The garden industry and Governments must take urgent action to replace peat use in horticulture. We are calling on you to help us tackle this issue!
What is peat?
Peat is plant material which is partially decomposed and accumulated in waterlogged conditions. Peatlands include moors, bogs and fens, as well as some farmed land.
Peat bogs are particular types of wetlands waterlogged only by direct rainfall (not groundwater). Peat bogs grow slowly, accumulating around 0.5 to 1 mm of peat each year, and the water prevents the plants from decomposing. As a result, many areas of UK peat bog have been accumulating gradually for as much as 10,000 years, and can be up to 10 metres deep. Due to its slow accumulation, peat is often classified as a fossil fuel.
Different types of peat bog have formed in response to the climate and other conditions in different locations. Commercial peat extraction in the UK and Ireland is largely from raised bogs in the lowlands. Much less peat comes from blanket bog, which is much thinner and more often found in the uplands in Scotland and western parts of the UK.
Why is peat so important?
Peatlands are one of the richest parts of our natural heritage and natural capital in the UK, Republic of Ireland and other parts of the world. Blanket bog, lowland raised bog, lowland fens and upland flushes, fens and swamps are now all recognised as priority habitats for biodiversity in the UK.
Peatlands are hugely important to our environment and our society:
- as a massive carbon store to prevent emissions contributing to climate change;
- as important places for a special range of wildlife to thrive;
- as wild, evocative places for people to visit;
- to provide clean drinking water and reduce flood risk;
- to preserve the archaeological archive they contain.
For further information, please see: www.iucn-ukpeatlandprogramme.org/resources
Where can I see good examples of peatland?
- Plantlife’s Munsary Peatland reserve in Caithness, northern Scotland, is a vast, undulating plain of blanket bog, one of the most extensive peatlands left in Europe and home to a huge variety of mosses and vascular plants;
- RSPB nature reserves in the Pennines and Flow Country in Scotland, and fenland reserves in East Anglia (e.g. Lakenheath) and Somerset:
- The Wildlife Trusts look after and restore peatlands all over the UK:
- National Trust owns and manages a number of peatland sites:
What is the impact on wildlife and ecosystems of peat extraction?
Commercial peat is open-cast mined from peatlands that have been stripped bare of their vegetation and wildlife, and drained to dry, exposed soil. Once an area has been drained and the peat extracted for commercial purposes, the peatland cannot provide the services listed above and the ecosystem is destroyed.
Significant effort has been invested into peatland restoration in recent years. For example, please see:
- IUCN UK Peatland Programme with a range of case studies and initiatives
- National Trust projects
- Natural England’s Cumbrian BogLIFE project
- RSPB peatland restoration in the Flow Country, at Dove Stone in the Peak District and at Lakenheath in the Fens
- The Wildlife Trusts' projects
PEAT USE IN HORTICULTURE
Why is peat so popular in gardening and horticulture?
Peat has been popular as a growing medium because it holds water well and has a predictable, consistent quality which is good for growing plants, including fruit and vegetables.
How much peat do we use in horticulture in the UK?
In 2015, 1,440,000 cubic metres (m3) of peat was used in retail products (e.g. bagged compost sold in garden centres, DIY shops and supermarkets) and 690,000 m3 was supplied into the professional use market – a total of 2,130,000 m3.
There were significant reductions in peat use between 1999 and 2009 due to government commitments in the 1997 Biodiversity Action Plan and action by B&Q, the National Trust and others, with NGO campaigns raising public awareness since 1990.
However, this progress has stalled and peat use in the retail market actually increased between 2012 and 2015. More encouragingly, the volume and proportion of peat supplied to the professional use market gradually declined from 930,000 m3/72% in 2011 to 690,000 m3/64% in 2015.
Where does the horticultural peat in the UK come from?
In 2015, more than half of peat used for horticulture in the UK came from the Republic of Ireland, where peat is extracted commercially on a large scale for horticulture and for burning to produce heat and electricity. As peat extraction has declined in the UK, we have increased imports from Ireland, effectively exporting much of the environmental impact.
Some horticultural peat also comes from sites with the UK, Approximate figures are: Scotland (18%), England (12%), Northern Ireland (9%) and a small proportion from elsewhere in the EU (7%).
Source: AHDB, HTA and Defra (2016) – see reference below.
ALTERNATIVES TO PEAT
How good are the alternatives products?
As with any consumer products, the quality can vary, so it’s important to find high-quality peat-free products that work. Leading gardening organisations are demonstrating that this is possible, with top quality results:
- The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) is demonstrating what’s possible; its gardens are now 97% peat-free and it is committed to reducing peat use wherever practicable
- The RHS also provides advice on what to look for in peat-free alternatives
- Many of the National Trust’s gardens and its Plant Conservation Centre have been peat-free for years
Gardening Which? Compost trials uncover great peat-free products which work as well as peat-based ones.
Why is it harder to find peat-free seed compost than peat-free multipurpose compost?
In order to germinate and grow well, seeds need a low level of nutrient, much less than that of a pot plant or established fruit and vegetable plants, and the right consistency. Some peat-free composts can provide this, yet work continues to develop consistent, high-quality seed composts that are peat-free and cost-effective – and can be produced on a large scale.
How do we know that the alternatives are sustainably sourced and not exporting/diverting the problem?
The horticultural industry, non-governmental organisations, retailers and Defra have been working together to identify responsibly sourced growing media materials. This working group, also known as “Project 4” or “P4” was set up following the report of the Sustainable Growing Media Task Force in 2012. Find out more information on this group’s progress.
Are we on track to phase out peat use?
No. In 2011, the UK Government Natural Environment White Paper, ‘The Natural Choice’, made a commitment to phase out the use of peat:
- in the public sector, including local authorities, by 2015;
- in amateur gardening (e.g. bagged composts and other retail products) by 2020;
- in the professional horticulture industry (e.g. potted plant growers and professional gardeners and landscapers) by 2030.
Progress made between 1999 and 2009 has stalled and there is little sign that the 2020 or 2030 targets will be met. The government has relied on voluntary measures by the horticultural industry, rather than legislation or market intervention. There has been little public action by government since its 2013 response to the Sustainable Growing Media Task Force Report.
Who can make sure that these targets are met?
The UK government and devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have a responsibility to stop to the use of peat in horticulture as soon as possible. They must address the failure of the market to become peat-free, including by intervening where necessary to get more effective and faster action by the industry and retailers.
Whilst some retailers, trade bodies and others in the industry have made considerable efforts to reduce and replace peat use, more work is required from all involved in horticulture and at a faster pace.
How can we stop peat coming into the UK in imported products such as potted plants?
Retailers – including garden centres, DIY shops and supermarkets – have a key role to play in choosing to sell peat-free products and not peat-based ones. Developing a UK based peat free gardening industry could have benefits for UK companies currently facing competition with peat-based imports. Consumers can also play a role by choosing peat-free products and raising the issue with retailers, their MPs and their government.
What can I do as a concerned member of the public?
There are several things that you can do to help:
- Only buy peat-free compost and potted plants for your own gardening;
- Tell your friends and family about the issue and encourage them to go peat-free;
- Ask your local retailers to stock and promote more peat-free choices, to make it easier for consumers to go peat-free (if these are national companies, please also email or write to their headquarters);
- Write to your MP to raise concern about the need for more urgent action by the government and industry;
- Support the organisations that are pushing for peat-free horticulture.