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Peat practice

Wednesday 21 April 2021

The preservation of carbon sinks, such as peat bogs, is one of the easiest steps we can take to address the climate emergency

Boundless optimism is a philosophy we grow out of on our parents’ knees, but it’s still nice to think that some sort of progress is being made. We no longer have public hangings, for example, and we do have working sewers. We no longer believe that the earth is flat. We accept that humans evolved in the same way as everything else. There is room for improvement, sure, but society’s treatment of non-white people has changed over the last half-century, along with attitudes to people with physical and mental problems. Life is full of endless difficulties, but the thought that things are getting ever-so-slightly better keeps us going.

Which makes it all rather dismaying to come back to a problem we thought we had solved more than 30 years ago and find that very little has changed. That’s not only bad in itself, it also makes us wonder if we have gone forward at all in all sorts of crucial areas.

Thirty years ago I was in a peat bog called Thorne and Hatfield Moors. Parts of it were still lovely enough: parts of it were being devastated for the extraction of peat. It was being mined so that gardeners could grow stuff.

Peat extraction is a bad thing because it destroys a habitat for wildlife; a particularly interesting one, too, if that’s relevant. It’s also bad because the process of extraction releases an awful lot of carbon into the atmosphere. I was there on the moors to take part in an important battle, one that brought together most of the major conservation organisations of the country.

The alliance was perhaps as important as the reason for it. I had joined people from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Wildlife Trusts, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trusts, Friends of the Earth and a good few others to take on the peat industry. The forces of conservation had set aside any differences and rivalries to speak with one voice: this must stop.

That same year, 1990, Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister, made a speech at Chelsea Flower Show: “What some conservationists would say to us for using peat today I don’t know, but I don’t know what a gardener can do without peat. I intend to go on using it…”

I wrote a big, fat, campaigning piece for GQ, of all things; it was a different magazine back then. We were taken to the Press Complaints Commission by Fison’s, who were mining peat at Thorne and Hatfield and elsewhere. They lost. For one reason or another, they got out of the peat business four years later.

So what do you do today, if you want to buy a bag of peat compost for your petunias? You go down the nearest garden centre and buy it. The Wildlife Trusts, which represents all the county wildlife trusts in the country, did a survey on the availability of peat to amateur gardeners, and it showed that dismayingly little had changed. They found that only one of 20 leading gardening retailers they contacted – Travis Perkins – were planning to eliminate peat from their sales this year.

Ten years ago the government set a voluntary target for the elimination of peat from the shelves of garden centres, with a further recommendation to end the use of peat by the professional sector in 2030. So, in agreement and harmony, society moved forward in the good old way that it does… and hardly anything was done. The retailers knew what the target was: they aimed low and missed.

Of the 20 respondents to the Wildlife Trusts’ survey, 11 offered peat-free compost as part of the range; 90 per cent of Travis Perkins sales of compost are now peat-free. As for the rest: well, it’s peat business as usual.

Sam Goldwyn famously said that a verbal agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. It seems that a voluntary agreement is in the same category. In my school playground you could promise anything you liked without any need to act – so long as you had crossed your fingers. This was known as “vain-lights”. It seems that most of the gardening retailers who agreed to phase out peat had their vain-lights on. 

The subject is not taken seriously. Perhaps that’s something to do with the nature of peat. It’s faintly comic, after all. It comes from bogs. It’s a little grotesque. It’s also pretty obscure. It doesn’t seem to matter very much one way or the other: just a few conservationists getting overexcited, and a few virtue-signallers – virtue has gone out of fashion – ostentatiously buying politically correct compost. Nothing that need bother the rest of us.

So let’s do an unusual thing and look at the stuff seriously. Peat is found in wet places: formed from plants that don’t fully decay in acidic, oxygen-free conditions. Given geological quantities of time and pressure, it will eventually turn into coal. Peat itself forms very slowly: at the rate of about a millimetre a year; or a thousand years for a metre. It is not, therefore, a renewable resource in terms of human lifetimes, and since extraction removes the peat-forming surface layer, the process makes future peat formation unlikely.

