Peatlands: What are they and how did they form?

A healthy bog on Cadishead Moss

Lowland peatland habitats are a piece of living history. From the ice age to the present day, let's take a look at how these special habitats formed over 10,000 years ago.

Wet, acidic, low nutrient conditions mean that peatlands are some of our most precious wild places. Home to rare, endangered and completely specialist plants and animals, they are incredibly valuable and need our protection from threats like development and peat extraction.

Peatlands also store carbon dioxide, making them invaluable in an age where climate change issues are rife. And did I mention they can help prevent flooding?

Peatlands soak up water during periods of high rainfall and gradually release it over time.

Peatlands really are amazing places, but how did they form in the first place?

A visitor to a mossland looking at an ancient mossland tree

An ancient mossland tree

The story begins during the last Ice Age

Peatlands started forming more than 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age. As the ice sheet retreated from across Britain it left a number of clay-lined pools behind. Over time these pools filled with dead bits of vegetation, and because of the low oxygen conditions, peat soil began to form.

However, at the start these pools had too many nutrients in them. These came from the clay and water running over the surrounding land and into the pools, which formed the foundations of the peatland. As the pools gradually filled with peat they turned into fens and reedbeds: important habitats you can still see today.

A pool lined with sphagnum moss at Red Moss

Sphagnum pool

Peatlands as we know them today

Eventually the pools completely filled with peat and the peatlands reached a critical stage in their formation.

If it stays wet enough and peat continues to form, a ‘dome’ will then form and raise the ground above the surrounding landscape. The raised dome means the former pool will now no longer receive nutrients from run-off; the only source will be from rainfall.

Gradually becoming nutrient poor, it is at this point that the former pool becomes a peatland. More and more nutrients are washed out of the soil by the rain and very few come in via rainfall, but this isn't a bad thing, it means that the specialist peatland flora we know and love can thrive. In turn, this nurtures special peatland wildlife like common lizards, meadow pipits, short-eared owls, bog bush crickets, snipe, brown hares and many more.

Unfortunately our precious peatlands are now few and far between. As I mentioned earlier, one of their main threats is peat extraction for gardening.

To reach the peat the landscape is drained, destroying the habitat and releasing stored carbon back into the air. Once the peatland loses its moisture it begins to lose the plant and animal species that depend on it to survive. Why not help by going peat-free in your garden?

Luckily, your Wildlife Trust is helping to restore our rare peatland habitats by re-wetting and campaigning. By purchasing key peatland sites, working with other organisations and landowners, and raising public awareness about the importance of peatlands, we hope to protect their future for wildlife, for people; for everyone.

Learn more about mosslands