. Ancient boats, human bodies such as Lindow Man, trees and pollen have been preserved in peatbogs.

Peat bogs have a vital role in affecting carbon dioxide levels and thus climate change. Acting as carbon sinks, they remove carbon from atmospheric carbon dioxide, earning them the title 'global coolers'.

His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales has compared the UK's remaining peatbogs to tropical rainforests, because of their high conservation importance. In a support letter to the Peatbogs Campaign Consortium written in 1998, His Royal Highness said:

"As this millennium draws to a close, I wonder how we will be remembered - as the generation which squandered the UK's last lowland bogs, or as the generation which saved them for the enrichment of the third millennium?"

Why is it under threat?

This precious and irreplaceable habitat is under threat because of the commercial value of peat. Peat milling companies now present the significant threat to the survival of our remaining lowland raised peatbog habitats.

Peat has been used as a fuel for centuries and was traditionally cut by hand, a slow method which allowed the vegetation to regenerate over time. Since the 1960's however, major commercial companies have introduced intensive methods of extraction that has resulted in 'mining' the peat rather than anything approaching sustainable 'harvesting'. Modern mechanized methods include deep trench cutting and surface milling, which generally require the digging of deep drainage ditches turning the bog surface into a bare desert.

Why aren't they protected?

Conservationists are keen to protect the remaining raised bogs. However, just 10% of the original peatbogs in Britain have been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Even this status has not managed to protect the peatbogs because planning permissions to cut peat granted in the 1950's pre-date the SSSI designations. Local authorities simply cannot afford to compensate the peat companies if they revoke the planning permissions.

In August 2000 the government proposed Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) status for our three largest lowland raised peatbogs, including Britain's largest lowland raised peatbogs, Thorne and Hatfield Moors near Doncaster. The move was welcomed by local people and conservation groups but it is frustrating that this new designation is yet to be confirmed. There are clear indications that the delay is down to 'filibustering' by the US based Scotts Company, which is continuing to extract peat from these sites. They have used delaying tactics in similar situations before in their native US.

Who uses peat?

In the UK the use of peat is almost entirely related to horticulture where it is used as a growing media, soil improver or mulch. The main markets are amateur gardeners, the professional horticulture industry, private sector landscaping and local authority sectors. About 60% of this peat comes from peatland habitats within the UK.

What are the alternatives?

Prior to the 1960's gardeners relied on a whole range of materials other than peat, but aggressive marketing convinced the gardening and landscaping world that peat was necessary for successful horticulture. For some years this view has been challenged, summed up by the late Geoff Hamilton

"I think that gardeners buy peat because of brain conditioning rather than soil conditioning."

The use of peat in horticulture is unnecessary and can be easily substituted by alternatives. A number of peat-free alternatives are readily available on the market, including cocoa shells, coir (from coconut husks), bark products, manure, leafmould and garden compost. A switch to alternatives will not only reduce peat use but also help to reduce the volume of waste going to landfill. A small number of local authorities and the National Trust, who manage some of Britain's most important gardens, have already switched to peat-free

What can be done?

Environmental groups including Leeds Friends of the Earth are calling for local authorities to take the lead of local authorities such as Sheffield City Council to switch entirely to peat-free alternative in its parks, gardens, landscaping and nurseries. The UK Government must confirm SAC status for our lowland raised peatbogs, as a matter of urgency and not get 'bogged down' in negociations with Scotts, so as to ensure that no more peat is taken from sites such as Thorne and Hatfield Moors in South Yorkshire. There is evidence that another season of peat extraction will be devastating for these sites.