What is peat and why WAS it important to humans?
Peat is a wonderful thing. But it is in many ways a victim of its own success. Let me explain.
Peat is a soil-like substance made of accumulated dead plant material, mainly Sphagnum moss, that has grown in waterlogged conditions and not decayed due to lack of oxygen. Here in the UK, due to our wet Atlantic coast climate tempered by the Gulf Stream, our country is well-endowed with sites where peat occurs in both uplands and lowlands. Since the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age, peat has been building up very very slowly at a rate of about 0.5 – 1 mm per year and it has been known to reach depths of up to 10m in some places. Unfortunately once dug out and dried out it can be burnt as a fuel (yes – it’s a bona fide non-renewable fossil fuel) and throughout history it has been used in this way to heat the homes of people living nearby in a cottage industry called “Turbary”. Done on a small scale by hand this type of peat cutting had few adverse effects, but more recently of course we have plundered peatland sites to use it horticulturally in our gardens and parks, draining the sites first to make it possible for the huge machinery to operate safely there and make lots of money for already rich individuals.
Why is peat intrinsically important?
Firstly, by its very nature, peat is a carbon store, and a very good one at that – in fact peat stores approximately 36 times more carbon than trees do. We urgently need to INCREASE the world’s carbon storage capacity now to deal with the Climate Crisis.
Secondly, wildlife and nature depend on wild spaces like peatbogs to survive and thrive. Wetland habitats abound with wildlife. We are fortunate in Shropshire to have part of the Fenns, Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses, a huge area full of amazing plants and animals, some quite rare like the Great Raft Spider, White-faced Darter and the Lesser Bladderwort (a curious insectivorous plant). We have a tendency to forget, but we humans are PART of “biodiversity” and are TOTALLY reliant on it for our basic needs ie food and shelter. We MUST protect biodiversity at all costs.
Water is what sets our planet apart from everywhere else in the known universe and it is essential for life. But not too much of it all at once! Flooding is becoming an increasing risk to people because we have destroyed too much of the natural environment. Peat is 90% water and so peatbogs are literally like huge sponges holding water back from flooding our communities. They also serve to filter and purify water and reduce pollution.
On top of this, peat is like a living museum. Because of the lack of oxygen in waterlogged conditions, the processes of decay that usually destroy archaeological evidence from the past are suspended. Anything that falls into a bog is preserved – sometimes in gloriously gory detail – hence the peat bodies that sometimes come to light – found to be centuries old, it’s still possible to tell what they ate for their last meal as it’s still there in their stomachs! There are thought to be approximately 22,500 archaelogical sites still buried in peat in the UK and containing untold treasures and historical information.
Finally, peat is important as it contains a record of past climate. The pollen of plants that grew hundreds of years ago is often found preserved in peat and scientists have been able to use it to understand how the climate and vegetation has shaped our world through history – a fascinating offshoot science known as Palynology.
So what’s the problem? The 2 sides of the coin
What we are only just recently opening our eyes to is the fact that human use of fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources like peat, is literally killing our planet. Processing it and burning it releases carbon dioxide and that carbon dioxide traps heat in our atmosphere like a greenhouse – the famous “greenhouse effect” that is at the heart of the Climate Crisis.
A hotter atmosphere can absorb and hold more water, so we get the twin global problems of excess heat in some places (causing massive drought & wildfires) and excess flooding in others. When things like this start happening year upon year, crops fail and humans are forced to move. But wildlife tends to be hemmed in by humans and there is nowhere it can move to, so it dies – giving rise to the Biodiversity Crisis and Mass Extinction that will ultimately feed through to us.
Yet despite all this, according to Plantlife, between 2011 and 2020, through use in gardening and horticulture, we have destroyed 16.5 Million cubic metres of our own precious peat. Is it worth it?
So please – for peat’s sake, don’t buy peat.
More interesting information about peat can be found here:
Text and photos (views of parts of Fenns, Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses in Shropshire) by Tina Teearu