The Wildlife Trusts highlight government inertia on peatland restoration

Tim Prevett - Cottongrass at Little Woolden Moss

Two-year delay to England peat strategy as damage continues to vital carbon stores.

This year, as the UK hosts the global climate conference, COP26, all eyes will be on the UK’s own action to tackle climate change. The Wildlife Trusts believe that the Government’s failure to address a key issue – how to end the damage to carbon-storing peatlands and restore a significant proportion of those that are already harmed – will be a major embarrassment.

Peatlands are the UK’s largest on-land store of carbon, holding three times as much as woodlands. They store around 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon, but in their current degraded condition they release the equivalent of 23 million tonnes of CO2 every year. That's 5% of the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. They are a precious wildlife habitat and vital for holding back and filtering water. Their benefits to society are immense. But a high proportion of UK peatlands have been damaged, drained, extracted and burnt over decades of misuse.

Tractors and trailers removing peat from Little Woolden Moss leaving a brown wasteland devoid of life

Peat extraction on Little Woolden Moss in 2011

In Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside alone, 98% of our lowland raised peat bogs have been lost.

Indications that the Government will fail on this issue are:

  • There is still no sign of the long-promised England peat strategy – it was due in December 2018. The Wildlife Trusts believe that it will lack the ambition needed to address climate chaos and the decline of nature.
  • The Government has said it will restore 35,000 hectares of England’s peatlands by 2025. Yet their own advisors recently estimated that around 300,000 hectares should be repaired in England. This initial commitment will see England delivering just 1/40th of the amount recommended for the UK. The Climate Change Committee has said that about 1,400,000 hectares of peatlands need restoring across the UK by 2050.
  • The Government has pledged only £50 million towards peatland restoration in England. This is unambitious when set beside the £2 billion figure that will likely be needed to restore the area of peatlands that the Climate Change Committee says is needed across the UK.
  • The Government’s recent announcement of a partial ban on peat burning was underwhelming; burning will only cease across a small number of peatlands despite a recent commitment by Lord Goldsmith to halt the practice entirely on protected sites.

Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts says:

“The Government has failed to set an ambitious restoration target for peatlands even though they are one of the most valuable habitats in the UK. Just as bad is the fact that they do not have the appetite to stop the ongoing damage. The nature and climate crises must be tackled together – prizing our peatlands should be top of the Government’s to-do list.

We must stop practices that damage peatlands. Burning should be banned everywhere and this precious habitat should be rewetted to stop moorland fires raging and to help rare and unusual wildlife like curlew, carnivorous plants and beautiful dragonflies to return.

Only around a quarter of the UK’s three million hectares of peatland is in a natural state

“Two years after it was promised, we are still lacking a peat strategy. Only around a quarter of the UK’s three million hectares of peatland is in a natural state so it’s a matter of extreme urgency that the Government leads the way in nursing degraded bogs and fens back to health.

“Meanwhile, it’s left to voluntary charities to step in. The Wildlife Trusts have restored more peatland than the Government has committed to do.”

Little Woolden Moss showing sphagnum moss pools and tussocks of cotton-grass

Little Woolden Moss - Andy Hankinson

The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester & North Merseyside is already working to restore the 347 hectares of peatlands in our care, and have identified a further approximate 28,000 hectares of both upland and lowland peatlands in our region that are in an unfavourable condition.

Sarah Johnson, Lancashire Peatlands Initiative Project Manager, added,

“It is also important to remember that throughout our region we have thousands of hectares of lowland peat that has been drained and converted to agricultural use. In its current state it is emitting CO2 into the atmosphere, but we are actively exploring re-wetting the land and adopting wetter farming practices, to halt these emissions, whilst keeping the land profitable for farmers and landowners.”

An example of this is our pioneering Winmarleigh carbon farm, just outside Garstang

Nationally, The Wildlife Trusts are leading numerous peatland restoration projects across the UK. To date, 12 Trusts have between them restored 43,000 hectares of peatland in England alone, working with partners and landowners, and already have short term plans to repair a further 16,000 hectares.

Additionally, those Trusts have identified a huge range of peatlands with potential for restoration in their areas, covering over 200,000 hectares. This can be done by blocking up drainage ditches, rewetting and replanting with sphagnum mosses that help form new layers of peat and trap moisture.

