The importance of preserving peatlands

Image description: A pond in a moor 

Peatlands are remarkably valuable ecosystems when treated well and extremely damaging when not. Young activists and local communities, including in Oxford, are fighting to restore and protect what has been perilously overlooked, while the government slowly catches up.

Peatlands are a type of wetland ecosystem found all over the world, characterised by the presence of peat. Peat consists of partially decomposed plant matter that has accumulated sometimes since the end of the Ice Age, 12’000 years ago. It is the consistently wet environment of the peatland that allows peat to form, because when plants die and fall below the water the microorganisms that would normally decompose them are less able to because of the much-reduced diffusion of oxygen in water. The plant matter therefore remains and more is added over time, compressing and layering, growing by about 1mm a year in sufficiently wet conditions.

Peatlands provide an array of ecosystem services. Through the process of peat-formation, the carbon in the plant’s bodies – which would normally be released back into the atmosphere during decomposition – is locked away, leading to peatlands being the largest terrestrial carbon store. In the UK, this represents roughly 3bn tonnes of carbon. The properties of peat and peatlands mean that they are also valuable for water purification, efficiently filtering water that passes through them. 70% of the UK’s drinking water comes from catchments dominated by peatlands, with a total value estimated at £888m. Many species of plants, animals and fungi depend on peatlands, being specially adapted to the peatland’s unique conditions. Wet peatlands are also vital for the preservation of fragile archaeological remains hidden beneath their surface.

Many species of plants, animals and fungi depend on peatlands

Despite these benefits, 80% of the UK’s peatlands are in a degraded state, leading to the emission of 20 mega-tonnes of  CO2e (5.6% of total annual emissions) every year, which further contributes to the deterioration of other ecosystem services. The drainage of lowland peatlands in East Anglia for agricultural conversion is the primary contributor to these emissions. Blanket bog is one type of peatland found in Britain and are of global significance as this accounts for 10-15% of the Earth’s total. Blanket bogs have been significantly degraded by air-borne pollution, over-grazing and drainage. 

Another pressure, unique to Britain, is the burning of upland moors by the grouse-shooting industry, which destroys the peatland’s moss-filled surface layer and lowers the water table. The aim of this practice is to clear old heather and provoke the growth of new heather, the succulent young shoots of which feed grouse. This helps to maintain unnaturally high populations which groups pay around £7000 a day for the privilege of shooting.

Tree-planting is often portrayed as a silver bullet against climate change

Tree-planting is often portrayed as a silver bullet against climate change, and bio-energy considered renewable, but when peatlands are taken into account this is far from true. About 18% of the UK’s peatlands are currently used for commercial forestry, increasing by net 24’000ha in the period 1990 – 2013. Such cultivation drains and dries the land, leading to a net source of emissions from forested peatlands.

With COP26 approaching, the pressure on the devolved governments to develop serious strategies for protecting and restoring their peatlands has increased. In England, such a strategy has been eagerly awaited since 2018 and was finally published on May 25th. In this, the government said it would further extend its recent announcement of a ban on burning, which only applied in areas where peat depth is greater than 40cm, which are also designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Areas of Conservation or Special Protection Areas – unless the land-owners have been granted a licence or the area is too rocky for mowing. Such regulations will certainly be helped by another pledge in the action plan – to completely map the extent of the UK’s peat soils by 2024. The government will also open a consultation this year on legislation around peat compost and hopes to ban the use of peat in the amateur sector by 2024. However, this does not address the destruction of shallow peat where grouse moors are situated.

the government aims to restore 35’000 hectares of peatland by 2025

As for peatland restoration, the government aims to restore 35’000 hectares of peatland by 2025, which is only 10% of upland blanket bog and an investment of just 10% of the money being put into trees and woodland restoration. Action on lowland peatlands is less concrete, as the recommendations of the Lowland Agricultural Peat Task Force are not expected till the end of next year. The outcome of this task force will be vital for ensuring a truly successful peat strategy for England and deserves close attention of whether new agricultural management practices are truly sustainable.

More inspiring than the often empty words of government is the on-the-ground action of conservation volunteers. The Lye Valley is a sliver of green cut into the urban surroundings of Headington, restored and conserved by volunteers of the Friends of Lye Valley. A tufa-forming alkaline spring fen, the Lye Valley is “the rarest of the rare” when it comes to peatlands, says chairperson Dr Judy Webb, representing 1.5ha of a total 19 in England. Relying on groundwater sources for its water, the Lye Valley is threatened by urban developments on adjacent land, including Churchill hospital, which disrupts the area’s fragile water supply. 

the group wants to facilitate a shift in the way that peatlands are perceived, away from the ‘wasteland’ paradigm that currently dominates

Meanwhile, youth-activist group Re-Peat are pushing for a society-wide reappraisal of peatlands. Through interdisciplinary education and advocacy, the group wants to facilitate a shift in the way that peatlands are perceived, away from the ‘wasteland’ paradigm that currently dominates, towards a regenerative and appreciative outlook. Their second 24-hour virtual festival, Peat-Fest which was held on the 29th May had a range of speakers studying and protecting peatlands all around the world. It was centred around the theme of ‘The In-Between’, as peatlands occupy a space between the terrestrial and aquatic, and perhaps the past and the future.

As the pandemic shows glimmers of abating, the UK is in its own in-between moment. We can either return to the ‘normal’ of destructive economic growth, or move into a period of regenerative social and environmental policy. In making this decision, we would do well to remember peatlands.

Photo by Grant Durr on Unsplash