Peatlands and peat bogs: precious environments that need our protection

Peatlands and peat bogs: precious environments that urgently need our protection

The peat bogs at Thursley NNR are home to three species of our native carnivorous plants, as well as early marsh orchids, and sphagnum mosses. Over 20 species of dragonflies and damselflies live at this nature reserve, which is also home to lizards, birds, and other wildlife.

Peatlands are extraordinary environments, which now cover just 2-3% of our planet’s surface.  Home to a fascinating range of native plants and wildlife, peatlands form unique ecosystems that support incredible flora and fauna.  Many of the plants, insects, birds, and wildlife that have evolved in these boggy, acidic areas can’t survive anywhere else.

Sundews (Drosera) are carnivorous plants that thrive in peat bogs.  There are at least three species of Drosera growing in the UK’s peat bogs, but many other Drosera species can found in Australia, New Zealand, South America, South Africa, and Alaska.

Drosera rotundifolia, also known as the round-leaved sundew grows in peat bogs.

Peat is low in nutrients, but Drosera have evolved an effective method to sustain themselves, by trapping and feeding on flies and insects that they’ve captured with their specially adapted leaves.

Drosera rotundifolia, also known as the round-leaved sundew, pictured at Thursley Common National Nature Reserve in June.

How is peat formed?

These scarce ecosystems are very fragile; the formation of new peat depends on sufficient moisture being available, which combined with a slightly cooler temperature range, provides the conditions that enable sphagnum moss (which slowly forms peat) to grow, flourish, and reproduce.  If optimum conditions occur, a new layer of peat, (measuring up to one millimetre thick) can be created over the course of a year.

Consequently, peat is not a resource that can be generated or replaced in a hurry; indeed, new peat production cannot be guaranteed.  Very often the necessary conditions: the ideal temperatures and optimum light quality, necessary acidity and moisture levels, the required moss species being present (and putting on adequate growth) that combined together enable peat to be created, are not all in place simultaneously, for sufficient time; so as a consequence new peat is not always produced, every year.

Protection from flooding

Peatlands are precious habitats that help and protect us in many ways.  In our changing climate, flooding is an increasing concern.  Peatlands are naturally absorbent, they soak up and hold on to vast amounts of water, which helps to prevent flooding.

Thursley Common National Nature Reserve features areas of open dry heath, peat bogs, and areas of woodland. Visitors can see carnivorous plants and a wide range of rare and interesting flora and fauna.

Water moves slowly through peat; peatlands curtail and soften the flow of water, to guard against flash floods.  Sadly, many peatlands have now been excavated or intentionally drained; so the protection from flooding that these valuable areas once offered us is diminishing in parallel with our peat bogs.

Improving our water quality

Water that has travelled through a healthy peatland will have moved through an amazing natural filtration system that creates high quality water that’s essentially free from pollutants.  A proportion of our drinking water in the UK has had the benefit of being filtered, purified, and improved, as it travels through peatlands.

Much of the UK’s drinking water has passed through peatlands before being collected. The water is naturally filtered by the peat, providing a sustainable way to provide high quality drinking water, using a low cost system that’s beneficial to rare plants, wildlife, and the environment.

Storing carbon to protect us against climate change

Peatlands are our largest terrestrial carbon store; they store more than twice as much carbon than all the world’s forests!  Using their vital and impressive function as a carbon sink, peat bogs lock carbon safely away.  Peatlands have absorbed billions of tonnes of carbon, but this carbon has not disappeared, it still exists and is held in safe keeping, contained within the peatland.  When peat bogs are excavated, this benefit is lost and the carbon is released into the atmosphere.

It’s not only excavated peat bogs that are being weakened.  Peatlands that have been drained to allow animals to graze, soon lose their ability to regenerate.  As the water within the peatland reduces, the peat begins to erode and oxidise; once they start to degrade, peatlands begin to project their carbon stores back into the air.

Heather (Calluna).