Further information

  • Whilst ‘peatlands’ may bring to mind the upland peat bogs of northern England, Scotland and Ireland, there are important peatlands across other parts of the country too, from Dartmoor in the west country, to the low-lying fens of Eastern England, to the bogs of Snowdonia. In fact, altogether, peat soils cover about a third of the UK, with deeper soils – peatlands – covering about 12%.

 

  • Cumbria Wildlife Trust, estimates that 90% of Cumbria’s bogs are in a damaged state and has identified 35,000 hectares that are ripe to restore. Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, too, will be restoring over 6,000 hectares this year alone, with Government’s 35,000 hectare target representing just a third of the peatland in that county.

 

  • When in their natural wet state, peatlands hold carbon in soils that have built up over thousands of years. When peatlands dry out the carbon combines with oxygen to form CO2 and scientists have estimated that if all the carbon held in the world’s peat soils were released, it would raise CO2 levels by 75%, with catastrophic consequences for global climate. The UK’s peatland soils store around 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon. About 1 billion tonnes of carbon are locked up in UK woodlands, mostly in the soils. For more info, see Let Nature Help.

 

  • Evans et al (2017) concluded that due to their degradation, UK peatlands as a whole act as a significant net source of Greenhouse gasses, contributing 23,000 kt CO2e yr-1, whilst bog and fen habitats in near-natural condition are close to carbon-neutral – keeping those vast stores of carbon locked away. Ref: Implementation of an Emissions Inventory for UK Peatlands - A Report to the DBEIS.

 

  • Peat soils and vegetation hold water well and provide natural flood protection by catching downpours. Nearly three quarters of the UK’s water supplies come from peatland catchments; when those places are well-managed, water companies spend less treating that water to make it drinkable.  

 

  • The Government committed £50m through the Nature for Climate Fund to restore 35,000 hectares of England’s peatland by 2025. (Of the total of £640 million announced, 90% will be spent on tree planting.)

 

  • The Committee on Climate Change’s Sixth Carbon Budget – Agriculture and land use, land use change and forestry describes the need to restore peatlands:
    • Of around 3million hectares of peat soil, around a quarter is currently in natural condition (wet and well-managed bogs and fens). The remainder is degraded upland grassland (40%), lowland grassland or cropland (15%), under forestry (15%) or has been extracted (5%). (Figure M.7.9 Pg 36)
    • To reach net zero carbon emissions, the advisory body has recommended that all upland peatland be restored by 2045 (1.2m ha) and between 25% and 50% of lowland peats (100,000 – 200,000ha) are restored by 2050. The remainder needs to be brought into sustainable management. (Pg 40)
    • This places the area of peatland that needs to be restored in total at up to 1.4m ha, which is 40 times the Government’s initial commitment of 35,000ha.

 

 

  • Defra media release about partial ban on peatland burning here 29.1.2021.  

 

  • The Great North Bog:  Peatland restoration programmes in the north of England have come up with a vision that stretches across 7000 square kilometres of upland peat in the Protected Landscapes of northern England, which currently store 400 million tonnes of carbon. Damaged peat in the Great North Bog releases 3.7 million tonnes of carbon annually. The programme aims to develop a working partnership to deliver a 20-year funding, restoration and conservation plan to make a significant contribution to the UK’s climate and carbon sequestration target. More here.

 

  • Loss of peatlands – to give the example of one county: of Lincolnshire's original 100,000 hectares of wild wet fenland, only 55 hectares now remain - a loss of over 99.99%. This loss is responsible for the decline and extinction of much of the flora and fauna dependent upon these diverse wetland habitats. The Bourne North Fen is Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust’s project to restore 50 ha.

 

  • The Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire & Northamptonshire is working with farmers in the Great Fen on field-scale trials of ‘wet farming’ – these test innovative new crops for food, healthcare and industry, that may prove very profitable for farmers. This also keeps the peat soils wet, preventing their degradation, and scientists are monitoring the carbon benefits of the project. Supported by the People’s Postcode Lottery, the project will be planting 150,000 sphagnum plants this spring. These can be harvested to make alternatives to peat compost, helping to bring an end to extraction from bogs.