Peatlands are the UK’s largest carbon stores, writes Caroline Snow. To soak up carbon, the soil needs to be undisturbed and kept wet. Peatland soils can be several metres deep, holding huge carbon stocks that have developed over millennia. Deep peat soils can hold eight times as much carbon as the equivalent area of tropical rainforest.

But more than 94% of the UK’s lowland peat bogs have been destroyed or damaged, and some of our rarest wildlife such as the swallowtail butterfly, hen harriers and short-eared owls have disappeared along with it.

As stated on the Defra pages of the Government’s website, “Peatlands are an iconic feature of our landscapes and the UK’s largest stores of carbon. They also provide vital ecosystem services including supplying UK drinking water, decreasing flood risk, and providing food and shelter for rare wildlife.

The extraction of peat releases the carbon stored inside as carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change. Peat is extracted in the UK for primarily horticultural purposes. By ending the retail sale of peat in horticulture, we will be protecting our vulnerable peatlands and helping to prevent climate change”.

In August 2022, the Government ran a consultation that received more than 5,000 responses, including from the horticultural industry itself, with over 95% in favour of the Government taking action to ban retail peat sales. In response to which, the Government stated on the Defra website on 30 August 2022, “The government in England is committed to banning the sale of peat and peat containing products by 2024”.

This announcement was welcomed by wildlife groups as a vital step in meeting the UK targets of halting the decline of nature by 2030 as set out in the Environment Law 2021. It is also one of the easiest ways to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to meet our legally binding targets of halving our emissions by 2030.

So it came as a huge surprise for Therese Coffey, Minister for Defra, to announce last week that there will now be only a partial ban in 2024, but a complete ban will not come into effect until 2030.

The ban will now only apply to peat in composts for sale to the public. The horticultural trade can continue to use peat until 2030. Too late to contribute to the vital targets of halving emissions or restoring nature by 2030.   

Peat is still dug across the UK. In the Somerset levels, this week, I witnessed one peat producer located next to the much loved nature reserves of RSPB Ham Wall and Somerset Wildlife Trust’s Avalon Marshes, removing four articulated lorries of peat a day, to be sold into the compost and horticultural trade. Large quantities are also imported from Eastern Europe. The Government’s own body, Natural England states, “The destruction and degradation of natural habitats has resulted in the direct loss of carbon stored within them.

“Restoring natural systems can start to reverse this damage at the same time as supporting and enhancing biodiversity.” 

Organic growers produce healthy food without peat. Many reputable growers and responsible gardeners avoid peat products. Home-made composts are the most sustainable, eliminating transport and plastic, and contain more nutrients. Garden centres stock many peat-free composts, but check the bag has the words ‘peat-free’, if not it is most likely to contain peat. It is harder to determine whether the plants being sold have been grown peat-free.

When buying plants, please ask what peat-free options are available. It is only by customers showing that they care that change will happen. In this way, we as consumers can do the job that should have been done by Government.

The quiet dropping of this target that also jeopardises our nature and climate targets is unfortunately part of a wider pattern of Government, whereby targets are set years, if not decades, into the future. The Government and the horticultural industry first agreed way back in 2011 to a voluntary phase out of the sale of peat and peat-containing products by 2020.

When this failed to happen, the new date of 2024 was set. The industry has now had 13 years to prepare for this ban, and pleas for delay should have fallen on deaf ears. But when the date for action arrives, the target can be pushed back once again by the relevant minister with no consultation or parliamentary debate.

The ban on peat products has become yet another paper target shrouded in warm words that have evaporated into hot air, just like the CO2 escaping from our peatlands.