Going Peat Free

Prof Mark Reed

Prof Mark Reed

There would be an outcry if a company started excavating top-soil from your local park and selling it to gardeners. And yet most of us are silent about the excavation of peat from habitats that are just as valuable to us.

Like most of us, Im a weekend gardener (when I have time), and for the majority of gardeners like me, there really is no excuse not to use peat-free compost. And yet most people I meet have no idea of the damage caused by buying peat-based composts. Thats why I accepted Project Mayas invitation to front their peat-free campaign this summer. I hope that as you read this short article, youll have your eyes opened to the consequences of extracting peat, and the good you can do by making a pledge to stop buying peat.

Why peatlands matter

Peatlands are a vast green lung that provide unique places for recreation and wildlife, while breathing in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and absorbing it into the peat. A loss of just 1.5% of the worlds peatlands is equivalent to all the carbon emissions humans create worldwide in a year. But an area of healthy peatland the size of a rugby pitch can absorb the equivalent of 4 return trips London-Edinburgh by car every year. Thats why we need to keep that carbon locked up under our feet, rather than digging it up and putting it on our gardens, where most of the carbon will end up being lost back to the atmosphere, where it will contribute towards climate change. 

Your average 100 litre bag of peat compost takes around 100 years to develop, as plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and turn it into leaves, stems and roots, which are eventually laid down as peat. A bag this size will have absorbed as much carbon dioxide over the 100 years it took to form as you would emit driving 236 miles in a petrol VW Golf; thats equivalent to driving from Birmingham to London and back, twice. Every month gardeners in the UK use enough peat to fill 69 Olympic swimming pools. We have lost 94% of our lowland raised peat bogs in the UK and there are just 6000 hectares left in good condition. Although most of the peat we consume in the UK now comes from abroad (principally Ireland), we are still extracting peat from the few sites we have left. Thats a problem for species that depend on these habitats, like those in the gallery below.


Gallery 1: Species associated with lowland bog habitats 


Why go peat free?

For me the answers are really simple:

  • You can protect important wildlife and prevent climate change by buying peat-free compost
  • Peat free composts are typically made using waste materials, reducing the amount of waste we send to land-fill
  • By buying peat-free, you support the development of a UK peat-free compost industry and UK jobs, instead of digging up our few remaining lowland bogs and supporting an overseas peat extraction industry
  • They work: most amateur gardeners are unlikely to notice any difference in the performance of peat-free versus peat-based composts, but some gardeners like to alter their watering and feeding regimes with peat-free composts to get the most out them.

If youre a serious gardener, it may be difficult to phase out peat use completely - there are some plants that are always likely to prefer peat, like carnivorous plants and ericaceous species. But you can still go a long way towards mimicking peat by buying a specially formulated peat-free ericaceous compost or by adding pine needles or bracken to your own compost to increase its acidity. Some enterprising hill farmers in the Lake District now sell peat free compost made from bracken, as well as ericaceous compost made wool sheared from their sheep and their neighbours flocks to provide slow release nitrogen and added water retention.

For me, its a bit like the whole argument over low-energy light bulbs - we all knew that they existed and that they were good for the environment for years, but many of us didnt switch till they were banned. Some of us remembered the low performance of early low-energy lightbulbs that took ages to warm up, some of us balked at the higher price of low-energy light bulbs, and some of us just kept buying what wed always bought out of habit. Early peat free composts often didnt perform well, and there were scare stories about finding nails or bits of glass, but these issues are now things of the past. Peat-free composts do typically cost a bit more than peat compost, and you have to read the labels rather than just choose the compost you always buy. 

Like low-energy lightbulbs, if we dont start buying peat-free composts voluntarily, they may eventually be banned. The Government has set a target to phase out the use of peat by amateur gardeners in England by 2020. They are monitoring peat use and will be reviewing progress next year to see if additional policy measures are necessary.

You have the opportunity to lead the way by making the peat-free pledge today, and letting everyone you know why they should take the pledge too. Our peatlands are a beautiful and incredibly valuable resource. Lets keep them and our gardens beautiful.

