Peat’s last stand

Could the fight to ban the use of peat finally end in victory? Simon Birch talks to a leading campaigner about the environmental impact of using peat and the role of the gardening industry.

Go peat-free.

That’s the simple message that campaigners have for gardeners this spring in their battle to stop peat being dug up for use in gardens, something which many, including TV gardener Monty Don, describe as an act of environmental vandalism.

However, this won’t be the first time that campaigners will be issuing this plea, as the peat-free campaign has been running for well over 30 years.

Given peat’s vital role in locking away carbon, regulating floodwaters and supporting threatened wildlife, banning its sale should have been an easy environmental win years ago.

Incredibly however, bags of peat are still being stacked high and sold cheap in garden centres, DIY stores and petrol station forecourts across the land.

The fact that peat still remains freely available is a stark testament to the failure of an industry to fulfil its environmental responsibilities, and a government unable or unwilling to perform its regulatory role.

“It’s unfinished business,” admits Paul de Zylva, a campaigner from Friends of the Earth who has been banging the peat-free drum for more than 20 years. It was back in 2010 that the new Tory-led coalition promised to phase out the use of peat for gardeners by 2020 and by 2030 for the horticultural industry.

Promises but little action

“We sat on committees with the gardening industry, the government and big retailers and we thought that this would lead to a successful conclusion,” says de Zylva. “However the government took its eye off the ball thinking everything would be fine and it let the targets slip.”

Just how far the targets slipped is shown by figures released last autumn.

Between 2015 and 2019, the amount of peat contained in composts sold to shoppers had barely fallen from 53% to 42% and it was a similarly pitiful small drop for the professional sector.

“Ministers presumed that, once it had set targets, the horticultural trade would deliver on that,” says de Zylva.  “That didn’t happen and it shows how over-reliance on businesses to self-regulate and to respect voluntary targets is a sure-fire way to failure.”

seedling being held by finger and thumb

Now a broad coalition of environmental and gardening groups including the National Trust, RSPB and the Royal Horticultural Society are demanding that the government finally takes action.

“Peat has for too long been presented as a plentiful and perfect product in which to grow plants. But if gardeners could see the destruction that peat extraction has caused to habitats around the globe, they would be truly horrified,” says Nikki Williams from the Wildlife Trusts.

“The gardening sector has had a decade to end peat use,” adds de Zylva. “An outright ban or a levy on its sale could be the only way to stop garden centres and DIY stores profiting from the sale of this natural asset at rock bottom prices.”

New Irish moratorium

Whether or not the government chooses to act though, is now largely immaterial as it looks like change will be forced on the horticultural industry whether it likes it or not.

In a recent landmark decision, the Republic of Ireland has slapped a moratorium on the extraction of all peat, meaning that the supply of the main source of peat for the UK market will end.

“This is a big move and will undoubtedly have an effect,” says de Zylva. However rather than being a problem, de Zylva believes that this is actually a big opportunity for the government and the horticultural industry to show the public that growing healthy plants can be done without destroying a valuable natural resource.

“A scenario where the Irish peat supply chain suddenly shut down has never happened before,” says de Zylva. “This could be a much needed stimulus for locally produced compost, a peat alternative made from the huge amounts of food and garden waste that’s currently sent to landfill.”

“Investing in skills and local supply chains is more complicated and not as easy as flogging peat,” adds de Zylva, “but it would add value, create jobs and help solve many other problems including the carbon and nature crises.”

Take action against peat

Here are some suggested top tips for ethical consumers who want to keep peat in the ground:

  • Don't buy peat. There are plenty of alternatives available, including recycled food and garden waste from local councils
  • Read up on what to use instead of peat e.g. advice from the RHS
  • Sign the Wildlife Trust's petition calling for an end to the sale of peat in the UK
  • Use the hashtag #PeatFreeApril and #PeatFree to promote non-peat use
  • Ask your local garden centre about what they stock and support ones who are phasing peat out more quickly