Peat bogs are a precious resource here in the UK. Traditionally, peat has been used as the main fuel for heating and cooking in homes before the days of the power grid. Peat is also popular among gardeners, acting as an ideal growing medium, thanks to the rotted organic matter it contains. But what many don’t realise is that peat bogs are a finite resource, and what’s more, they harbour many rare plants and animals, many of which would fail to survive anywhere else.
What is peat?
It might not look much different from your usual mud or soil, but peat is actually pretty special. Peat bogs are comprised of thousands of years worth of partially decomposed vegetation. Found in damp, marshy conditions, peat is formed anaerobically- plant materials break down slowly, without the presence of oxygen. This forms amazingly high levels of carbon within peat, making it a popular household fuel in rural communities across Europe before gas and electricity became widely available.
The key importance of peat bogs, however, lies in the plants and wildlife which they harbour, many of which are extremely rare. Many have likened the peat bogs of Europe to the world’s rainforests, with their destruction having a catastrophic effect upon the eco-systems they contain.
Why is our peat being destroyed?
94% of the UK’s peat bogs have disappeared since 1950, most prominently because of the growth of the horticulture industry. Peat makes an ideal medium for growing a variety of plants, and is a key component of commercial compost and soil conditioners. While peat has traditionally been used in agriculture and domestic heating, it wasn’t until horticulture exploded in popularity that our peat resources started to decline significantly, as the demand for commercial compost grew. Other reasons for the loss of peat bogs include game management and the draining and clearing of land for wider scale grazing.
It’s not just the removal of peat from peat bogs which causes its levels to dwindle. Disturbing peat bogs causes oxygen to penetrate their top layer, which ultimately causes the peat to rot away, causing further damage to the area. It takes a staggering 10 years for 1cm of peat to form, so the notion of peat simply “growing back” is impossible at the rate at which we are consuming it.
Untouched for thousands of years, peat bogs harbour a number of rare species of plants and animals, which is why their destruction is often likened to that of the world’s rainforests. The damp, dense conditions of peat bogs are very specific and many of their inhabitants simply couldn’t survive anywhere else. Invertebrates such as beetles, dragonflies rely on peat to provide their habitat in which to live, feed and lay eggs, and slugs thrive in the moist conditions that peat bogs provide. The peat moss, Sphagnum provides good growing conditions for sundews, sedge and bog cotton, which provide food for a number of caterpillar, butterfly and moth species, in particular, the emperor moth, large heath, small heath, orange tip and small copper.
Birds and mammals can also be found living around peat bogs. The mallard, curlew, redshank, pheasant and skylark enjoy a peat bog habitat, with many more preferring the drier conditions around its perimeter. With peat disappearing at such an alarming rate, many of these species will simply have nowhere to go.
What can we do?
There are a number of things that we as consumers, as well as the industries involved, need to do to prevent peat bogs, and the species that rely on it, being wiped out in Europe completely.
Consumers, particularly gardeners, should avoid buying compost or soil conditioning products which contain even a small percentage of peat. “Peat free” composts are available in most garden centres and are worth paying the extra price for, or even better, make your own compost at home
If buying pre-potted plants or seedlings, check to see if the soil they are potted in contains peat, and boycott it if necessary. Voting with your wallet is one of the best ways to get your voice heard, and if peat sales dwindle in any form, businesses are more likely to take note and avoid selling or stocking such products
If you are a member of a gardening or horticulture club or organisation, use your collective power to make a difference. Spread the word about the impact of using peat in gardening, and encourage your council, and local gardening events to go peat-free.
Phasing out the use of peat needs to happen fast, before we lose this native natural resource through exploitation. The plight of the world’s rainforest quite rightly receives high levels of attention, but just as important is turning our attention to the destruction of such a habitat on our own doorsteps here in Europe. Once it’s gone, it won’t be coming back anytime soon.
Image sourced: Wojsyltagsconservationpeatsustainable gardening