Peat bogs - so much more than just a trap for unwary walkers

March 2010

Peat bogs - so much more than just a trap for unwary walkers
Boggy ground between Scaud Hill and Redgleam (Harwood Common) The North Pennines

Photo: James Irving

If you've walked in the Peak District, The Pennines, along the Pennine Way . . . or in many other areas of the UK you will almost certainly have encountered a Peat Bog at some time. And perhaps this has not been the most enjoyable part of the day - see one walker's reflections on being 'In Peat'.

But Peat is more than just a trap for the unwary walker - and it is now definitely 'on the agenda' and here's why.

Peatlands are wetlands where organic matter (the peat) is produced from dead and decaying plant material under conditions of permanent water saturation. Instead of dying away and releasing carbon, the dead plants settle underneath the water. Over time, these layers of plants are compressed to form peat. It's estimated that peatland covers over 11% of England's land area.

The draining of peatland and the extraction of its peat has been common place in many of our upland and fen areas for the best part of 300 years. Natural England have recently completed a survey of peatland and have concluded that less than 1% of deep peat in England remains undamaged and that over 70% show signs of visible degradation.

This destruction of our peatland had been allowed (in fact encouraged) as a way of providing space for conifer plantations, for more grazing or for grouse shooting and also to allow the peat to be used as a component of compost. However, it's now recognised that this laissez-faire approach has produced a number of unintended consequences.

Traditionally peatlands have been the preferred environment for a rich variety of plants (eg colourful mosses, fen violets, cranberry, cotton-grass) and birds (eg golden plover, curlews) - and many of these have become much less prolific as the peat bogs have disappeared.

Perhaps even more dramatic has been the effect that the drainage channels (known as "grips" in some areas) dug into peat has had on the ancient water table. In many places, the creation of these drainage channels has significantly increased the risk of flood in the lower parts of rivers such as the Aire or the Ribble.

Our peatlands also make a crucial contribution to the carbon cycle. They have accumulated carbon over thousands of year - and to do this they need to be permanently water-logged so that the decomposition of plants is slowed down. In this way, the peat acts as a way of accumulating carbon and stopping the emission of the carbon as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Draining a peat bog doesn't just stop the accumulation of carbon, it actually increases the decay of the plants so that the peatlands change from being a carbon 'sink' to a carbon 'source'. Drainage also makes peat fires more likely - and fires transfer carbon to the atmosphere even more quickly. Active extraction of peat also transfers carbon to the atmosphere even more quickly.

Natural England have estimated that these damaged English peatlands are currently responsible for the emission of approximately 3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year which the authors' equate to the emissions from around a third of a million of British households.

It is the recognition of the value of peat bogs as a natural means of carbon retention that has really galvanised government to get behind some of the initiatives from the National Park Authorities, Natural England, The Wildlife Trusts, The Environment Agency that are trying to restore some of this important environment. There are a number of activities underway around England, for example in Yorkshire (Yorkshire Peat Partnership), The Peak District (Moors for the Future), Cambridgeshire (The Great Fen Project).

At a national level, there is a current UK Government target of restoring 800,000 hectares of peatland by 2015 and now an intention to reduce the demand by phasing-out peat in garden compost material by 2020. Hilary Benn, Environment Secretary said in announcing this latest target on 8 March 2010,

"The horticultural industry has made progress in reducing peat use over recent years, but given the urgency of reducing our emissions we need to go much further. I know that the proposed 2020 phase-out target for the amateur market will be challenging, but we know this is what we need to do. Peat soils are extremely valuable carbon stores as well as being home to wildlife and important to archaeology, and we should be doing everything we can to protect them.

Is this enough? Well, no according to some conservationists:

Paul Wilkinson, speaking on behalf of The Wildlife Trusts, "The phasing out of peat in compost has begun and now needs to be accelerated on a much more ambitious timescale. Otherwise, in the next 10 years, our peatlands will continue to experience unsustainable extraction and we will also be missing opportunities to manage and restore peatlands, with all of the subsequent benefits this can bring."

For more information:

England's peatlands - carbon storage and greenhouse gases, Natural England, March 2010


“My favourite recollection of "being in the peat" is in North Yorkshire, in the middle of the Lyke Wake walk, near to " Fat Betty" (a painted white stone). At this point on the walk there is a 7 mile stretch of truly boggy, feet sucking, slipping and sliding, in and out, up and down of a peat bog walk. There is a simmilar experience later on at Fylingdale Moor, but this time the bog is on a slope. Great walking though ! Does anyone else have an experience of the Lyke Wake Walk?”

Graham Legg, Nottingham


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