It’s a vast, ancient ecosystem, rich in biodiversity, centuries in the making, recognised around the world for its unmatched ability to store carbon, and yet it’s being gobbled up at alarming rates to supply the needs of western consumers who mostly don’t realise what they are doing.
Yes, you’ve guessed it. I’m talking rainforest, but not the Amazon variety. The Amazon variety gets all the headlines, but there is a form of rainforest that can store thirty times more carbon per acre than the tropical type, and it’s in our back yard.
Britain’s peat bog and moorland is a truly precious resource. It’s absolutely right to compare it to rainforest, but does it make sense to call it rainforest? You probably get the ‘rain’ bit, but ‘forest’? It may seem a bit of a stretch, but although modern usage of forest almost always means a big woodland, this isn’t the origin of the word. Indeed, anyone familiar with the New Forest down in Hampshire will know that it’s mostly unwooded. ‘Forest’ comes from a Latin word meaning ‘out there’ and its roots are in describing an unenclosed, unfarmed wild area, typically reserved for some purpose. For many forests that purpose was for hunting but that usage isn’t prescribed, so as I see it, reserved for carbon storage is as valid a purpose as any.
The numbers behind our peat rainforest are staggering. You’d have to cover the entire UK twice over with trees to store as much carbon as our existing peat. Just 5% of our peat holds the same amount of carbon as the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Peatland covers only 3% of the world’s surface but holds nearly 30% of all soil carbon. It’s a globally rare treasure, important to biodiversity, and the UK has 13% of all the world’s blanket bog. Healthy upland peat filters and purifies our water supply keeping our water bills down (over half our national water supply drains through upland peat). It also acts as a sponge, soaking up rain, holding it in the hills during storms, and so reducing the severity of flooding.
It’s wonderful that awareness of the value of peat is spreading, and that so much effort is now going into restoring and renewing the peat moor around us (for example, https://greatnorthbog.org.uk/ ). But it’s all too easy to forget this when we trot down to the garden centre. Roughly two thirds of all commercially extracted peat sold in the UK is bought by amateur gardeners – that’s about two million cubic metres every year. A third of this is extracted in the UK (largely from lowland bog sources), most of the rest from Ireland. None of this is necessary. Indeed, the Royal Horticultural Society has stopped selling peat-based compost. Its gardens are already 98% peat free, and it is a strong advocate of peat free gardening. It is joined by Alan Titchmarsh, Kate Bradbury and Monty Don who describes peat-based compost as ‘environmental vandalism’.
He’s right. It is. Just one typical bag of gardener’s peat-based compost has the same carbon footprint as driving a petrol car about 250 miles. There is meant to be a voluntary agreement to phase it out, but suppliers are dragging their heels. There are many complex issues surrounding the use of peat land, but here’s one that’s simple. Help nature-loving gardeners understand that the best use for peat is to leave it where it belongs.