British policymakers are worried. They are stewards to 15% of the world’s peatland, a percentage that is shrinking because of domestic use. The New York Times cited the chair of a British governmental peat taskforce earlier this month as saying with current harvest rates the United Kingdom could exhaust their peat supply within decades.
To protect their soggy, boggy places, Parliament proposed a ban on all horticultural peat use, a move that has Britain’s gardeners abuzz. The suggested ban requires eliminating amateur gardener use of peat by 2020 and commercial horticultural use by 2030.
Why would the United Kingdom completely ban what is, for gardeners, partially-decomposed organic gold? For the same three reasons many natural resources become regulated: carbon, water, and biodiversity.
When stable, peaty wetlands win the valuable carbon sink badge, indicating that they capture and store carbon rather than adding to the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide concentration. When disturbed, bogs release their stored carbon to the atmosphere.
Worldwide, soil holds more carbon than vegetation and the atmosphere combined and among soils, peat is one of the carbon heavyweights. Carbon-rich peat soil holds over half of the United Kingdom’s below-ground carbon according to a 2009 study published in Land Use Policy.
In referencing peat’s ability to capture and hold carbon, more than one British scientist called bogs “Britain’s rainforests.” Added to the soil carbon, above ground, U. K. peatland vegetation contains twice the amount of carbon as cropland. Preserving the stability of that carbon, both above- and below-ground is one driver of the British peat-use ban. Water issues are another.
In addition to harvest for horticultural use, in some places Britons also set fire to peatlands in order to encourage habitat for grouse (and subsequently grouse shooting). One British community protested peat burning this year, not to stave off massive release of carbon, but because of increased flooding in their town. Besides storing carbon, a bog lends a landscape an important capacity for holding and filtering water.
Bogs are a form of wetland. When raindrops land on a bog, the peat soaks them up, forming an important buffer between precipitation and ground or surface waters. When a bog’s sponge power is disrupted, by harvest, burning, or anything else, an area’s water cycle changes. Water flows faster, sometimes increasing flood incidence, and water is subject to less natural filtration, sometimes increasing cost of water treatment for human use.
Besides pushing more carbon into the atmosphere and decreasing the landscape’s ability to manage water, the U.K. peat ban is also in response to worries of endangering bog-dwelling organisms. As a 2011 British governmental impact assessment stated, unsustainable peat harvest is “…contributing to climate change and destruction of important habitats, biodiversity and archaeology.” The Daily Mail reported that U. K. bogs are home to threatened bird species such as house skylarks, curlews and snipe and BBC reported that British birdlovers, on behalf of wildlife, support the government’s peat ban.
Trying to re-peat:
The Brits have worried about losing peat for decades. In a 1993 scientific article published in a Royal Geographical Society journal, researcher A. L. Heathwaite outlined the impending doom for peatland brought on by drainage for agricultural purposes and climate change. The study said peat builds slowly, generating one half millimeter of soil per year. That means one foot of harvested peat would take 610 years to regenerate. Removing an entire meter of peat would take two millennia to rebuild. Whether in standard or metric units, it’s a long time.
With a little background on the carbon, water and biodiversity issues related to the Brits’ boggy ban, now you know the shorter answer to why they’re worried about their wetlands: for peat’s sake.