Why We Must Protect Peatlands

irish peatland




What Are Peatlands?

Peatlands are wetland or bogland areas characterised by vegetation such as sphagnum moss and other types of moss that retain water, low bushes such as heathers and layers of partially decomposed leaves due to the waterlogged anaerobic environment. They make about 3% of global land.

Peatlands are an important part of the ecosystem because:

  • they provide food and shelter for wildlife;
  • they protect biodiversity;
  • they help prevent floods;
  • they can slow down fires;
  • they store carbon dioxide, therefore preventing it from being released in the atmosphere as greenhouse gas emissions;
  • they play a vital role in slowing down climate change.

It has been estimated that peatlands sequester more carbon than tropical rainforests. They are naturally occurring acid environments: plants decompose slowly over hundreds or thousands or sometimes even millions of years while surrounded by water forming peat layers.

Peat Is Still Used for Heating

Peat is extracted from peatlands to produce solid fuel for domestic and industrial heating and horticulture, as it’s rich in plant-derived components. However, the process of extracting peat from peatlands not only endangers local wildlife but also increases the risk of flooding and the release of greenhouse gases.

Peat as a fossil fuel is still used widely in Northern Europe, particularly in Finland, Ireland and Scotland. Wet peat is lifted from the ground, cut into blocks, then heat and pressure are applied to dry them to be then burned for heating.

Peat has been called “the dirty fuel” and measures are in place to discontinue harvesting it for domestic and industrial use. In places like Ireland where there are no or limited sources of oil and natural gas, peat is still used in many households for heating, mostly in rural areas. Burning peat is responsible for a large part of Ireland’s carbon emission alongside agriculture and transport, and is sometimes used to produce electricity.

irish peatland
Peat extraction from Irish peatland

In Scotland, the Peatland ACTION initiative from Scotland’s Nature Agency has been working to restore damaged peatlands since 2012. The Scottish government allocated funding to be used from 2020 over the course of 10 years to restore peatlands and contribute to Scotland’s green recovery.

Peat is considered to be a low cost fuel, being much cheaper than oil. Due to international commitments to reduce carbon emissions, peat harvesting is slowly being discontinued while more conservation projects have started to ensure peatlands will be enjoyed as amenities for future generations. Peatlands can become places to visit, observe and learn about the habitat without interfering with it.

Home Gardeners and Peat

Gardening is considered to be a therapeutic and relaxing activity which has increased in popularity over the years. Amateur gardeners may not be aware of the impact of their buying decisions when it comes to sourcing compost, because some brands of compost contain peat.

The Royal Horticultural Society in the UK advises to source peat-free compost to actively reduce your carbon footprint. The Society published its policy on peat, stating that we need to reconsider peat and its use in agriculture, with the ultimate goal to have a completely peat-free future. Peat is a precious resource and horticultural alternatives are available: compost can be made from other materials, blending different fibres like coconut coir and green waste.

The RHS stopped selling peat-based compost in 2020 as part of its commitment and is working with its suppliers to ensure they are not using peat in their compost.

The Irish Peatland Conservation Society is urging gardeners to choose peat-free compost, mentioning that 90% of Irish boglands have already been lost to industrial peat extraction. The Society is also recommending to home gardeners to make their own compost by recycling their kitchen and garden waste, as well as to stop buying plants that are grown in peat compost.

The Future Is in Restoring Peatlands

Nature magazine put together a comprehensive report on peatlands restoration. In Indonesia, for example, where large areas of peatland had dried up because of man-made degradation, fires spread widely. The same thing happened in Scotland, too. This is why peatland reclamation and conservation are so important.

Alongside the efforts to rebuild areas depleted by years of excavations, a cultural shift needs to happen: the general public needs to learn to appreciate boglands and their contribution to biodiversity.