Although relatively unknown, peatlands make up 12% of the UK’s land mass and are a massively important and unique ecosystem due to the role they play in maintaining biodiversity, carbon storage and flood risk management.
Peat is made up of a mix of decomposed plant material which has accumulated in a water saturated environment with the absence of oxygen, acting as a long term store of carbon and therefore a regulator of both local and global climate.
Peatlands accumulate carbon in the form of peat at a rate of approximately 1mm a year, although this is a painstakingly slow process, this capacity for long term carbon storage is essential for managing climate change. Peatlands ability to soak up water means that it acts as a natural buffer against flooding, slowing the flow of water through the uplands of a catchment and helping to reduce flood risk downstream.
However, despite their importance over 80% of the UK’s peatlands are in a poor condition due to being drained for agriculture and forestry as well as being damaged by extraction. This is not only having a significant effect on the ability of peatland to reduce flood risk and improve water quality but has also resulted in a staggering 630,000 tonnes of Co2 being released into the atmosphere each year, as the peat which stores the organic carbon is exposed to the air.
Around two thirds of the peat produced through commercial peat extraction is consumed by domestic gardeners in the form of multi-purpose compost, despite the use of peat in horticulture being deemed, in the main, completely unnecessary by the Royal Horticultural Society. This is probably because many gardeners don’t realise that cheaper multipurpose compost contains between 70-100% peat unless it is labelled as peat free, as peat free compost is usually more expensive as it has to be processed more!
What is being done about it?
Peat free compost
In recent years there has been a concerted effort both nationally and globally to restore peatlands and reduce the consumption of peat. Peat alternatives have now been developed, which mimic its characteristics using bark, wood fibre, bio-solids, bracken and green-compost instead. Although initially peat-free composts had a reputation for being unreliable, the product has greatly improved. As well as this, by purchasing locally produced peat free alternative from locally collected waste materials, you are also benefiting UK industries such as forestry and composting, making peat free alternatives a win-win!
You could also have a go at making your own composts, find out how here.
The Peatland Code
The Peatland Code has been developed to encourage the private sector to invest in restoring peatlands and is a voluntary standard for UK peatland projects wishing to market the climate benefits of peatland restoration. With water companies being encouraged to improve water quality using upstream solutions and upstream flood risk management being increasingly popular, investment by businesses is key to improving this precious resource.
As well as reducing the consumption of peat, it is essential that we restore as much of the UK's peatland as possible so it is able to store carbon, improve water quality and reduce flood risk. In 2013 the 1 Million Hectares Challenge was launched, with the aim of restoring a third of the UK’s peatland to good condition by 2020.
For more information on the restoration of peatland and how this is helping to reduce flood risk take a look at our resource here.
Sources: Royal Horticultural Society, International Peat Society, BBC, telegraph