Many Estates that run grouse shooting activities adopt a practice of burning moorlands to stimulate the heathers that grow in these areas to produced additional new growth, so as to provide more material to feed increasing numbers of grouse for people to come and shoot.  This practice damages peatlands, killing the mosses that form peat, (along with the other plants, insects, and wildlife that make these areas their home) and unlocks the peatlands’ carbon stores.

New peat production is entirely dependent on sphagnum mosses.  Sphagnum mosses’ new growth creates new peat; without these particular mosses, new peat cannot form and the peatland cannot prosper.

Peatland restoration

Many of the fragments of peatlands that remain have been severely damaged by peat extraction, which is heartbreaking.  Yet, if these peat bogs are protected and restored they can recover.  There is no quick fix, it will take a considerable time for the health of these important sites to improve, but with expert restoration it can happen.  Professor Jane Barker and Simon Bland, who run Dalefoot Composts, are experts in peatland restoration; they take great pride in working to restore and repair peatlands that have been damaged by peat extraction or drainage.

Simon Bland of Dalefoot Composts, pictured with the Dalefoot Composts stand, at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Peat-free gardening…is it possible?

I am a peat-free gardener; I am an advocate for using peat-free compost.  I successfully grow vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers, without using any peat in my garden.

Collecting apples using my beautiful trug made by Kevin Skinner from Trug Makers in East Sussex.
This beautiful trug was made by Kevin Skinner from Trug Makers in Hailsham in East Sussex. This is trug No. 7, it is very versatile, I have used it to harvest all manner of fruit and vegetables. This beautiful trug is very strong and robust, it’s much better than a plastic bag!
I grew these sweet peas during my 2017 Sweet Pea Trial.
I grew these broad beans during my 2020 Compost Trial.
Some of the tomatoes harvested during my Tomato Trial!

Do plants need peat?

I think it’s important to say, that most plants will grow just as well in a peat-free compost as they would in a peat-based compost.  You might be surprised to learn that many plants actually grow far better without the inclusion of peat in their growing media.  Naturally there are exceptions, carnivorous plants that have evolved growing in peat bogs grow best in peat-based composts – but even then not just any old peat compost will do – you need to use a compost that’s specifically tailored for the type of carnivorous plants you’re growing.

Most plants thrive in peat-free composts.  However some plants, like Rhododendrons need acid soils and ericaceous compost to flourish.  In the past, ericaceous composts were always comprised of peat.  Thankfully, we now have individuals and companies working to formulate high quality ericaceous composts that are made without the inclusion of peat.

Over the past four years, I’ve been growing Rhododendron ‘Dreamland’ plants (these plants were given to me by Millais Nurseries) in containers of Dalefoot Composts Ericaceous Wool Compost.  My Rhododendrons are growing very happily; they don’t get watered very often, yet these plants flower beautifully, every year.

Rhododendron ‘Dreamland’ pictured in 2016. This lovely healthy plant came from Millais Nurseries, in Farnham, Surrey.
This Rhododendron ‘Dreamland’ is growing in a container of Dalefoot Composts Ericaceous Wool Compost – an organic peat-free compost, made from natural ingredients, including sheep’s wool. Pictured in August 2017.
I’ve been growing these Rhododendron ‘Dreamland’ plants in peat-free compost since Millais Nurseries gave these Rhododendrons to me in 2016. I took this photograph in May 2020.
A closer look at Rhododendron ‘Dreamland’ flowers. These blooms start off as rose pink buds, which open as lighter pink flowers that continue to pale in colour as the blooms age. Bees adore Rhododendrons, these are super plants to grow for bees. Pictured in May 2020.

As well as Rhododendrons, over the past four years, I’ve successfully grown blueberries (another plant that requires acidic soil or compost) in Dalefoot Composts Ericaceous Wool Compost.

Why are peat-free composts more expensive?

Peat-based composts are cheap and easy for companies to produce, as the peat just needs to be excavated from the peatland and bagged up.  In contrast, peat-free composts are expensive to produce.  The ingredients needed to manufacture peat-free growing mediums need to be purchased and sourced from different areas; very often techniques, machines, and technologies are required to create these growing mediums, which usually need to be specially designed for this purpose.  Naturally, areas of land need to be purchased, or hired, to create a space where peat-free compost can be generated, developed, and created, and once these components are all in place, it takes time for quality growing mediums to be devised, formulated, or invented.

