Peatlands: What are they, where are they and why do they matter?

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A photograph over Cuilcagh in County Fermanagh: a protected site that spans the border
Cuilcagh in County Fermanagh: a protected blanket bog which spans the border (Image by Carl Meehan)

Peatlands are the UK’s most extensive semi-natural habitat, but are often thought of as muddy, wet and useless wastelands. This has led to many calling peatlands a Cinderella habitat, and much like Cinderella, peatlands are not what they first seem.

This article gives an overview of a recent research paper on peat and peatlands in Northern Ireland (NI), England, Scotland, Wales and Republic of Ireland (RoI), published by the Northern Ireland Assembly Research and Information Service (RaISe).

What is peat?

Peat is an organic surface layer within soils. It is formed when organic material, mostly plant, does not fully decompose due to waterlogging, oxygen and nutrient deficiency, and high acidity conditions.

In the UK and RoI, peat has been accumulating since the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago. But peat takes a very long time to form. In 1 year only 1mm of peat will be produced, therefore 1 metre of peat has taken around 1000 years to form.

What are peatlands?

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands defines peatlands as;

“Peatlands are ecosystems with a peat deposit that may currently support a vegetation that is peat-forming, may not, or may lack vegetation entirely”

In the UK, three broad peatland habitats exist;

  1. Blanket bogs – These are peatland habitats which receive all their water from precipitation. Blanket bogs are globally rare, but the UK contains 20% of the world’s blanket bogs;
  2. Raised bogs – These are peatland habitats which form in low lying areas, especially in floodplains or basins. They are often found on the surface of fens (see below). Raised bogs can be identified by their domes of peat; and
  3. Lowland and Upland Fens – These peatland habitats receive their water from precipitation and groundwater

Peatland distribution and conditions in the UK and RoI

Peatlands occupy around 12% of the UK’s land area, and are the largest component of the UK’s wetland environment. Current estimates suggest that only 20% of the UK’s peatlands remain in a near-natural state. Below are headline figures for the extent and condition of peat in NI, England, Scotland, Wales and the RoI.

Northern Ireland headline figures

Around 25% of NI is covered by peat, and it is estimated that around 86% of NI’s peatlands are in a degraded state. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs provide an interactive map here.

England headline figures

Peatlands cover around 11% of England’s land area, and less than 1.3% of England’s peatlands are in a near-natural state.

Defra provide an interactive map here.

Scotland headline figures

Scotland is home to nearly 70% of the UK’s peatlands. It has been estimated that 70% of Scottish blanket bogs and 90% of Scottish raised bogs have been damaged.

The Scottish Government provide an interactive map here.

Wales headline figures

Wales is covered by around 4% of peatlands, and contain the largest expanses of near-natural blanket bogs in Great Britain. 26% of Welsh peatlands are in a near-natural state.

Republic of Ireland headline figures

Around 21% of the RoI is covered by peat, with a total peat area similar to Scotland. It has been estimated that only 10% of raised bogs and 28% of blanket bogs in the RoI are in a near-natural state.

What do peatlands provide us?

Peatlands provide benefits that enable life, which are termed ‘ecosystem services’. Ecosystem services are often split into three categories, provisioning, regulating and cultural. Provisioning services are those where a product is created, such as food and energy. Regulating services are provided by the regulation of natural processes such as storing carbon and regulating water quality. Finally cultural services are non-material benefits, such as recreation and cultural heritage. Below are some examples of peatland ecosystem services:

Peat Extraction

Peat is predominately extracted for horticultural use in the UK. Peat extraction provides an income to the UK economy. However, this income from industrial extraction has been declining year on year.

A voluntary target to eliminate peat from the amateur horticultural market by 2020 was announced in 2010 by the UK Government. And although voluntary, this target was not met.


Agriculture is one of the most common uses of peatlands. It is estimated that 7% of the UK’s total peatland are being used as cropland, with the vast majority of farmed peatlands in England. The fen farmlands of East Anglia contribute more than 7% of total agricultural production, worth £1.23 billion to the UK economy.

To farm on peatlands, they must first be modified. This is typically done by cutting drainage channels into the peat surface. Drained peats are wasting at a rate of between 10-30 mm a year, this is at least 10 times that of peat formation.

