Last month I wrote Why Nature Matters: In Our Gardens and Our Countryside exploring the inextricable links between gardens and the wider landscape – with all the benefits and responsibilities this entails. As we become increasingly aware of the direct effect of our collective actions on the environment, complex issues such as the use of plastic, energy and peat in gardening are under scrutiny. We are beginning to accept that sustainable energy use and a circular economy are vital if we are to develop a world where our children can grow up to enjoy the pleasures, horticultural or otherwise, that we currently do.
One perennial issue in the garden is the use of peat. The arguments against peat use are much rehearsed and despite repeated undertakings by the government to phase out the use of peat in horticulture, there has been depressingly little progress in the past 20 years. The 2010 target to reduce peat use in composts by 90% was comprehensively missed and the same was true of the 2015 aim for all public procurement to be peat free by 2015. Unfortunately, the most recent target to stop the use of peat by 2020 by amateur gardeners looks set to go the same way.
One argument which is often made against peat-free compost is the environmental impact of transporting materials like coir long distances (although much of our peat now comes from Ireland, Canada and the Baltic). Another problem has been quality – I’ve seen this in my own garden with green waste based peat-free compost which often contains a large quantity of woody material, isn’t suitable for either ericaceous plants or seed sowing, and contains fungus gnat eggs which then hatch and fill my house with clouds of irritating sciarid flies.
To overcome these issues, a few years ago I sourced peat-free seed compost from Dalefoot Composts and was impressed by the results in comparison to other growing mediums. I’ve used their ericaeous, multipurpose, high strength and bulb composts, all with excellent results – some I’ve been sent to trial, but the majority I’ve bought myself over the years. One of the advantages is its relatively local nature (produced on the family-run farm in the Lake District) and the sustainability of the raw materials used – sheep’s wool and bracken – products which would otherwise have little or no value.
Bracken cutting for compost
In addition, the sheep’s wool (used for the majority of the composts) retains moisture thus reducing the need to water and both materials have naturally high levels of nutrients so no additional feeding is necessary. I grew my tomatoes, chillies and cucumbers in the high strength compost this year and didn’t add any feed throughout the growing season. Yields increased and I noticed no difference in the size and health of plants or fruit.
Recently I read about the peat bog restoration work undertaken by founders of Dalefoot Composts, Professor Jane Barker and Simon Bland over the past 20 years and was keen to find out more. Jane is an ecologist and Simon a seventh-generation Cumbrian sheep farmer, so between them they have a 360-degree perspective on the damaging operation of peat extraction that has caused the loss of thousands of hectares of peat bog across the UK. Lowland peat bog in England currently covers only one tenth of its original 38,000 hectares due to agricultural drainage, forestry, landfill and peat extraction and many remaining bogs still have permissions to extract peat in the future which are extremely costly to buy out in order to protect the sites.
In 2002 the Government’s advisory body, English Nature, wrote in Peat Bog Conservation:
Today, one of the greatest threats to our peat bogs is from our continued use of peat in the garden. The gardening hobby that brings many of us a great deal of pleasure is doing so at the expense of our wildlife.
Wildlife is certainly one key issue – we’ve known for decades about the importance of peat bogs as a rich and diverse habitat for specially adapted plants and animals like sphagnum moss, butterwort, sundew, bog myrtle, the large heath butterfly, black darter dragonfly and wading birds such as dunlin, curlew and golden plover.
Golden plover in breeding plumage (Image credit: Alan Garner)
More recently we’ve become increasingly aware of the fundamental role peatland environments play in storing carbon (around 3.2 billion tonnes are stored in peatland in the UK), reducing flooding and fires, and providing drinking water (70% of our water comes from peatland river catchments in the UK).¹ The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) also outlines the way ‘peat-dominated landscapes can help to underpin a sustainable rural community as well as providing key benefits to society (eg. water supplies, carbon storage and sequestration) as a whole.’ But they point out that these services can only be provided if ‘peat bog habitat is correctly identified, characterised and thereby managed in an appropriate way’.²
The definition of a bog is a wetland that receives its water exclusively from direct rainfall as opposed to fens where groundwater causes the water-logging. Raised bogs occur in the lowlands where the surface rises over time as a result of peat formation creating a dome shaped bog. In wetter upland conditions peat covers wide areas and is therefore described as blanket bog.