To me, these costs are understandable; I believe it’s important to pay people fairly for their work and contributions.  Purchasing a peat-free compost is an investment in our environment; peat-free composts are worth their weight in gold, as they help to protect our peatlands (and the plants and wildlife that live in these areas) ourselves, and our planet.

Can we make a difference?

Amongst the billions of people on this planet, it’s tempting to believe that any changes we make as individuals will have no real effect; it’s easy to feel that we cannot possibly make a difference to this beautiful planet ourselves.  We might placate ourselves with the thought that one person who switches to a peat-free compost will make no difference whatsoever to the world.  I disagree; I believe that we all make a difference.

If you consider how long it takes peat to form (a layer of peat measuring up to one millimeter thick, can be produced in a year with optimal growing conditions) and then remember the size of a compost bag, you’ll realise that we all make an impact; abstaining from purchasing peat-based composts will make a difference.

Let’s use our individual power for good; together we can change the world and the status quo.  If we stop buying peat, then companies will have no need to continue extracting peat and they’ll find other ways to make money (hopefully by producing peat-free composts!).  We must join forces to protect our peatlands.  Peat is a precious resource, and our peatlands are a vital part of our environment.  Peatlands need our protection now more than ever, just as we ourselves need the valuable security and protection that our peatlands provide us with.

Compost Trials to find top quality peat-free composts

I spend a huge proportion of my time and money running peat-free Compost Trials, to help my readers find the best quality composts to use in their gardens and allotments.  I want to give you the confidence to purchase peat-free composts and help gardeners find top quality growing mediums, to enhance their plants and gardens, without harming the environment.

I understand that many gardeners have grown up using peat-based composts and the majority of gardeners are very familiar with this type of growing medium.  Peat-free composts are not created equally; some are much better quality than others.  But please don’t be daunted by the prospect of using peat-free composts; I want to show you that there are good quality peat-free composts on the market – I use my regular Compost Trials to demonstrate just how good peat-free composts can be.

Protect our peatlands and peat bogs

When we think of a precious environment, we might picture a coral reef or a rainforest.  These areas are indeed precious and they must be preserved, but this is also true of our peatlands.  The whole planet benefits from the protection that our peatlands give us; for too long this has been taken for granted.

I passionately believe that it is of vital importance that peat bogs are conserved, restored, and protected.  I desperately want to encourage gardeners to give up peat and switch to using peat-free compost.  It’s absurd for us to keep destroying peat bogs, whether it’s in the name of horticulture and gardening, or for any other industry.  Together we need to care for and heal our planet and protect our peatlands.

Thursley NNR is one of the largest remaining fragments of a once larger area of peat bog, heathland, deciduous woodland, and pine forest, in Surrey.

We’re so fortunate to have areas of peatlands in the UK, Ireland, and Europe.  I believe we should all be more aware and grateful for the protection, security, and blessings that these vital habitats offer us.  We cannot allow our peatlands and peat bogs to continue to be damaged and destroyed, we should treasure and cherish these extraordinary environments.  Peatlands play a fundamental role in enhancing and securing our life on Planet Earth; together we must stand up and protect these essential habitats, before it’s too late and our peatlands are lost forever.

If you would like to protect our peatlands and the rare, beautiful, and fascinating plants and wildlife that can only survive in these unique habitats, please sign this petition that calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to place a legal ban on the extraction of peat, peat imports, exports, and sales in order to protect peatlands both in Scotland and worldwide.  Please share with your friends and family, and post a link to the petition on all your social media channels.  Thank you.

An open letter promoting the use of peat is in circulation, read my response in this article.

The UK Government’s Peat Consultation has opened, find out more, here.

Please don’t purchase peat-based composts; let me guide you to good quality 100% peat-free growing mediums.

For more information about peatlands, please click here.

Here’s a link to a petition calling to ban the use of peat in gardening and horticulture.

Here’s a link to another petition calling on the Welsh Senedd to ban the use of peat in gardening and horticulture.