And it burns. That is counterintuitive for stuff you get from a bog, but a little drying makes it flammable. It has been mined as fuel for centuries. The Norfolk Broads were created by medieval peat digging; I live there and own a little marshland where I could, if I wished, dig for peat. Peat colours the water that flows through it and gives a special savour to whiskies like Ardbeg and Talisker.

It retains water and nutrients, which is why Mrs Thatcher and other gardeners have found it convenient. It comes from wetlands, one more of the world’s vanishing wildlife habitats. Perhaps the most amazing stuff there is sphagnum moss. I know that moss doesn’t sound so terribly exciting, but sphagnum has water-retaining cells. But I suspect I still haven’t sold it. All right: sphagnum moss can hold so much water that it can push an entire bog above the level of the surrounding land, creating what is nothing less than a mountain of water. It’s what’s called a raised bog, and can take the form of a dome more than 30 feet high.

Peatlands also contain carnivorous plants. Sundews, from the genus Drosera, survive in nutrient-poor bogs by catching insects with sticky leaves and digesting them. In 1860, a year after the publication of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote: “At the moment I care more about Drosera than the origin of all the species in the world.” 

Peat bogs are great places for the ancient group of dragonflies; they are important breeding-grounds for many wading birds, including golden plover and lapwing, and for the lethally threatened hen harrier. But perhaps you are indifferent to wildlife, and think it matters only to a few daft enthusiasts. If so, you are wrong on many levels: not least because peat bogs are vitally important carbon sinks. We know that’s an important concept, but nobody ever explains why. So let’s have a go.

Carbon itself is not bad. The earth is full of carbon, and so are you: it’s quite literally in your DNA. We are carbon-based life-forms, like everything else that lives on the planet. Carbon is in the food we eat and the air we breathe. It is constantly in flux: that’s why people talk about the carbon cycle: carbon is perpetually being released and absorbed.

Problems occur when carbon is released faster it is absorbed. That’s what happened at the end of the Permian era, 250 million years ago. Alterations in the carbon cycle and a series of volcanic eruptions transformed the climate and devastated the planet; 81 per cent of all marine life went extinct along with 70 per cent of all terrestrial vertebrates. It was a bigger event than the one that did for the dinosaurs. The earth recovered all right: trouble is that it took between two and ten million years to do so.

And right now we are releasing carbon into the atmosphere faster than it is being absorbed. We are doing so by burning fossil fuels, and this is causing the climate to change. So it makes sense not to destroy carbon sinks – the places that absorb carbon – at the same time. Carbon sinks include the oceans, all plants, and the soil. Peat is especially good at storing carbon. Peatlands cover no more than three per cent of the world’s land surface and yet they hold one third of the earth’s soil carbon. They are disproportionately important when it comes to holding carbon: therefore disproportionately disastrous when we release it.

But we go on growing our petunias in peat because, well, it’s there on the shelves and it’s convenient. Most gardeners are aware that peat is a bad thing to use: people like the BBC’s Monty Don are always going on about it. We have all read stuff telling us that peat is a bad thing, most of them headlined “for peat’s sake”. People are so aware of it they assume that garden centres are too, and that the compost they sell must be environmentally acceptable. But very often it’s not. Most retailers are happy to carry on because there’s very little consumer pressure to change.

In other words, consumers are shirking their responsibility, allowing governments and the retailers to shirk theirs, while talking airily of plans to “phase out” peat at some often unspecified future date. Mining for peat has stopped on Thorne and Hatfield Moors, and also on some other sites. When Fison’s pulled out, they gave 2,340 acres to English Nature. Much of the Moors is now managed for nature: 5,500 species of invertebrates have been found there, and 200 of birds.

Peat-free growing media are on sale and easy enough to source. They contain materials including bark, wood, fibre, coir, composted green waste and sheep wool waste. But peat continues to be sold and amateur gardeners are still buying it. A good deal of it is imported, from Ireland and from continental Europe: exporting your environmental problems is a familiar part of modern life.

Dear me. When Thatcher was in power, I wrote that when we use peat we are doing a disservice to our own future. Thirty years on, I must write the same thing all over again. Are we really willing to risk the future of the planet for a bunch of petunias? Apparently so.

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