Plans to ban peat sales to green-fingered householders, restore upland peat and make fenland farming more sustainable have been set out by the Government.
Protecting England’s peatlands is important because they are the country’s largest land-based store of carbon, as well as home to rare wildlife and can provide clean water and protect against flooding.
But only 13% of England’s 1.4 million hectares of peatlands – which range from upland bogs to rich productive farmland – are in a near-natural state, with the rest degraded, drained, planted with trees or used for grazing or agriculture.
UK-wide, the country’s 2.6 million hectares of peat are estimated to be emitting around 23 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.
The Government says its new peat action plan aims to secure England’s carbon store to meet the contribution to cutting greenhouse gas emissions to zero overall – known as net zero – by 2050.
One piece of the puzzle is ending the sale of peat containing products for amateur gardeners, and phasing it out in horticulture more widely – recognising that a voluntary approach has not delivered.
But the big issue is protecting and restoring damaged, grazed, forested and farmed peatland to stop it leaking carbon, which will involve not just work on upland peat but “significant changes” to how lowland peat is managed, the action plan acknowledges.
Plans include £50 million for restoring 35,000 hectares of peatland by 2025, and new farming payments schemes being rolled out could provide public money for landowners to restore their peat areas.
And with the plan warning that conventional agricultural production on drained peatland “is inherently unsustainable” that will require action too – although these lowland areas also help manage water to prevent flooding in towns and provide cropland for food.
A new taskforce on lowland agricultural peat has been set up to look at measures such as wet farming or “paludiculture” which involves crops that like growing in waterlogged soils.
It could be adopted to curb emissions and manage water and still maintain an economic output and extend the lifetime of fenland soils that have a finite farming life ahead of them.
That could include growing sphagnum moss, a plant which can itself be used as an alternative to peat compost for horticulture.
Other measures could include raising the water table when crops are not growing on farmland, helping slow soil loss and reduce carbon release, while some lowland areas may be restored to more natural fenland.
The peat action plan also says that while there is scientific debate over aspects of the environmental impact of managed burning on peat, to manage the land for grouse and prevent wildfires, the evidence is that overall it is damaging to peatland.
Burning has converted more than 87,000 hectares of upland blanket bog from a typical peat forming habitat, to dwarf shrub dominated vegetation, and it makes it hard to rewet it and impossible to return it to its natural state.
New rules to ban burning without a licence will protect approximately 142,000 hectares of England’s upland deep peat from further damage by managed burning, which represents approximately 40% of all blanket bog in England, the action plan says.