When discussing the restoration work with Jane, I was fascinated by her description of the diversity of peat bog habitat and the huge range of flora (particularly sphagnum moss) which colonize different areas. There are many different types of sphagnum moss – the genus Sphagnum contains around 380 different species – some grow in the water and some on the edge of the bog, but all species hold large quantities of water within their cells (16-26 times their own dry weight). The moss acts as a blanket over the bog which keeps the methane in and, ultimately, becomes peat-forming vegetation.
The UK has disappointingly broad terms for these diverse habitats unlike many peat-rich western nations like Sweden, whose terminology records precisely the individual fen and bog systems. The IUCN states that consequent on this paucity of descriptive language:
most of the UK blanket bog landscape is described only in terms of rather broad vegetation types, which ultimately results in poor understanding of key site features and condition.
There has been much debate recently about the generalisation of terminology for natural landscapes and its effect on our perception of the environment in which we live. In his book on language and the environment, Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane discusses the specificity of reference we are losing as whole tranches of vernacular vocabulary for landscape disappear. He suggests:
It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people able to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit.³
Learning more about peat bogs has revealed a rich vocabulary which I relish – a world of watershed bogs, saddle bogs, spur bogs, saddleside bogs, basin fens, flushes, kettle holes, schwimgmoor raised bogs and blanket mires. One of the strengths of the restoration work which Jane, Simon and their team undertake is their knowledge and understanding of these varied micro-habitats and the different restoration treatments each requires.
Pristine blanket bog
Peat bog restoration is a complex and time-consuming process primarily because mires (current peat-forming bogs) are ‘one of the most sensitive ecosystems on the planet due to their limited capacity for self repair.’4 Barker and Bland – Jane and Simon’s company – have developed methods using both specially designed machines whose footprint is less than 2 lbs per square inch (less than half the weight of a human’s) and working by hand, depending on the sensitivity of the site.
The first step is to restore the hydrology of the peat bog which will have been damaged by the drainage systems put in place so that peat extraction could take place. Inspired by techniques used in rice paddy fields, the team creates crescents along the drainline, blocking the drains and ditches with peat dams to raise the water table. The hags (the eroded cut edges of the peat) are then reprofiled to prevent further erosion and sphagnum moss is introduced to recolonise the area.
The growth tips of sphagnum moss are sustainably harvested from specially selected donor sites – usually local pristine sites as similar to the ecosystem of the restoration site as possible – and within 36 hours these must be spread across the bog in a re-vegetation layer. Sphagnum moss gets its moisture and nutrients from the air: the shallow root system simply acts as an anchor and dies off forming peat when the plant is established, so unlike other plants, moss can be propagated by spreading the growing tips across the new site. In addition to harvesting moss from donor sites, Barker and Bland have built a sphagnum farm in Cumbria to grow different species of moss for their restoration work.
Two of the most recent peatland restoration projects undertaken by Barker and Bland include Bolton Fell in Cumbria and large blanket bog areas in the Cairngorms. In 2014 the government bought out William Sinclair Holding PLC’s peat extraction rights at Bolton Fell, a 375 hectare site and one of the largest degraded raised peat bogs still capable of natural regeneration in England. Once restoration work started in 2016 the Fell was restored to a sphagnum moss habitat with the year, although it will be many decades before peat depth becomes substantial again beneath the sphagnum moss.
In July this year, Barker and Bland began restoration work on a 134 hectare upland blanket bog site in the Cairngorms as part of the Scottish government’s project to restore 40% of Scotland’s peatland (618,000 acres) by 2030. Over the past five months, six members of the team have been working on re-profiling thousands of metres of hags across the peat bog. This work will continue until Christmas through the first sprinklings of snow. A further two teams are currently working in the Cairngorms tackling 25,000 metres of peat hags and 1.75 hectares of bare peat.
Timber sediment traps across the peat bog
Over the next few years we have difficult decisions to make about how we use our land – either we learn to manage it in sustainable ways or we use up the resources in the short-term and pay for it in the future. Peat bog restoration is only the beginning of a regeneration process that will take many decades to complete, but restoring and managing our peat bogs is a vital step if we want to benefit from the practical services these environments offer and preserve the rich ecosystems which they support.
¹ UK Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands, IUCN
² Peat Bog Ecosystems: Key Definitions, IUCN
³ Robert MacFarlane, Landmarks, p. 24
4 Natural England, A review of techniques for monitoring the success of peatland restoration, quoted from (Maltby, 1997)
Image credits: Barker and Bland unless otherwise stated
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