This is a link to a petition that calls on the UK government to ban the burning of peat for fuel.

I’m supporting the Peat Free April Campaign.  I’ve signed this letter to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food, & Rural Affairs.

Other articles that may interest you……………..

To see all of my Compost Trials, please click here.

For sustainable gardening ideas, please click here.

For sustainable living ideas, please click here.

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One thought on “Peatlands and peat bogs: precious environments that need our protection

  1. Find a hobby

    May 6, 2020 at 4:42pm

    Awesome! I love gardening and this post help me a lot. I got new tips from your article.

    • Author
  2. Pauline Handley

    February 8, 2021 at 8:45pm

    Hello Pumpkin Beth!
    Thank you so much for a fabulous website and your very important work on Peat free compost trials.I am so glad I found you! I am a WI Climate ambassador based up in Wilmslow Cheshire near a very damaged cut over peat bog called Lindow Moss. Please go to groups and under the tab Lindow Moss to see photos and the work they are doing with restoration although it is still owned by the peat cutting company..
    I have written a short talk called ‘gardening for Climate Change and i include a section on our bog and why we should use peat free compost always. Your website has helped me to improve my talk. I have lots of bog photos but may I use one or two of ours (with accreditation) ?
    I will follow you now and I love your broad bean trial and I will use that data in my talk.
    very best wishes
    Pauline Handley

    • Author

      Pumpkin Beth

      February 8, 2021 at 11:48pm

      Hello Pauline

      Thanks very much for your message and kind words. I am glad that you’ve found the results of my Compost Trials and research to be useful.

      I receive daily requests asking to use my photographs with the offer of being credited for my pictures. Please bear in mind that I am a freelance writer and photographer and although I appreciate being credited for my work, being credited doesn’t provide me with an income. I welcome the fact that you like my pictures, but I ask people not to use them without permission, as if my photographs are everywhere for free, then no one will pay to use them. I am sorry to turn down your request, but I hope you understand my predicament. I give away as much as I can, but I also need to protect my work and earn a living.

      I’d love you to mention that I run regular Compost Trials in your talks and I’d appreciate it if you referred your audience to my website, but I would ask you to please not list all of my results in your talks. I am sure you’ll appreciate but as well as working on each of my Compost Trials every day for months at a time, I’ve also spent a huge amount of money on materials for each Trial. I produce all of this information for free and I am keen that the results of my trials are viewed on my website, as I have set the information out. In the past, others have reported incorrectly on my work and this has been disappointing.

      I am really glad to hear that you’re giving talks about compost and I’m so pleased you’re a WI Climate Ambassador, that’s wonderful – it’s a great thing to do.

      Kind regards and best wishes

  3. Pauline Handley

    February 9, 2021 at 8:47am

    Dear Beth,
    Thank you for such a speedy and full response. I fully understand and I will not use any of your beautiful photos. I will just refer to your website. I will mention your trials to illustrate the work you do.
    I wish you well finding some way to fund your work.
    It is so important.
    There is WI National resolution this year to ban peat sales but it is up against resolutions on heart attacks in women and ovarian cancer. But many of us are campaigning to ban peat sales like you. It needs the Government to be decisive and bring a ban forward.
    Thanks again and good luck this year
    Kind regards

    • Author

      Pumpkin Beth

      February 9, 2021 at 9:02am

      Dear Pauline

      Thanks so much for your message and understanding. I am truly grateful for your support – thank you.

      I hope that the WI will help us to campaign to ban sales of peat and the organisation will support us in our campaigns to protect our peat bogs and peatlands. If you would like me to email anyone at the WI or sign a petition – just let me know – I would very happy to do so.

      It seems mad that we are in 2021 now and yet some garden centres don’t sell a single peat-free compost. I think it should be the other way around and peat should be unavailable. I share your feelings and wish our government would make peat a priority. We need them to protect the few peat bogs and peatlands we have that remain.

      It’s lovely to find a kindred spirit. I hope this message finds you safe and well and wish you good luck with your talks.

      Kind regards and best wishes

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