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 (SWT), 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.”
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.”
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