Peat is an organic material that forms in the waterlogged, sterile, acidic conditions of bogs and fens. These conditions favour the growth of mosses, especially sphagnum. As plants die, they do not decompose. Instead, the organic matter is laid down, and slowly accumulates as peat because of the lack of oxygen in the bog.

The importance of peatlands

A little over 3% of the earth's land surface is covered in peat, but not all peatlands are the same. Just as forests in Brazil, Canada and England are very different, so too are peatlands in Alaska, Indonesia and Europe, each supporting its own native plants and animals. Peat has the ability to preserve materials and this has led to some remarkable finds in peat bogs, including people buried thousands of years ago and wooden artefacts that have not survived elsewhere.

The importance of peatlands has been recognised by the European Union which has identified a number of bogs as priority habitats for conservation under the Habitats and Species Directive.

Peat bogs contribute to the welfare of all living things by 'locking up' carbon that would otherwise increase the greenhouse effect. Carbon, removed from the atmosphere over thousands of years, is released when bogs are drained and peat starts to decompose.

The threats to peatlands

Originally, lowland raised bog (the rarest type in the UK) covered nearly 95,000 ha. Now only 6,000 ha. remain in a near natural state and still laying down peat.

Agriculture and forestry have damaged large areas of peatland. But today, commercial peat extraction to supply gardeners and nursery growers is the major threat. Peat has been cut and used as a fuel for many centuries.

Hand-cutting of peat is a slow, labour-intensive process that can allow the bog partially to recover. It is very different from industrialised, mechanical extraction practised by peat companies, which drain and damage whole bogs. The companies deep-drain peatlands and strip all vegetation from vast expanses of bog surface. The Wildlife Trusts are active in attempting to stop this destruction and work to conserve and protect the few remaining areas.

Alternatives to peat

Gardeners have not always used peat. In fact, its use on a large scale started only in the late 1950s. Before then, a variety of composts was used instead, with coir (a product derived from coconuts) and loam (soil) based composts being the most popular. In those days, people felt that peat was of little use horticulturally, because of its lack of nutrients. It was only through strenuous marketing by peat producers, that sales began to increase.

Today, because peat is available in so many forms and is put to so many uses, no single product can replace it, yet many alternatives are cheaper (often free) and may work better. Garden debris and green kitchen wastes can be composted to make a soil improver that will contribute more nutrients than sterile peat. There are also composts to buy, which are made from animal manure - a traditional soil improver, and other materials like wood-waste and bark. For mulching, peat is poor because it dries out and blows around. Chipped bark, shredded prunings, cocoa shells, straw and blanket mulches such as plastic sheets all make more effective and durable mulches. As a growing medium, commercial nurseries are finding that alternatives work well and are better than peat in some circumstances.

What you can do to help save peat bogs Peat bogs desperately need your help. You can help save them by:

Further reading

Out of the Mire (1992) RSPB and Plantlife, Sandy, Beds.

Growing Wiser: Case studies in the successful use of peat-free products. Available from The Wildlife Trusts.

Gardening Without Peat: The Friends of the Earth guide to peat alternatives. FoE London.

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