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Peat-free horticulture for plants, people and planet

We are calling on governments and the horticultural industry to end the use of peat in gardening and horticulture.

Peatlands and their wild plants in Britain, Ireland and beyond continue to be devastated by the commercial extraction of peat. Damaging peatlands has a knock-on effect on wildlife, carbon stores, flood risk and water quality.

It’s time we stopped this destructive practice through new laws to ban peat sales.

Although governments across the UK have promised to do this and many believe that it is already banned, there are still no laws against selling peat.

Plantlife and its partners in the Peat-free Partnership are campaigning for legislation to ban the use of peat in horticulture in all four nations without further delay.

Our governments’ next steps will decide the fate of our precious peatlands. When will they finally mark the end of a decades-long debate and the beginning of a future where peat is left undisturbed for nature, people, and the planet?

Not ‘if’, but ‘when’

Despite tireless campaigning to stop peat extraction and persuade gardeners to go peat-free, vast quantities of peat from bogs in Ireland, the Baltic states and the UK every year is still used by amateur gardeners and professional horticulturalists each year.

However, with an ever-mounting body of evidence documenting the environmental toll of peat extraction, government commitments and clear public support for a ban, the question is finally not ‘if’ but ‘when’.

A ban on all commercial trade in peat across the UK is needed to provide:

  • A legal requirement to end peat use, as repeated voluntary targets have been consistently missed.
  • A level playing-field for the market, so that peat-free companies don’t lose out to their competitors who take advantage of lower prices for peat than alternative materials.
  • An end to imports and exports of peat, protecting peatlands in other countries as well here in the UK.
  • A catalyst for sustainable gardening and horticulture overall, moving away from reliance on raw materials and artificial inputs, and towards ‘greener’ gardening and a circular economy.

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.

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.

Why is peat important?

Peatlands are home to some of the UK’s most distinctive plant communities. Diverse organisms have evolved in response to the low-nutrient conditions which has led to some remarkable adaptations, like the insect-eating sundews and butterworts, and the spongy blankets of colourful sphagnum mosses.

Peatlands are also one of our most important terrestrial carbon sinks. But, when bogs are drained or the peat is exploited, the peat is exposed to the air and begins to break down, releasing carbon dioxide. This turns a huge carbon store into a vast emitter, contributing to climate change.

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.

Other plants to find in peatlands such as Plantlife’s  Munsary reserve in Scotland include cotton grasses, bog asphodel, rare sedges, cuckooflower, marsh violet, marsh cinquefoil and marsh willowherb. These 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 can I do to help protect peatlands?

  • Make your own compost from garden cuttings & food waste if you have space.
  • Only buy peat-free compost and potted plants and encourage your friends and family to go peat-free.
  • Write to your MP, MSP or MS to raise concern about the need for more urgent action by the government and industry.
  • Support Plantlife  and our work towards peat-free horticulture.

It is this blanket bog, one of the UK’s most unique landscapes, which is being proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Munsary Peatlands forms an integral part of the proposed site, which is being put forward for inscription as the world’s first peatland World Heritage Site.

What is the Flow Country?

The Flow Country is the world’s the most intact and extensive blanket bog system in the world. As well as being hugely important for biodiversity, it is also an important carbon store, locking up around 400 million tonnes of carbon.

Plantlife manages Munsary, our nature reserve, for its peatland habitat and for its rare plants – including the threatened Marsh Saxifrage.

The proposed World Heritage Site is also an Important Plant Area, identified for its important habitat and rare species. Recognising the Flow Country by awarding it World Heritage Site status would further reinforce how important it is for nature and climate.

 

UNESCO World Heritage Site assessment

In August this year we were delighted to welcome assessors for UNESCO to the reserve, to highlight some of the important features of the Flow Country and to discuss its management.

The visit was part of a week-long tour of the Flow Country by assessors, who met with land managers, local communities and peatland experts as part of their assessment of the Flow Country bid – led by the Flow Country Partnership.

Here at Plantlife, we are strongly supporting the bid, and will continue to work hard to protect Munsary Peatlands as an important part of this unique landscape.

A decision on whether to award the Flow Country World Heritage Site status is expected next year – stay tuned!

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