Mark Reed is a Professor of Interdisciplinary Environmental Research in the Birmingham School of the Built Environment at Birmingham City University, where he teaches on courses about Environment and Spatial Planning and Environmental Sustainability. He is also Research Manager for the IUCN’s UK Peatland Programme, where he is responsible for managing the UK Peatland Code. Mark is a Project Maya Associate, helping run a national course training researchers how to increase the impact of their work. 


Leaving grass unmown is great for wildlife! That’s why we want to encourage you not to mow. #NOMOW is a twitter campaign we run alongside our friends at River of Flowers – where, with your support, we encourage councils to transform road verges from mown monocultures to wildflower habitats. It’s a very simple concept, but one which could make a significant contribution to our communities and local wildlife populations…

We live in a time of intense global unrest and change. Society is living well beyond the carrying capacity of the planet, over 60% of ecosystems and their biodiversity are degrading, and extinction rates are as much as 1000 times there pre-human levels. We are also living in an increasingly urbanized and developed world. As of 2007 more than half of the world’s citizens live within cities. Cities affect biodiversity significantly, not just at the local level, but also through the extensive resources imported into cities. For example, even though cities cover just 2% of the landmass they consume over 70% of the resources.

As populations become more urbanised there is generally less access to wild nature. Opportunities to interact with nature may all to often be limited to gardens, window boxes, balconies or urban parks. But, we need to have regular interaction with nature.

Recent research shows children’s exposure to ‘nature’ is essential for physical and emotional development. And, in order to care about the environment, and how sustainably resources are produced, people need to experience nature regularly in order to develop an affinity with it. It is this, in turn that leads to environmental awareness.  As people have less access to nature in urban settings, there are two options available: either take people to nature or bring nature into the cities. For us, the only sensible option is to bring wild, native nature, to the cities.

Bringing and integrating nature within cities creates sustainable and livable urban environments, and can help create the sustainable behaviors we need in order to reverse the negative impacts seen on ecosystems outside of cities. We need to begin by creating complex city spaces that embrace nature and wildness. Cities should have designated areas with space for wildflowers, food production and natural play. And of course, cities don’t exist in isolation; they are connected to wider ecosystems. By promoting quality green space within cities, biodiversity can be protected and enhanced and brought closer to people.  Within cities, land such as railway edges and road verges connect green spaces, creating corridors between them and enhancing their value to plants and wildlife.  Promoting natural vegetation can also have other useful consequences. For example, strengthening resistance to floods and droughts, and acting as reserves for pollinating insects like bees, which are so important for food production.

Ensuring vegetation specifically matches an area can even reduce maintenance costs. For instance a particularly dry area can be planted with species that flourish in dry surroundings, bringing with them animal species belonging to dry areas as well. Local vegetation often re-seeds naturally or lives for several years, requiring little human attendance or input of water and fertilisers, and therefore cutting council costs. Complex plant species assemblages further improve soil health and capacity to absorb flood water as well as filtering that water. Quality green space, especially with trees, absorb carbon as plants grow larger, reducing green house gases and filtering polluted air.

Road verges are also an ideal way of connecting habitats of pristine ecosystems with pockets of urban biodiversity. In pristine areas our road verges represent an important remnant of our native grassland and wildflower habitats, which have suffered catastrophic losses over the last century. Our verges also act as important buffers to some of the most impoverished areas, be they six lane motorways or intensively farmed fields. And, importantly, along with railway edges, road verges are the single most viewed habitat in the country, giving millions of people every day contact with changing seasons, county specific habitats and colours of the countryside.

Managed correctly, our road verges can support a remarkably diverse collection of species. The good news is that appropriate management is often about doing less, allowing the verge to develop and plants to set seed before cutting takes place. Adding appropriate wildflowers in the city is a simple task, which can pay environmental and social dividends for years to come.

Why not find out more about what you can do to promote wildflowers on road verges by supporting and visiting our #nomow web page.