Scottish and UK governments have no records on commercial peat digging
Tomas Coohill harvesting “turf” on a remote bog in Connemara.
By Billy Briggs, Investigative reporter. Pictures by Heather Greer
The Scottish and UK governments have no idea how much peat has been dug from the ground for commercial purposes and sold in garden centres, despite both administrations viewing the preservation of peatlands as a priority to combat the climate crisis.
Peatlands comprise decayed plant life laid down over millennia and cover around one quarter of Scotland. They are considered vital in addressing the climate emergency because their carbon-storing properties lock greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide within soil.
The Conservative Party made a promise in its manifesto for the general election that the party would “invest in nature” and restore peatlands, while the Scottish Government has allocated £11 million to restore degraded peatlands.
Neither government has data on how much peat has been extracted over the last five years, however, prompting environmental groups to call for an end to commercial peat extraction. They are also urging gardeners to demand peat-free compost from garden centres.
Critics commented after environmental activist, Donald Campbell, submitted a freedom of information request to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in London asking how many cubic metres of peat had been extracted in Scotland, and the UK as a whole, in each of the last 10 years. He also asked whether Defra expected to meet its target to phase out the use of peat in garden products by 2020.
In reply Defra said it did not hold information on cubic metres extracted, explaining that the “monitoring of peat use in gardening products was last undertaken in 2016 based on sales in 2015.”
The Scottish Government was also asked how much peat has been extracted in Scotland over the past decade, and Campbell requested details of sites where commercial peat extraction is taking place, including the names of companies involved.
The Scottish Government said it does not hold the information, prompting environmentalists to express concern.
They included Sarah Robinson, director of conservation at Scottish Wildlife Trust, who said that peat bogs are a “hugely important” store of carbon as well as a habitat for “many rare and specialist species”.
She urged gardeners to demand peat-free compost from their local garden centres and said: “Currently around half of the peat consumed in the UK comes from bogs in this country, while the rest is imported from Ireland and the Baltic States. Ending peat extraction here without tackling the demand for peat-based products will only lead to further damage to bogs in other parts of Europe.”
In Ireland they call it turf. for an insight into it, read Seamus Heaney’s poem, Digging. The person doing the digging here is Tomas Coohill from Cleggan by Clifden, Connemara. The pictures are by Heather Greer.
According to SWT, Scotland has lost 94 per cent of its raised bogs over the last 200 years and that protecting and restoring those that remain is a “vital step” towards tackling both the climate emergency and a “crisis facing biodiversity”.
Many people will be alarmed to learn that peat is still being removed from more than a dozen sites in Scotland because of historic mineral rights, which in some cases date back 70 years. SARAH ROBINSON, SCOTTISH WILDLIFE TRUST
Robinson explained that extracting peat from healthy bogs, or damaged bogs which could be restored, is now against Scottish planning policy. She continued: “However, many people will be alarmed to learn that peat is still being removed from more than a dozen sites in Scotland because of historic mineral rights, which in some cases date back 70 years. Many of these sites could still be restored to functioning, healthy bogs.”
“At the moment, purchasing the mineral rights will be very costly for local authorities. We have asked the Scottish Government to make funds available for local authorities to buy out these permissions, and to put a cap on the amount of compensation that companies can receive.”
Charlie Nathan, head of planning and development at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland, thought it was “incredible” that the Scottish Government does not have comprehensive data on commercial peat extraction and called for an end to the industry.
“The government is funding peatland restoration across the country, yet at the same time, peat is still being dug up for sale in some places. Peatlands are one of our biggest carbon stores and this perverse situation needs urgent action,” Nathan said.
“We are aware that the chief planner has recently written to planning authorities to seek a better understanding of the location and extent of extraction in their areas, however this will require sufficient and directed investment from the government,” he added.
“There is also a need for a levy on peat-based horticultural products to support a market for sustainable horticultural alternatives and to ensure peat is not imported into Scotland from other countries. We urge the Scottish Government to act on this issue now.”
Peat is vital for storing carbon, as well as an important part of Scotland’s biodiversity. It is as important to Scotland as the rainforest is to Brazil. MARK RUSKELL, SCOTTISH GREENS
Scottish Greens environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP, said that given the Scottish Government called a climate emergency, “you’d think the least they would do is measure any damage being done to our environment.”
He also condemned the Tory Party and said that if the Conservatives were “serious about this, they would have done it years ago.”
Ruskell added: “Peat is vital for storing carbon, as well as an important part of Scotland’s biodiversity. It is as important to Scotland as the rainforest is to Brazil. That’s why we need to be restoring our peatlands, not allowing them to be ripped up or burnt. Progress starts with closing the loopholes that allow them to be destroyed for potting compost.”
Emma Goodyer, manager of the IUCN UK Peatland Programme, said that the “threat to rare lowland peatland habitats and species” as well as the costs to society from the loss of peatland services such as carbon and water, makes a “strong case for ending the extraction of horticultural peat”.
She added: “There are now many modern peat-free composts which work as effectively as peat across a wide range of applications. Much of the material used for peat replacement also contributes to recycling, such as commercial green compost, or uses by-products e.g. wood fibre from forestry waste.”
The Scottish Government said that “restoring peatland has an important part to play in delivering our climate change ambitions” and that ministers intended to “phase out the use of horticultural peat by increasing uptake of alternative growing media substrate”.
Digging turf on a lonely bog amid the Twelve Pins. Picture by Bill Heaney
A government spokeswoman said: “The impact of peatland degradation on climate change cannot be overstated – particularly in Scotland, where around 25 per cent of the country is covered in peat soil. If all of the carbon dioxide from that peatland were released it would be the equivalent of more than 120 years of our emissions being released at once.”
She added: “We are committed to delivering the peatland restoration targets set out in the climate change plan. We are currently updating the plan which will set out actions to deliver on our climate change ambitions. We understand the important contribution peatlands make in helping to mitigate the effects of climate change and the role individuals can play by reducing our use of domestic horticultural peat.”
According to a 2017 report by IUCN UK Peatland Programme, there have been examples in England – eg Bolton Fell, Wedholme Flow and Humberhead Peatlands – where the peat extraction rights of a peat producing company was bought out by the UK government, in order to halt extraction and commence the restoration of bogs. These cases resulted in compensation payments of several million pounds.
The Conservative Party manifesto for the 2019 General Election said: “The UK should act decisively to protect this overwhelmingly valuable ecosystem by setting an end date to peat extraction, peatland burning and the sale of peat products.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in London did not respond to requests to comment.
This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National. THE PHOTOGRAPHS HERE WERE TAKEN IN CONNEMARA BY NATURE PHOTOGRAPHER AND AUTHOR HEATHER GREER, OF AUGHRISBEG AND CLEGGAN.