Caption: Becky Searle - Sow Much More
Caption: Bolton Fell Moss, a functioning bog restored to glory.
Caption: Bigger pools, offer habitat at Bolton Fell Moss, to increase biodiversity.
Caption: After restoration, Bolton Fell Moss, showing typical bogland plants.
Kicking off for ‘Peat-free April’, is soil scientist, gardener and podcaster, Becky Searle (Sow Much More). Becky explains why our peatlands are vitally important and why we should all switch to peat-free.
Peat sales to gardeners in England and Wales are due to be banned by 2024. High-profile gardeners such as Monty Don have spoken out against the use of Peat in horticulture and initiatives like the Peat Free April movement have gained staggering momentum. For many years we have been told about peat’s importance in the horticultural industry, but only now are we beginning to shout about its importance in the natural world. Many people know that extracting peat isn’t good for the environment, but not as many know why.
WHAT IS PEAT?
Peat is a rich, dark type of soil that is made mostly of plant matter that has been decomposed under waterlogged conditions. It is incredibly rich in carbon but very low in nutrients. It has excellent water-retentive properties and a nice crumbly texture making it an apparently desirable commodity for gardeners.
Peat is formed under a unique set of circumstances. When soil is waterlogged, it becomes anaerobic, meaning that it doesn’t contain oxygen. Organisms such as earthworms cannot survive these conditions and therefore are not present to help with the decomposition process, meaning that it decomposes very slowly. A large part of what makes up peat is decomposed moss. Mosses are non-vascular plants. This means that they do not contain a vascular system, like a lot of other plants to transport water up a stem. For this reason, moss grows very slowly, and very low. As a result of these things, peat is created very slowly, in very acidic, nutrient deficient conditions.
The problem for peat is that it comes out of the ground very easily and requires very little in the way of processing. It is clean and rich in organic matter, making it very easy to bag up and sell. Some large horticultural companies own vast swathes of peat bogs, which they drain and extract, simply scraping it out of the ground with diggers.
Around 3 million cubic meters of peat is sold for horticultural use every year just in the UK, with around two thirds of that being sold to amateur gardeners and the rest being used in nurseries, commercial farms and gardens and for growing button mushrooms. Peat builds up at a rate of about 1mm per year meaning that the rate of extraction far exceeds the rate at which it is created. To make matters worse, peat extraction isn’t the only thing threatening peat bogs. Many lowland peat bogs in the UK have been drained to produce fertile lands for arable farming. Upland peat bogs such as those on Dartmoor have had drainage ditches dug into them so that they are suitable for rearing livestock.
WHY IS PEAT SO IMPORTANT?
Peat really is a wonderful resource for us and our environment. Peat is an incredibly unique and diverse habitat, playing home to many specialist species that cannot exist elsewhere. It is also a powerful water filter and a huge carbon sink. Once we are aware of all the amazing natural services that peat provides, we are sure to see it as more valuable in the ground, than in our gardens.
In recent years we have seen more and more towns that are in the shadow of upland peat bogs getting flooded. Peat bogs act like huge sponges, holding enormous amounts of water. They can regulate the amount of water entering rivers and being deposited in flood plains lower down.
We have seen more and more extreme weather events in the last 10-20 years as a result of climate change. In the UK this often presents itself as very high rainfall. When coupled with the draining and depletion of peatlands, the result is catastrophic flooding, which has a very real impact on those living in these areas.
Peatland may be a relatively rare thing, but just here in the UK it is estimated that around 70% of our water is filtered through peat bogs. As water moves through healthy peat bogs it is cleaned. The peat is incredibly good at removing impurities, acting as a giant filter. The water that comes out of healthy peat bogs needs very little in the way of treatment before it can be used for human consumption. Unfortunately, peat bogs that are exploited do exact the opposite. They deposit bits of peat into the water, which then needs to be filtered out by water companies, at the expense of the taxpayer, along with the other pollutants no longer being filtered out by the peat.
