Patience is a virtue. Carbon has been accumulating in the UK’s peatlands for at least 10,000 years. It now equates to just around 30 years’ worth of the UK’s annual emissions. But many peatlands now serve the opposite function: due to continuing damage and degradation they are pumping this carbon back into the atmosphere.
Much patience has been on display from those of us eagerly awaiting the England Peat Strategy, promised in the 25 Year Environment Plan for December 2018. Healthy peatlands reduce flood risk, improve water quality, are enjoyed by people, absorb carbon from the atmosphere, and are home to rare species such as hen harriers and sundew plants. The Government is still promising the Strategy within the next month or two, so it might be a welcome start to the new year.
But will we be delighted or disappointed when we get to read it? That will, of course, depend on what’s inside. The Government has made no shortage of green commitments: the 10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, the commitment to protect 30% of land and sea for biodiversity by 2030, and the commitment to lead by hosting a global summit to raise ambition for the UN climate conference in Glasgow next year. The Peat Strategy can be a vital tool in delivering on these commitments. Here’s what it needs to do:
• A ban on horticultural uses of peat, including compost and other growing media.
• A ban on burning on peatlands as a management practice.
• Setting clear, coherent and ambitious targets for peatland restoration.
• Creating incentives and policies that restore the water table on lowland peatlands and move low-value agriculture to other soils.
• Protection of peatlands from inappropriate tree-planting.
• Additional, spatially targeted, funding for peatland restoration that builds on the Nature for Climate Fund.
• Financial support for partnerships and for project planning and preparedness, before capital works begin.
• Better use of existing data and mapping of peatlands to inform decisions about where and how to invest in their restoration and protection.
In more detail, here is how the Government, working with others, should address the dire state of our peatlands:
Protecting and Restoring
1. A ban on the extraction and use of peat in the retail gardening and professional horticultural sectors by 2025 at the latest. Voluntary targets set in 2011 have failed to end this practice - new data shows that the 2020 target for the retail sector has been missed and at the current rate of progress the target for the professional sector will also be missed. The use of peat as livestock bedding and the use of sphagnum harvested from peat bogs also need to be ended.
2. A ban on managed rotational burning on all peatlands, including both deep and shallow peat soils, and peatlands inside and outside protected areas. Burning peatlands harms their ability to store water and releases carbon dioxide. It is not necessary either. Wet, healthy peatlands do not suffer from wildfires and therefore managed burning is not needed to control the heather load.
3. The Strategy must set clear targets for restoring peatlands that align with existing targets to manage all soils sustainably by 2030 (set in the 25 Year Environment Plan) and at least match CCC recommendations on upland and lowland peat. In the uplands all peatlands should be restored to good condition. In the lowlands, at least a third of peatlands should be restored to their natural state, with the rest under sustainable management such as wetland agriculture. Ambitions should be higher within protected areas such as SSSIs and National Parks, and by 2023 Natural England should aim to assess the condition of all peatlands in these places in order to have an accurate baseline. Targets set under the Environment Bill should cover peatlands and should show signs of recovery against these baselines over time.
4. The Strategy will need to propose clear actions to manage the water table in lowland farmed peatlands to cut very high carbon and soil losses. Lowland peatlands are often a patchwork of horticulture, livestock grazing and arable. In some places total rewetting will be possible, in others a more mixed approach may be required where grazing continues at certain times of year. In cases where agricultural activity could take place on lower-value soils, incentives must be given to move this activity away from peatland, or pay for peatland restoration under the high components of ELM. The new Environmental Land Management scheme and wider Future Farming and Countryside Programme should be used to limit drainage depths to avoid damage to the peatlands - the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology estimate that this step alone could cut field emissions by 70%. A shift to wetland agriculture could be supported.
5. The Nature for Climate Fund will support large-scale tree planting across England. This must not be permitted on any peat soils, as it can cause harm to both biodiversity and the climate. Peat must also be banned as a growing medium for tree saplings.
6. Government should commit to restoring all upland peatlands and many lowland peatlands, and should commit more funding to achieve this. The Nature for Climate Fund is an excellent cornerstone on which to build, but it will only see 35,000 hectares of peatlands restored. This is only a small part of the peatlands in England that urgently need restoring. Additional funding for peatlands should be long-term, sustainable, sufficient, and spatially targeted through the Nature Recovery Network. The Network should also be used to create buffer zones around peatlands that protect them from off-site harm.
7. The Strategy must recognise the vital role played by partnerships mapping, monitoring, and restoring peatlands. Capital grants alone will not deliver the needed outcomes. The Strategy should set out measures to ensure the continuity of the partnerships’ skilled and specialised staff, who bring essential local knowledge, and are vital for coordination and delivery.
8. A joined up government approach to align policies on peat with a broader food strategy is critical. In particular, restoring large areas of the fens requires urgent plans on how to support a sustainable shift in vegetable production elsewhere. This is critical as we shift towards healthier, more plant based diets. For example, there are degrading non-peat soils currently producing animal feeds that could be supported to transition to horticultural crops. Pioneering farms using agroecological approaches show the huge potential here, but a lot of work is needed to address the barriers and policy levers needed.
9. Marshalling, collating and sharing existing peatland mapping and data will be crucial to the success of the Strategy. It should be made clear how this will be used to target the Strategy’s interventions, and how it will be part of the wider Nature Recovery Network prioritisation of action for nature across England.
Jenny Hawley, Policy Manager at Plantlife, Paul De Zylva, Senior Nature Campaigner at Friends of the Earth , Ali Morse, Water Policy Manager at The Wildlife Trusts and Chris Corrigan, Policy Coordinator at Butterfly Conservation all work on peatland management and restoration.
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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