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For Peats Sake! How peatland can manage flood risk

Although relatively unknown, Peatlands make up 11% of England’s land area and are a massively important and unique ecosystem due to the role they play in maintaining biodiversity, carbon storage and flood risk management. Peatlands cover less than 3% of the land surface of Earth in total but are thought to contain twice as much carbon as the world’s forests.

Peat is made up of a mix of decomposed plant material which has accumulated in a water saturated environment with the absence of oxygen, acting as a long term store of carbon and therefore a regulator of both local and global climate. The UK’s peatlands store around 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon, with around 584 million tonnes being in England.

Chris and Meg Mellish / Boggy ditch in the peatland of A’Mhoine / CC BY-SA 2.0


It can take around 1000 years to make 1m of peat, although this is a painstakingly slow process, this capacity for long term carbon storage is essential for managing climate change. Peatlands ability to soak up water means that it acts as a natural buffer against flooding, slowing the flow of water through the uplands of a catchment and helping to reduce flood risk downstream.

However, despite their importance over 80% of the UK’s peatlands are in a poor condition due to being drained for agriculture and forestry as well as being damaged by extraction. This is not only having a significant effect on the ability of peatland  to reduce flood risk and improve water quality but damaged peatlands  are also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, as the peat which stores the organic carbon is exposed to the air. Damaged peatlands are annually releasing around 5.66% of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions.

Around two thirds of the peat produced through commercial peat extraction is consumed by domestic gardeners in the form of multi-purpose compost, despite the use of peat in horticulture being deemed, in the main, completely unnecessary by the Royal Horticultural Society. This is probably because many gardeners don’t realise that cheaper multipurpose compost contains between 70-100% peat unless it is labelled as peat free, as peat free compost is usually more expensive as it has to be processed more!

What is being done about it?

National Projects

Moors for the Future have set up a number of projects to help improve the condition of peatlands. The Moorlife project is a €6.7 million project co-funded by the European Union LIFE + Programme to protect active blanket bog on 2500 hectares of Peak District and South Pennine moorland from 2010 to 2015. The ‘Making Space for Water’ project is a £1million project to demonstrate the effect of flood risk on the restoration of 89 hectares of degraded moorland on Kinder Scout.  A further additional scheme designed to help maintain peatlands is a £1.8million project by Yorkshire Water which improved the condition of 11,400 hectares of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI’s) on Yorkshire Water land in the Peak District and South Pennines. Cumbria Wildlife Trust have also carried out work to help restore Cumbria’s peatlands.

The Cumbria Peat Partnership brings together stakeholders to actively support the restoration and better stewardship of peatland habitats whilst aiming to deliver flood risk management, biodiversity, water resources, water quality, carbon storage and water framework directive benefits.


Peat free compost

In recent years there has been a concerted effort both nationally and globally to restore peatlands and reduce the consumption of peat. Peat alternatives have now been developed, which mimic its characteristics using bark, wood fibre, bio-solids, bracken and green-compost instead. Although initially peat-free composts had a reputation for being unreliable, the product has greatly improved. As well as this, by purchasing locally produced peat free alternatives from locally collected waste materials, you are also benefiting UK industries such as forestry and composting, making peat free alternatives a win-win!


The Peatland Code

The Peatland Code has been developed by the IUCN UK National Committee to encourage the private sector to invest in restoring peatlands and is a voluntary standard for UK peatland projects wishing to market the climate benefits of peatland restoration. IUCN want to see two million hectares of UK peatlands in a good condition under restoration or being sustainably managed by 2040. As well as reducing the consumption of peat, it is essential that we restore as much of the UKs peatland as possible so it is able to store carbon, improve water quality and reduce flood risk.



Sources Natural England, Moors For the Future, Cumbria Wildlife Trust, Wildlife Trusts, IUCN-UK Peatland Programme, Forest Carbon, Telegraph, IUCN

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