In praise of peat

Dubh lochans in Munsary Peatlands Reserve in Caithness (c) PlantlifeFunnily, when I’ve told people about writing this bog article, they’ve lit up.  Perhaps I’ve been confessing to somewhat special characters but I’m not sure that’s it – bogs are pretty amazing places.

One friend, someone I regard as a true urbanite, went all misty eyed over the ‘b’ word, reminiscing about a few months he’d spent in the Hebrides doing wildlife surveying.  He described the rich, peaty landscape as a true wilderness and as isolated as you could get in the British Isles.  Another person I told got very excited about the idea of bog people, the ancient bodies pulled out of peatlands, preserved by the acidic, oxygen-less earth.

The UK and Ireland are home to about 15% of the world’s peatlands, which globally cover approximately 3% of the earth’s surface.  Living in London I thought I was probably as far away from any kind of mossland as you could get, but it turns out there’s a sliver of bog on Hampstead Heath, not far from where I live.  The Heath is a great place, somewhere in the city where you can go and get genuinely lost and a little bit muddy.  The capital’s small sphagnum bog can be found in an acidic patch in the Kenwood west meadow.  It’s been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and provides a perfect home for numerous invertebrates and locally rare plant and moss species.  It’s a tiny, urban example of how important bogs are for wildlife.

Dark tussock moth caterpillar (c) Cillian Breathnach IPCCOn a far grander scale, the peatland areas of northern England, Scotland and Ireland support wildlife species that can only exist in bogs’ unique conditions.  The creatures that call peat home are fascinating and the plant, moss and lichen life is nothing short of exotic.  There’s the carnivorous and brightly coloured sundew and butterwort plants that have something almost tropical about them; there’s the delicate beauty of minty smelling bog myrtle, rare bog rosemary and bog asphodel; not to mention the multicoloured and multi-textured patchwork of sphagnum mosses.  Bogs can be home to various birdlife as well as dragonflies, damselflies, frogs and lizards.  And the sight of the magnificently hairy caterpillar of the dark tussock moth is something to behold.

Peat forms in the waterlogged, sterile and acidic conditions of bogs and fens.  These inhospitable sounding conditions are loved by certain plants.  As they die, the organic matter doesn’t decompose but slowly accumulates as peat due to the lack of oxygen, growing at the painfully slow rate of just one or two millimetres per year.  Some peat bogs have taken thousands of years to form.  They lock up carbon that would otherwise contribute massively to global warming.

Lichen - Cladonia floerkeana & Moss - Campylopus introflexus (c) Cillian Breathnach IPCCUnfortunately the UK and Ireland’s peatlands have been being consistently destroyed and degraded for decades.  People have been using peat for centuries and hand cutting for fuel can be sustainable, as the peat is often able to gradually re-form.  It’s the industrial scale stripping of peat for horticultural products that’s the real problem.

It started in the 1950s with the rise of the garden centre, an explosion in amateur gardening and an increasing trend to grow things in containers.  It would be silly to suggest that peat isn’t an effective growing medium.  It’s good at holding air and water, it’s sterile, easy to store and relatively cheap. Since the 1970s, it’s been the compost of choice for nearly all growers and this has had devastating environmental consequences.

Things are slowly changing.  Politically peat is recognised as being in need of protection.  The UK government has committed to 90% of the soil market being peat free by 2010, and DEFRA closely monitors the situation.  Figures released in 2007 highlighted that amateur gardeners were the biggest consumers of peat products, but that peat use was slowly dropping.

Lichen - Ceratadon purpurea (c) Cillian Breathnach IPCCAs we face up to the realities of a changing climate, peatlands have taken on an even greater significance as vital stores of carbon. Despite only covering a small part of the world’s land area, peatlands contain twice as much carbon as global forest biomass. A 2008 United Nations report concluded that 10 per cent of global emissions come from degraded peatlands – more than is emitted by the global aviation industry.  The destruction of bogs is not only disastrous for wildlife, it’s got dire consequences for us humans too.

A letter from conservationists appeared in the Times about this earlier this year.  The authors suggested that peatland restoration was a key way to tackle climate change.  They argued that the “restoration of peatlands converts them from net emitters to net absorbers of CO2…Restoration also brings collateral benefits in terms of flood control, water quality, biodiversity conservation and amenity value. The UK contains substantial areas of peatland containing over 1,800 million tonnes of carbon. Restoring these to prime condition would not only help to balance our own carbon budgets, it would encourage other nations to do the same.”

Peat bogs are wonderful places for wildlife and they have the potential to act as vital carbon sinks at a time when we urgently need to cut emissions.  You can do your bit to protect them by refusing to buy peat products or plants that have been grown in peat based compost.  There are lots of alternatives that will effectively nourish your plants, not least homemade (and free!) garden compost.

Find out more about peat – The Irish Peatland Conservation Council



  1. Pingback: APRIL planting & bean worship « The year of aerial edible gardening
  2. Cillian Breathnach

    Hey nice article! Cheers for the credits too! Its great to see people talking about bogs in a positive light compared to the turf cutting arguments at home in Ireland.

  3. Cillian Breathnach

    I would have to mention though that even hand-cutting of peat is not sustainable. If just one person were to cut peat on a bog of over 1000 hectares then on the grand scale of things it would probably be ok. However, its the drainage required to allow more than one cutter on the bog that does the damage, and there is always more than 1 cutter. All the same, great article. Keep up the good work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s