34. For Peat's Sake by Kevin O'Hara

Wednesday 29th June 2011


“What would the world be, once bereft Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”

So wrote the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins but how apt these words are for describing a whole host of issues surrounding many conservation tasks that we all face.

‘All’, yes ‘all’ - we all face conservation-based issues every day, whether we choose to believe in them or are just not aware of them, we all face them!

Climate changes are occurring, to what degree they are occurring is the only real argument we should be having, and as such we have a real battle on our hands to try and curb the many issues inbound amongst all of the arguments.

One such issue is our treatment of peat. No, I’m not going to bang on about garden peat substitutes, although that is a very real issue - I am instead going to consider the wider benefits of this marvellous substance.

Carbon footprints, sequestration, bargaining and carbon trade-offs are all strange terms we are going to have to come to terms with. Whether Hopkins realised he held the key in his prophetic words is very dubious, as it was his generation that was largely responsible for the present day condition of our last remaining ‘carbon sinks’, our wetlands or more precisely our peatlands.

As a result of drained and damaged peatland, the UK alone emits 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year from these habitats, a significant contribution to our greenhouse gas emissions! Yet the UK is still very rich in peatland habitats having about 15% of the worlds blanket bog. Covering an estimated 3 million hectares (12% of the UK land area), deep peat provides a store of at least 3000 million tonnes of carbon, which is twenty times as much carbon as is stored in the whole of the UK’s forest biomass. Alas much of it is in poor condition and as such it is losing carbon that affects us all.

The lowland resource, for example like the Fens, is in even worse condition, much of it turned over to food production at great expense to the consumer as they are now subject to such high maintenance costs through irrigation, fertilisers etc. to keep production on these areas so high; they are no longer sustainable.

One location I am involved with locally is Prestwick Carr; it is an archetypal example of what not to do with a peatland. Drained in the 1860’s for agriculture, it is now a low-lying area of very poor land to the north of Newcastle. Little populated, it is an area of poor quality horsey paddocks, rough pasture and prone to flashy flooding as result of its continued drainage. Amongst this devastated land is one of the rarest habitats left in the world, a lowland raised mire and yet we planted trees on it and continue to drain the peatland that surrounds it, so devaluing its value not just as a wildlife resource but as a carbon sink. It is losing between 3 and 30 tonnes carbon dioxide per ha per year because of the drying peat soils.

There is sufficient evidence available now to show that it is possible to halt these losses through habitat restoration and that this will have greenhouse gas benefits. On a local scale there is also evidence that it will reduce the flashy nature of the flood episodes on the area as the ground will absorb precipitation more easily when rewetted. This also will have benefits on water quality issues, water colour and flooding elsewhere.

Peatland restoration is also a cost effective means of addressing climate change, compared with other carbon abatement methods such as afforestation and renewable energy. Restoring peatlands can be considered a natural form of carbon capture and storage, preventing release of carbon from damaged bogs and preserving it for potentially millions of years.

His words ring eerily and simply true of what we need to do to achieve some carbon banking: “O let them be left, wildness and wet!”