Why we need to keep peat in the ground - and out of our gardens

What is peat? Why is peat is important for nature? Are there good alternatives to peat in the garden? Read about Plantlife's campaign to keep peat in the ground.

Plantlife's peat campaign

Plantlife, along with the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and Friends of the Earth, is calling on government and industry to replace peat use in gardening and horticulture.

  • Peat extraction for gardening in the UK is on the rise - despite the government's commitment to phase out peat use in gardening by 2020, and across the garden industry by 2030
  • Peatlands in Britain, Ireland and beyond continue to be devastated
  • Damaging peatlands has a knock-on effect on wildlife, carbon stores, flood risk and water quality.

It's time we stopped this destructive practice. Although the government has set targets to halt horticultural use of peat, too little progress is being made.

Munsary 2016 - P1660314 Menyanthes trifoliata.jpg

Peat-loving bogbean (Menyanthes trifoliata) at Plantlife's Munsary nature reserve, Scotland. Photograph by Richard Lindsay

What is peat?

Peat is plant material which is partially decomposed and has accumulated in waterlogged conditions.

Peatlands include moors, bogs and fens, as well as some farmed land.

Peat bogs are particular types of wetlands waterlogged by direct rainfall. Peat bogs grow slowly, accumulating around 0.5 to 1 mm of peat each year, and the water prevents the plants from decomposing. As a result, many areas of UK peat bog have been accumulating gradually for as much as 10,000 years, and can be up to 10m deep. Due to its slow accumulation, peat is often classified as a fossil fuel.

Different types of peat bog have formed in response to the climate and other conditions in different locations.

Commercial peat extraction in the UK and Ireland is largely from raised bogs in the lowlands.

Much less peat comes from blanket bog, which is much thinner and more often found in the uplands in Scotland and western parts of the UK.

Munsary 2016 - P1660637 Drosera anglica.jpg

Peat loving great sundew (Drosera anglica), Plantlife's Munsary reserve, by Richard Lindsay

Why is peat important?

Peat and peatlands are hugely important for plants, the wildlife that depend on them and, ultimately, us humans too.

Peat bogs store vast amounts of carbon, which must kept in the ground to avoid contributing to climate change.

A loss of only 5% of UK peatland carbon would be equal to the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

IUCN UK Peatland Programme (2011), Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands: Summary of Findings, October 2011

Peat bogs also act like a sponge, soaking up rainwater, and can help to reduce flood risk. Water filtered through healthy peat bogs is of a higher quality than water from degraded bogs, making it cheaper to treat as drinking water. Around 70% of our water comes from British uplands, and over half of this passes through peat.

Plants to find in peatlands include carpets of colourful mosses and cotton grasses, and dotted with bog asphodel, rare sedges, cuckooflower, marsh violet, sundews, common butterwort, marsh cinquefoil and marsh willowherb.

Peatland wild plants support a range of butterflies, dragonflies and birds, including snipe and curlews, merlins and skylarks.

Where does horticultural peat come from?

In 2015 more than half of peat used for horticulture in the UK came from the Republic of Ireland, where peat is extracted on a large scale for horticulture and for burning to produce heat and electricity. As peat extraction has declined in the UK, we have increased imports from Ireland, effectively exporting much of the environmental impact.

So what's the problem?

Put simply, our current use of peat is unsustainable.

  • Peat ‘grows’ by only a millimetre a year
  • Commercial extraction can remove over 500 years worth of ‘growth’ in a single year
  • Amateur gardening accounts for 69% of peat compost used in the UK - we currently use some three billion litres of peat every year in our gardens
  • 32% of our peat comes from the UK, 60% from Ireland and 8% from Europe

Alternatives to peat

  • The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) is demonstrating what’s possible; its gardens are now 97% peat-free and it is committed to reducing peat use wherever practicable
  • The RHS also provides advice on what to look for in peat-free alternatives
  • Many of the National Trust’s gardens have been peat-free for years
  • Gardening Which? Compost trials uncover great peat-free products

What is Plantlife doing about peat?

As well as campaigning, Plantlife works to raise awareness, and conserve and restore peatlands, such as it's amazing Munsary reserve in Scotland (pictured at the top of the page).

What can I do about peat?

  1. Only buy peat-free compost and potted plants
  2. Tell your friends and family about the issue and encourage them to go peat-free;
  3. Ask your local retailers to stock and promote more peat-free choices, to make it easier for consumers to go peat-free (if these are national companies, please also email or write to their headquarters)
  4. Write to your MP to raise concern about the need for more urgent action by the government and industry
  5. Support the organisations that are pushing for peat-free horticulture.
Munsary 2016 - P1660215 Narthecium ossifragum.jpg

Bog asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum), Plantlife's Munsary peatlands reserve, by Richard Lindsay

Examples of peatland

  • Plantlife’s Munsary Peatland reserve in Caithness, northern Scotland, is a vast, undulating plain of blanket bog. Pictured above, it's one of the most extensive peatlands left in Europe and home to a huge variety of plants and mosses.
  • RSPB nature reserves in the Pennines and Flow Country in Scotland, and fenland reserves in East Anglia and Somerset.
  • The Wildlife Trusts look after and restore peatlands all over the UK.

Images above taken from Munsary Peatlands, by Richard Lindsay


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