Don’t get bogged down with peat…

Thursday 31st March 2022

…blog by Craig Macadam, Buglife Conservation Director.

Peat bogs are ancient habitats, formed over thousands of years, by the growth and decay of damp-loving Sphagnum mosses. This is an incredibly slow process. As little as 1mm of peat is formed in a year, and with the depth of some bogs exceeding 9 metres, they have taken over 9,000 years to form.

Humans have used peat for centuries. In the north of Scotland, it is used for cooking and domestic heating, with households cutting and drying sods of peat each year. In Ireland peat was harvested on an industrial scale to burn in power stations to generate electricity. Thankfully this practice has now been phased out. The other major use of peat is in horticulture. Amateur gardening accounts for 69% of peat use in the UK. We currently use around three billion litres of peat every year in our gardens, with around a third of this peat coming from British bogs. The majority of the remainder is imported from Ireland, together with some from elsewhere in Europe.

The exploitation of peat is therefore much more than just a local problem.

Globally, peatlands are estimated to hold up to one third of the Earth’s terrestrial carbon, despite only covering about 3% of the world’s surface. Since the start of the 19th century the area of lowland raised bog in the UK retaining a largely undisturbed surface has declined from around 95,000 hectares to around 6,000 hectares, a loss of 94%. Peat soils contain almost 25 times as much carbon as all other soils in the UK. In Scotland, the carbon stored in these soils is equivalent to over 180 years of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions at current emission rates. Healthy peatlands keep carbon locked up and continue to absorb more carbon.

Recently restored peatland at Salterhill Moss © Melissa Shaw

Healthy peat bogs play an incredibly important role maintaining a healthy environment – they regulate our climate, help to manage the quality and flow of water, and they are home to thousands of species of plants and animals.  Degraded bogs emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, which contribute to climate change. Restoring peat-forming habitat that has previously been damaged ensures that the bog remains as a long-term carbon sink and significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Raised bogs help maintain the quality of water by absorbing atmospheric pollutants and retaining carbon, which can significantly pollute streams downstream of degraded bogs. Healthy bogs function as sponges, regulating and slowing the movement of rainwater which helps to prevent flooding.

Peat bogs are also home to many rare and threatened invertebrates. The Bog Sun-jumper Spider (Heliophanus dampfi) lives in Sphagnum moss tussocks and is known from only five sites. The call of the Bog Bush Cricket (Metrioptera brachyptera) can be heard on peatlands across England and Wales, and as far north as Aucheninnes Moss in the south of Scotland. In the peaty pools on the bog you can find the larvae of the Window-winged Sedge (Hagenella clathrata) and the White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia dubia). And amongst the cottongrass you may see the glint of the metallic sheen of the Bog Reed Beetle (Plateumaris discolor).

Common Hawker Dragonfly (Aeshna juncea) egg-laying in bog pool at Fannyside Muir © Scott Shanks

Despite the international importance of our peatlands, peat extraction continues across the UK. Many peat extraction sites have permission to continue for 30 to 40 years into the future. Whilst permissions for peat extraction are reviewed every 15 years, this process only allows for the planning conditions to be updated, with no allowance for the original permission to be withdrawn. Protecting our remaining peatlands is essential. If our peatlands dry out, their unique wildlife will face extinction, and they will no longer store as much carbon and our rivers may no longer protect us from flooding if rainfall levels rise. Damaged peatlands increasingly emit carbon over time leading to an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and a worsening of the effects of climate change.

Recent voluntary approaches to move the horticultural industry to peat alternatives have failed to make the step change that is required to protect this fragile habitat. A change in buying habits of gardeners, horticulturists and local authorities is required. A ban on the sale of peat products would change these habits. Local Authorities and other public bodies must show leadership on this issue and stop using peat immediately. Deep peat should be protected from development, and the practice of burning vegetation on peatland (known as muirburn) should stop.

Alongside protecting our remaining peat bogs, we also must repair and restore the damage already done.  Without intervention and restoration, we risk losing more unique peatland wildlife as the bogs continue to dry out. Peatlands need to be restored on a large scale to prevent biodiversity loss, carbon loss through peat emissions, and help regulate water flow and quality. The actions to restore bogs are simple. By blocking drains and removing trees the peat can be rewetted, providing the ideal conditions for the peat-forming Sphagnum mosses to grow once more. There are many examples of successful peatland restoration such as work by Buglife on the Slamannan Plateau in central Scotland, but we need much more work to reverse the declines in peatland habitats over the past century. We urgently need a fully funded programme of restoration of degraded peat bogs.

Bog specialist ground beetle – Agonum ericeti © Scott Shanks

What can you do?

The biggest action that you can take is to stop using peat in your garden.

There are many alternatives now available in garden centres. Check the bag and only use peat-free composts this spring.

Also check whether plants you buy for the garden have been grown in peat-free composts.

If enough people stop buying peat, collectively we can make garden centres and other suppliers change the products that they provide, which in turn will save our precious peat bogs and the wildlife that calls them home from destruction.

What is Buglife doing?

Buglife runs a range of habitat and species focused conservation projects.  Raising awareness of the importance of varied landscapes for invertebrates but also creating and better managing habitat that will ensure the long-term survival of many species.  A number of projects completed by Buglife Scotland have focused on bogs, restoration of bogs and bog habitat and safeguarding bog species.  Funders, partner agencies and volunteers have been a key part of these projects and their successes.

Find out more about: