As the peak gardening season approaches there is a renewed call to ban peat sales

Photo credit: Matthew Roberts.

By Anders Lorenzen

UK’s The Wildlife Trust has increased pressure on the government to ban the sale of peat- based compost. This comes on the back of a survey ordered by the charity showing only one in twenty of the UK’s leading garden retailers say they would eliminate the sale of peat in its stores this year.

Ten years ago, a voluntary target was set by the Government to end the sale of peat compost to amateur gardeners by 2020, which was missed last year, with a target of 2025 for professional use. And this year the Government is to decide if new legislation is needed to end peat use in the horticultural sector. 

But, according to The Wildlife Trust, there are no signs of a peat strategy and they’re calling for an immediate end to sales of peat compost. If not, then worldwide the destruction of peatlands will continue. The monitoring has shown that in 2019 peat-based compost still made up over 40% by volume sold, and total peat use in horticulture stood at over 2 million cubic metres.

The Wildlife Trust says there’s plenty of peat-free composts available. And many give excellent results, with good advice also available on making your own compost at home. This means that although peat extraction is by no means the only cause of damage to our peatlands, it is one of the easiest to prevent.  

Why is protecting peatlands crucial?

Peatlands are waterlogged, wetland landscapes where decaying plant material builds up over time to form peat. This happens very slowly, forming at a rate of around a millilitre per year – or in other words taking a thousand years to form a metre of peat. In the UK, peat is commercially extracted mainly from lowland raised bogs where mechanical methods can remove a metre or more of peat in a year, far faster than it can re-form. Extraction also often removes the active peat-forming layer at the surface of the bog in order to get to the deposits underneath, making recovery of the habitat afterwards extremely unlikely, without help. 

The UK’s peat bogs are home to rare and unusual wildlife and flora, all of which are at risk when their habitat is destroyed by peat extraction. However, UK bogs meet just part of the country’s demand, with much peat imported from Ireland and Europe, leaving a legacy of damaged bogs there too. Peatlands are the largest on-land store of carbon and campaigners say they are vital to our fight against climate change.

The campaign to end peat use has been a long one. It began 30 years ago as people began to realise that peatlands play a crucial role as a precious habitat for wildlife and where biodiversity thrives. In recent years they have also been recognised as crucial carbon-storing sinks if they’re well managed. Peatlands are the UK’s largest on-land store of carbon,  ‘locking in’ an estimated 3.2 billion tonnes in the UK alone. This means that UK peatlands hold three times as much carbon as UK woodlands.  

Some retailers are making progress

But not all retailers are bad, with some leading the way. Eleven out of the 20 retailers who responded to the survey now at least offer peat-free composts as part of their range, with no retailer selling soil improvers or mulch containing peat. The retailers leading the way were Travis Perkins and Wickes, the only retailers to declare an -end-date for peat sales, Travis Perkins this year and Wickes by 2025. 

A few others have pledged to end peat sales in the future but are yet to give a date, with others having no clear commitments and, shockingly, only four stocking ranges of peat-free plants. Half of the retailers asked did not even respond to the survey. 

Craig Bennett, the chief executive of The Wildlife Trust said: “Our survey shows that most retailers’ approach to the voluntary ban on peat sales has been woeful – even though the industry has been aware of the problem for decades. The time for voluntary agreements is over – the sale of peat must end now. Peatlands are vital wildlife habitats and it’s absolutely crucial that they remain intact to help us tackle climate change. The Government can ensure that these important carbon stores function as nature intended by banning peat sales now.”

The Wildlife Trust has appealed to gardeners to show the Government that peat-free gardening is possible by signing this pledge.

Last year the famous UK gardener Monty Don and environmental groups penned a lette to the Government calling for an end to the use of peat compost.

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