I have to take issue with Bunny Guinness
Bunny Guinness, a well known gardener and landscape architect, claimed on Radio 4’s Today programme last week (January 23, 2020), that the use of peat for potted plants was perfectly acceptable. Her justification was that the quantity of peat used was so small that banning it wouldn’t make any difference to our carbon emissions. She also said that many of the alternatives to peat could cause even more detrimental effects than the extraction of peat.
Of course she is perfectly entitled to say what she thinks, but for such a well known and hence influential public figure to say this, it feels quite damaging.
My first thought is that ANY removal of peat from its natural habitat, however small it may be, is final – it’ll never ever be replaced. It is not a renewable asset. It has been formed over millions of years (like coal), and it is a store for carbon. So whenever peat is removed it releases carbon that has been stored in it.
It is also a habitat for exceptionally rare flora and fauna, which again if the peat is removed then all of those organisms that depended on it will be gone for ever (3).
In horticulture, peat is used in grow bags and pots throughout the private and the commercial sector. It is also used in the mushroom industry for ‘casing’ (covering) the growing mushrooms.
In some countries it is still used for fuel.
In 2010 (I can’t find any more recent figures) the amount of peat consumed in the UK was close to 3 million cubic metres (1) (UK & imported peat). To give perspective to that figure; If the average depth of annual extraction was a quarter of a metre (250mm) that would amount to 120 hectares of land surface area (297 acres) every year – lost for ever. Figures from 2014 suggest that the amount of peat extracted in the UK was nearly 1 million cubic metres (4).
Some say that peat is a renewable resource. It is not. The formation of new peatland at best in perfect conditions at 2mm per year would never keep pace with commercial extraction which is commonly 200mm depth (3). Furthermore when extraction takes place the bogs are dried out by drainage. As a result, all of the living organisms that created the bog and lived within it are destroyed.
The good news is that if extraction is stopped now, and the remaining peat is still relatively thick (1 metre), then with careful management the land can be reflooded, the mosses re-established and the process restarted. Many peatlands have been lost for good, so we must stop now (“however ‘small’ the extraction is Bunny”) to save the areas that haven’t been destroyed yet.
One of the main challenges facing us is how to stop the degradation and subsequent loss of carbon from peat lands that have been extracted in the past. Water and wind erosion is a major factor in the degradation process, as is the drying out of the peat lands.
Just a few days ago (January 23) the Committee on Climate Change published its ground breaking report (forgive the pun!) called Land Use: Policies for a Net Zero UK (2) . The report prioritises the reclamation of peat lands and advocates a complete ban on the commercial use of peat. It’ll be interesting to see how this policy is implemented.
1. DEFRA Research Project Final Report 2010: Review of growing media use and dominant materials (peat and alternatives) for growing media in other countries (European and international). sciencesearch.defra.gov.uk/Document.aspx?Document=SP1206_10246_FRP.pdf
2. Committee on Climate Change report on Land Use: Policies for a Net Zero UK published Jan 23, 2020. https://www.theccc.org.uk/2020/01/23/major-shift-in-uk-land-use-needed-to-deliver-net-zero-emissions/
3. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) - UK Committee. A briefing note on UK commercial peat extraction https://www.iucn-uk-peatlandprogramme.org/sites/www.iucn-uk-peatlandprogramme.org/files/6%20Commercial%20peat%20extraction%20-%205th%20November%202014.pdf
4. Mineral extraction in Great Britain 2014 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/505631/Mineral_Extraction_in_Great_Britain_2014_final.pdf