Peatland – a surprisingly important habitat for climate and biodiversity


When you think about major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, you probably think about the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, heating and transport, and you would be right. However, you might be surprised to hear that degraded peatland releases 4% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, more than all UK heavy goods vehicles combined.

Peatland, areas where waterlogged conditions stop plant matter from fully decomposing, occur around the world but the UK is home to nearly three million hectares of it, making up 9% of our land surface. Healthy, wet peat is an amazing carbon sink, storing 30% of the world’s carbon – more carbon by area than any other land ecosystem. Unfortunately, most peatland in the UK, including 87% in England, is far from its natural state, having been drained for agricultural use, planted with trees, burned (through wildfire or heather burning) or had peat extracted for horticulture.

Ian Nebbiolo, Short Eared Owl on heather. ?South Uist, Outer Hebrides, Scotland.

This loss of healthy peatland isn’t only bad news for greenhouse gas emissions. Peatland is an important habitat for many kinds of rare wildlife including short-eared owls, swallowtail butterflies and carnivorous sundews. Healthy peatland also provides other vital services for humanity, supporting water cycles, controlling pollution and sediment and flood control. A staggering 85% of drinking water in the UK and Ireland comes from peatlands.

The good news is that peatland can be restored, and there are some exciting projects in the UK where collaborations like the Yorkshire Peat Partnership and Great Fen are working to slow water drainage, replant vital plants like sphagnum mosses and pioneer wet farming methods.

Even the UK Government has recognised the importance of restoring peatland to achieving the UK’s net zero target, and they published a Peat Action Plan for England last year. This document includes the financial case for peatland restoration, where the Office for National Statistics has estimated that the carbon benefits alone of restoring all UK peatlands would be worth 5-10 times the costs of the restoration.

Our recent report, Church Land and the Climate Crisis: A Call to Action, identified peatland protection and restoration as one of our three priority areas for climate action on Church land, alongside growing trees and supporting farmers to reduce emissions. We called on the Church of England’s Church Commissioners and dioceses to identify all deep peat and protected peat habitats within their land, and to work with land agents, tenants and external partners to protect and restore the peat to a rewetted, healthy state.

We know that the Church Commissioners are part of the Fenland SOIL group, which is a positive development, as they own significant peatland in the Fen area. The Church Commissioners and Natural England have developed an exciting partnership in Cheshire, where land adjacent to a rare floating lowland bog is being allowed to revert to species-rich grassland to protect the peatland and support local wildlife.

These positive steps are encouraging, but Operation Noah will be campaigning for more transparency about Church-owned peatland and more urgent action to address peat degradation. To find out more and get involved in our campaign on Church land use, contact our Bright Now Campaign Officer Sharon Hall on sharon.hall@operationnoah.org.

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