Give Peat A Chance

Merrick, 13th March 2002ce

Peat is a peculiar soil. Made of dead mosses it gradually accumulates over centuries, so gently that it perfectly preserves an archaeological record of its place. And its peculiarity of structure, holding vast quantities of water, means it is host to a staggering variety of plants and animals that don’t live elsewhere. Each moor is unique, and many are home to species that live nowhere else on earth.

The UK and Ireland have been the home of the largest and most precious peat moors in Europe. Less than 5% of the original moors remain, making it imperative that the remaining places are preserved.

At Thorne and Hatfield Moors, two massive areas of peaty land near Doncaster, South Yorkshire, there are more than 5,500 species, including plants like the carnivorous round-leaved sundews & bladderworts, nightjars, various wading birds and birds of prey and many, many beetles, dragonflies, moths and things that bite!

Thorne Moor and Hatfield Moor cover an area of land the size of a small city. They are the two largest remaining raised peat bogs in Britain. There are several factors that should help in their conservation. For many years the moors have been a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a designation given to around 6,000 places in the UK that hold rare wildlife and ecosystems.

Unfortunately English Nature, the publicly-funded body who are supposed to be responsible for preserving natural heritage in England – sold licenses to American corporation Scott’s to strip the peat from Thorne and Hatfield moors and sell it in gro-bags. The company was working under planning permissions given in the days when peat was cut by hand, a slow process that allowed the bogs to stay wet enough to survive. But in recent decades they have been stripped by giant harvesting machinery which required the moors to be drained and all trees and plants eradicated in order to supply the vast quantity of peat - two and a half million cubic metres bought annually – for the UK market.

To make the peat harvestable, Scott’s have to dry out the land. They dig huge systems of drainage ditches across the moors. Not only does this kill off much of the peat’s ability to support its rare wildlife that depends on the wet habitat, but it actively adds to global warming. Peat stores a huge amount of carbon, because it is made of undecayed plants - drying it out and digging it up releases the carbon, adding
enormously to the greenhouse effect. Living bogs on the other hand take up carbon as they grow and lock it away.

The peripheral areas of the moors are managed as nature reserves by English Nature, who are encouraging the regeneration of the rare and diverse ecosystem of the moors. However, regeneration requires the water-table to be kept as high as possible. The commercial extraction of peat requires the peat to be as dry as possible. Thus, Scott’s are draining the moor; much of the regeneration land is separated from the commercially used land by large drainage ditches!

Over the last ten years or so, as well as occasional action from environmentalists like Earth First! and large organisations like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, there has been more consistent local campaigning against the peat stripping, supported by regional Friends of The Earth groups. Recently campaigners have felt that time is rapidly running out and have got a bit more active.

So Peat Alert, a new campaign against peat extraction, was formed with the intention of stopping UK peat use completely within the next 2 years - an ambitious task! To this end, they are holding regular conservation sessions on the moors, sending speakers to groups all over the country and co-ordinating direct action against Scott’s.

For those who can’t come to the moors but support the campaign, Friends of The Earth have produced leaflets to give out at garden centres and DIY shops explaining why people should avoid peat compost. A superb spoof of the Miracle-Gro bag (‘Miracle-Gone’) is featured on some of them.

This sustained series of actions against Scott’s embarrassed the company and put great pressure on the Department of Environment to protect the UK’s peatlands.

In March 2002 came a surprise announcement. The UK government would relent to European Union pressure and grant Special Area of Conservation (SAC) status to several UK peat moors. Unlike the essentially meaningless ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’, SAC status is a European description and carries strong legal powers of preservation.

The Department of Environment will pay Scott’s nearly £18m to leave Thorne Moor and Wedholme Flow in Cumbria immediately, and Hatfield Moor in two years time.

Far from being a way of placating campaigners, this has been a spur to more action. This means there is now everything to play for at Hatfield. Any action that saves the peat in the next two years saves it forever.

And once it’s all over for the peat at Hatfield Moor, it is not over for Scott’s factory there. The issue spreads far wider than the vast expanses of Thorne and Hatfield Moors. The Scott’s plant at Hatfield Moor also processes peat from Ireland, where vast areas of land, and the life they sustain, are also being ruined forever. One of the brands is called ‘Shamrock’! Using an Irish icon to sell the ruination of Irish land! It reminds me of the cartoons of smiling cows that sell butter, ice cream and milk.

And once England, Ireland and Scotland has lost its peat, eyes will turn to imports from the Baltic states, Eastern Europe and Russia.

The real issue is commercial use and sale of peat, and so the leafleting of garden centres is, if anything, more important than direct action at Hatfield Moor. There are plenty of brands that are clearly marked ‘peat-free’. Sensitive to this awareness, Scott’s do not mention the inclusion of peat on their packaging, and use terms like ‘multipurpose’, which actually means ‘peat-based’.

Peat soil provides unique ecosystems, and once the expanses of peat are gone, so too goes the wildlife they support. Peat takes thousands of years to develop, and the commercial extraction threatens to take it all in a matter of decades. And it is largely done for garden compost. Paradoxically, peat has almost no nutrient value in its own right. However, being very absorbent it is an excellent carrier of nutrients that are added to it before it is sold as a compost.

It is madness that we create a huge environmental problem by filling massive landfill sites with kitchen and garden waste that give off methane (a greenhouse gas) and pollute water courses, while at the same time creating another environmental problem by stripping colossal areas of their precious peat soil to enrich our gardens.

If we simply composted our kitchen and garden waste, we’d need no commercial compost and stop much of the polluting done by landfill sites. Composting takes almost no effort (certainly less than driving to a garden centre and lugging a big sack of peat). Aside of the issues of ethics and sustainability, the solution is actually far easier than perpetuating the problem.

Peat Alert:
send a large £1 SAE for an action pack, containing info, stickers and fliers to:
Peat Alert,
c/o Cornerstone Resource Centre,
16 Sholebroke Avenue,
LS7 3HB.
Speakers can be booked by emailing [email protected] or calling 0113 262 9365.
Peat Alert is also desperately in need of funds. Please make cheques payable to Peat Alert.

Friends of The Earth peat campaign

Community Composting Network:
Local council info site for Thorne Moor: