For Peat’s Sake

17 Jun 2020

During the Covid-19 lockdown many people have started to garden more. It is a good thing to see sales of vegetable seeds soaring, so much so that they have been hard to find. Initially, at least, it was also difficult to obtain other necessary garden products and I struggled to get hold of peat-free compost. I saw this as an encouraging sign that many gardeners are now moving away from buying horticultural peat compost and using some of the many alternatives now on the market.

Alternatives are crucial as voluntary targets have been in place across the UK for some time with the aim of ending the sale of horticultural peat by 2020 and the use of peat in professional sectors by 2030. LINK published benchmarks on peat extraction and use by 2020[1]. None of these have been met.

The reason for these targets is the massive carbon savings that can be made by keeping peat in the ground, peatlands being one of the world’s largest natural carbon stores. For thousands of years, humans have mined peatlands for fuel and fertiliser, but the extent of worldwide peatland destruction means that governments are now taking action to restore and protect these boggy places. Peatlands actually take in carbon from the atmosphere, helping to tackle climate change as well as being vital habitats for wildlife.

In the past 200 years there has been a dramatic decline in the area of lowland raised bogs [2]. In Scotland the area of bog retaining a largely undisturbed surface is estimated to have diminished by over 90% from an original 28,000 ha to 2,500 ha [3]. Raised bogs and blanket bogs are not just important habitats for rare and threatened wildlife, they also play a role in the storage and regulation of huge amounts of carbon and water, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent local flooding. Globally, peatlands are estimated to hold up to one third of the Earth’s terrestrial carbon, despite only covering about 3% of the world’s surface.

If our peatlands dry out, they can no longer store as much carbon for us and our rivers may no longer protect us from flooding if rainfall levels rise. Over time, there is also the potential for positive feedback within the carbon cycle to lead to an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and a worsening of the effects of climate change.

With Scotland aiming to have net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, the Scottish Government has recognised that our peatlands are a low hanging fruit when it comes to tackling climate change. In January, they announced they would provide £20 million for peatland restoration in 2020-21 with a commitment to invest £250 million over the next ten years. This was described as “an absolute game changer for CO2 emissions reductions, biodiversity and the rural economy” by Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform. However, the Scottish Government has recently been criticised for its lack of data on how much peat is actually extracted, as it currently doesn’t keep records. Environmental bodies in LINK have raised concerns about the lack of monitoring and information which is key to ensuring the practice is phased out effectively.

It is also concerning that three planning applications to extend the duration of peatland extraction have recently been lodged, two in Dumfries and Galloway [4] and one in South Lanarkshire [5], which would enable operations to continue on existing peat extraction sites into the 2030s.

LINK member organisations have sent joint objection letters to the local authorities stating that any further peat extraction will undermine Scotland’s net zero target and specifically be contrary to the Council’s obligations under the Climate Change (Scotland) Act (2009). The applications also run contrary to minerals and planning policies. We sincerely hope that the applications will be refused, as this is a no brainer in terms of working towards Scotland’s climate change targets. Not only that, if the Government is spending millions of taxpayers’ money on peatland restoration projects it seems more than a little mad to continue to grant permissions to extract it, particularly when good alternatives are available.

Finding good alternatives is crucial: peatland is a valuable commodity across the world and essential to our efforts to tackle climate change. We need to not only halt extraction in Scotland, which is damaging vital habitats, removing fundamental ecosystem services including carbon storage, but we also need to build demand for peat free alternatives to prevent the problem being exported.

Clare Symonds, Convener of LINK’s Planning Group





[4] Lochwood Moss reference 19/0996/FUL and Eastriggs reference 20/0660/S42

[5] Hillhouse Farm Douglas Water P/20/0466

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