Biodiversity is a word used to refer to the number of species and individual organisms in a particular area. When we look at biodiversity, we are often looking at specific areas, like our gardens or nature reserves. Peat bogs are wonderfully biodiverse environments, supporting a whole host of life. Because of the specific environmental conditions in peat bogs, there are many species of plant, insect and animals that rely on these areas. They have formed specific niches within these environments and cannot easily adjust to life elsewhere.
Because of this, peatlands also play a huge role in supporting global biodiversity. You may wonder why this is important. Many campaigns use flagship species such as Polar Bears, Tigers and more locally, Otters to signify the importance of biodiversity. It seems a terrible shame that future generations may exist in a world where these species do not exist. However, there is a lot more to biodiversity than just the “when it’s gone it’s gone” problem.
Ecosystems and the earth as a whole, (as the first name suggests) are systems. In her book “Thinking in Systems” Donnella Meadows describes a system as “a set of things, people, cells, molecules or whatever interconnected in such a way, that they produce their own pattern of behaviour over time”. Each of the species and organisms within a system contribute towards how the system can behave and regulate itself, both on a local and global scale. The more biodiversity we have the more likely that our ecosystems and therefore our planet will be in balance. This means that they will be more resilient to disturbances and natural disasters, and able to adapt to change. The more we degrade the system by losing these species, the less resilient it becomes. We can already see this with climate change and the loss of our natural carbon sinks such as woodlands and peat bogs making the earth less resilient to the change in our fossil fuel use.
Although peatlands only cover around 3% of the earth’s surface they are estimated to hold twice as much carbon as all the world’s trees. They also lock in many other greenhouse gases. When peat is drained and no longer waterlogged, the carbon rich organic matter starts to oxidise and release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It goes without saying then, that peat extraction is utterly disastrous for our CO2 emissions. Not only does its extraction actively add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, but it also removes its future capability to drawn down carbon dioxide.
We gardeners are generally quite conscientious. There are numerous schemes to plant more trees, often getting gardeners involved to grow more too. This is all very well, but if we continue to use peat in our gardens, we can’t possibly hope to offset our carbon footprint.
As gardeners, the single most powerful thing that we can do is to try and build organic matter in our soils. Organic matter locks in carbon, providing that it is left undisturbed. On top of this, as plants photosynthesise, converting atmospheric carbon into carbohydrates, they pump down up to 40% of this into the soil, feeding the soil organisms. In exchange, the organisms living in the soil release nutrients to our plants, living in a symbiotic relationship with our plants. When we leave our soils as undisturbed as possible and simply add organic matter, we will facilitate this reciprocal relationship and build healthy soil that stores carbon. Our plants will thrive on the naturally available nutrients and continue to draw down and store more carbon.
Peatlands have been doing this for many thousands – and in some case many millions of years, with peat being the precursor to coal formation, which is almost pure carbon.
Peat is now being banned in horticulture so we must move to find alternatives. Over the last few years several alternatives have become more popular, such as coir. Coir is a fantastic resource made from the discarded husks of coconuts. Unfortunately, here in the UK we live a long way from the nearest coconut trees and therefore this resource needs to be shipped so that we can use it. Not only does this come with its own carbon footprint, but it is also problematic because it is removing this valuable resource for use from local farmers.
Luckily, compost has always been easy to make ourselves. A lot of home gardeners already do a brilliant job of making their own composts, turning waste products into garden gold. If we need to buy more compost there are brilliant peat free composts available on the market, including Dalefoot’s organic compost.
When choosing a compost consider where the original material has come from. Peat is a very unsustainable product that we extract and use at a much faster rate than it can rebuild. Furthermore, destroying peat bogs for our own use seems wholly unwise given the host of incredible natural services that peat can do for us when left in its natural environment.
Following the Peat Free April movement on social media for more information on why peat is such an incredible resource, and what we can do to preserve it.
Becky is an ecologist and kitchen gardener passionate about growing her own food at home in a sustainable, organic way. Visit her website here.