Peat sales to amateur gardeners will be banned in England from 2024, the government has confirmed.
The move follows consultation and is part of a commitment to peatland restoration.
These wild, boggy places are sometimes referred to as the UK’s rainforests because of their ability to absorb huge amounts of carbon.
When peat dries out it emits rather than stores greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change.
The ban applies to peat in products designed for everyday gardeners, which accounts for 70% of peat sold in the UK.
The professional horticulture industry will be exempt for now, but the government says it will work with growers ahead of the planned ban there too.
The ban applies to England, although Environment Secretary Lord Bennion said he was working with devolved governments on the issue.
Peatlands are one of the most important areas of the natural world, as they lock up huge amounts of carbon, he explained.
“If you dig it out of the ground, that precious carbon stock breaks down and all that carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide,” he told BBC News.
“This ban comes after a huge amount of work by industry and government to find alternatives, but we don’t believe there is an alternative to banning peat and that’s why we’ve taken this decision.”
In the UK alone, peatlands, moors and headlands store around 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon – more than in woodlands and forests – but most are in poor condition after decades of being drained for farming or peat extraction.
How gardeners can go without peat
Until the ban is in place, peat can still be found in multi-purpose compost and grow bags unless they are labeled peat-free – words like “eco-friendly” and “organic” don’t necessarily mean peat-free
In 2021, the government launched a public consultation on the use of peat in horticulture, pledging to ban sales in the hobby sector by the end of 2024 and allocating £50m to peatland restoration.
More than 5,000 responses were received, the vast majority in favor of the proposals. The Government has now confirmed that the ban will be in place until the end of 2024. And it intends to allocate £5m from the £600m Nature for Climate Fund to support farmers to grow crops on re-wetted land.
Environmental groups have long campaigned for tougher action, including a ban on peat mining in the UK.
“It’s right that the Government is taking action – we absolutely need to protect these really vital sources of carbon,” said Georgia Stokes, Chief Executive of Somerset Wildlife Trust.
“However, it is not enough and it is not fast enough; banning retail peat sales is not going to end peat mining.”
Much of the peat used in the UK is imported, however peat continues to be mined, although volumes have been declining in recent years.
Much of the UK’s peat industry is based in Somerset, providing jobs and income to local people.
Somerset County Council confirmed that peat mining was still taking place in the county at a “limited number of sites”, centered around the Glastonbury area.
“We don’t have data on mining rates or quantities removed in recent years, but the number of operational sites is falling,” a BBC News spokesperson said.
“Our current planning policy reflects the National Planning Policy Framework in that it is unlikely that new planning permission will be granted for peat extraction.
“All licenses are due to expire by the end of 2042, however it is expected that most, if not all, will be completed before then.”
Some old peat mines in Somerset have been handed over for conservation, drainage channels are cut to extract peat planted with reedbeds.
At Westhay Nature Reserve, sphagnum mosses and heathers form a carpet on the marshy ground and the wetlands attract rare birds such as bitterns and curlews.
Down the road, at Honeygar Farm, the Somerset Wildlife Trust is working to return land that has been drained for farming back to a natural moorland state.
This means rewetting the peat, achieved by plugging artificial drainage ditches and streams.
“Once that happens, you start to slowly create peat-forming habitat,” said Steve Mews of the Somerset Wildlife Trust.
Peat forms at an incredibly slow rate, accumulating over hundreds of years.
In the UK, more than 18 million tonnes of carbon are emitted each year from degraded peatlands.
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