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The Facts about Peat

What is Peat?

Peat is an organic material that forms in the waterlogged, sterile, acidic conditions of bogs and fens. These conditions favour the growth of mosses, especially sphagnum. As plants die, they do not decompose. Instead, the organic matter is laid down, and slowly accumulates as peat because of the lack of oxygen in the bog.

The importance of peatlands

A little over 3% of the earth's land surface is covered in peat, but not all peatlands are the same. Just as forests in Brazil, Canada and England are very different, so too are peatlands in Alaska, Indonesia and Europe, each supporting its own native plants and animals. Peat has the ability to preserve materials and this has led to some remarkable finds in peat bogs, including people buried thousands of years ago and wooden artefacts that have not survived elsewhere.

The importance of peatlands has been recognised by the European Union which has identified a number of bogs as priority habitats for conservation under the Habitats and Species Directive.

Peat bogs contribute to the welfare of all living things by 'locking up' carbon that would otherwise increase the greenhouse effect. Carbon, removed from the atmosphere over thousands of years, is released when bogs are drained and peat starts to decompose.

Peat bogs provide an important habitat for a whole range of birds, insects and plants, and support many rare and endangered species. They also provide an important record of the climate, as well as the plants and animals that lived in the peat, over the past 10,000 years.

The threats to peatlands

Originally, lowland raised bog (the rarest type in the UK) covered nearly 95,000 ha. More than 94% of lowland bogs in the UK have now been destroyed or damaged, and 12 of the remaining peat extraction sites include Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Agriculture and forestry have damaged large areas of peatland. But today, commercial peat extraction to supply gardeners and nursery growers is the major threat.

Peat has been cut and used as a fuel for many centuries. Hand-cutting of peat is a slow, labour-intensive process that can allow the bog partially to recover. It is very different from industrialised, mechanical extraction practised by peat companies, which drain and damage whole bogs. The companies deep-drain peatlands and strip all vegetation from vast expanses of bog surface. Once destroyed they are gone forever

It's for these reasons that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Worldwide Fund for Nature UK are calling for an end to peat extraction in the UK.. This is being taken seriously by organisations such as National Trust, which is phasing out its use of peat-based materials this year.

Alternatives to peat

Amateur gardeners account for almost 60% of peat used for horticulture in the UK. The equivalent of 60 million bags (40 litres each) are sold every year! But peat isn't actually a very good source of nutrients for plants. It contains very little biological activity, so the manufacturers add nutrients to boost its chemical fertility. It's really the gardeners equivalent of modern-day intensive farming - effective in the short term, but with the possibility of serious environmental problems.

There are now many alternatives to peat for different uses throughout the garden.

Garden debris and green kitchen wastes can be composted to make a soil improver that will contribute more nutrients than sterile peat. There are also composts you can buy, which are made from mixtures of coir, wood-waste and bark.

For mulching, peat is poor because it dries out and blows around. Chipped bark, shredded prunings, cocoa shells, straw and blanket mulches such as plastic sheets all make more effective and durable mulches.

A more sustainable way to meet the demand for growing media and soil conditioners is to use locally produced compost. Composting provides a way of converting unwanted materials such as kitchen and garden waste into rich humus.

In this way we can do our bit to recycle green waste and at the same time help to protect an important natural habitat.

What you can do to help save peat bogs

    Refuse to buy peat or plants grown in peat. If your garden centre doesn't stock them, ask why not.

    Stop using peat in your garden; start a compost heap that will provide an alternative.

    Find out if your local authority has signed the peatland protection charter

    Visit a peatland reserve near to you and see its wildlife. Once you have, you'll never want to buy peat again.

Further reading

Out of the Mire (1992) RSPB and Plantlife, Sandy, Beds.

Growing Wiser: Case studies in the successful use of peat-free products. Available from The Wildlife Trusts.

Gardening Without Peat: The Friends of the Earth guide to peat alternatives. FOE London.

Remember, the plants which need peat are the wild ones which live on peat bogs.

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