Farmed peatlands are also a large source of greenhouse gas emissions. It has been estimated that around 7600 kilotonnes CO2 per year are emitted from farmed peatlands, or 32% of all greenhouse gas emissions from peatlands.

Carbon storage

Perhaps one of the most beneficial aspects of peatlands are their ability to remove (sequestration) and store carbon when in good condition.

Peatlands cover 3% of the global land surface yet they are the largest natural terrestrial store of carbon, 450 gigatonnes CO2 equivalent, and annually sequester ~0.4 billion tonnes of CO2. Or to put it simply, peatlands store twice as much carbon as the world’s forests.

In the UK, peatlands currently store more than 3 billion tonnes of carbon, this is the same as all the carbon stored in the forests of the UK, Germany and France combined.

Damaged peatlands however are not able to sequester carbon as effectively and turn from a carbon sink to a carbon source. In the UK between 18.5 and 23 million tonnes of CO2 are emitted annually by peatlands. This is around 5% of the UK’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions (in 2020 total UK greenhouse gas emissions were provisionally 414.1 million tonnes). From 2021, peatland emissions will now be included in the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions inventory.

Drinking water

Peatlands are a dominant ecosystem in upland catchments, as such 70% of UK drinking water is sourced from peatlands. Peatlands in good condition supplies high quality water that requires little treatment before entering the drinking water supply.

Peatlands in a poor condition release dissolved organic carbon into the water. Dissolved organic carbon causes water to turn brown, and removing this is the largest cost for water utilities in the UK. There is evidence that standard water treatment methods in the UK are becoming less efficient, and in the future may need to be replaced by new procedures.

Many water companies are investing in peatland restoration to aid in reducing treatment costs. NI Water’s Source to Tap restoration project at Tullychurry is one example.

National Peatland Strategies

In 2018 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in collaboration with the various UK legislatures, published the UK Peatland Strategy 2018-2040. The strategy is divided into six goals (conservation, restoration, adaptive management, sustainable management, co-ordinate and communicate) centred on the principle target of two million hectares of peatland in good condition, under restoration or being sustainably managed by 2040. Every five years, a progress report will be delivered, with the first progress report to be completed in 2023.

The strategy also sets the context for devolved administrations strategic peatland action plans. So what do these look like across the UK and the RoI?

In NI, there is currently no national peatland strategy. However, the DAERA minister Edwin Poots has stated that one is being developed.

In England there is also no current national peatland strategy. In the 25-year environment plan, an England peatland strategy was stated to be published in late 2018, however this was missed. More recently DEFRA published a policy discussion document offering an insight into strategic direction of the England peatland strategy.

Scotland was the first of the UK legislatures to publish a national peatland strategy in 2015, with the overarching principle to “Protect, manage and restore peatlands to maintain their natural functions, biodiversity and benefits”.

Late last year, Wales published its first national peatland strategy. The five year strategy is aiming to deliver between 600-800 hectares of peatland restoration a year, and listed six priority areas for action.

The RoI published its national peatland strategy in 2015. The 10 year strategy consists of 25 principles and 32 action points targeting among others forestry practices, industrial extraction, climate change and restoration.

Peatland restoration

Peatland restoration typically means to re-wet the peat. Re-wetting can be achieved through numerous techniques like blocking artificial drainage ditches and gullies, removing scrub and trees and stopping peat extraction.

The Office for National Statistics estimated the monetary benefit, based only for greenhouse gas emissions, for restoring 55% of the UK’s peatlands to a good state to at least £45-51 billion over the next century.

With 20% of the UK’s peatlands in a near-natural state, and a better understanding of the benefits peatlands provide, there has been increasing focus on peatland restoration across the UK.

Over the past 30 years around 1% of NI’s peatlands have been restored through projects like Source to Tap. The DAERA Minister Edwin Poots has committed to supporting the restoration of peatland habitats through future funding programmes and initiatives currently being developed.

In England, around 22% of peatlands are under restoration management. In the 2020 Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the UK Government’s intention to restore 35,000 hectares of peatland by 2025. £640 million funding will be available through Nature for Climate fund.

The Scottish Government announced in the 2020-21 budget a commitment to invest £250 million to restore 220,000 hectares of peatlands over the next ten years. Through the Peatland ACTION project, a total of 25,000 hectares of peatland since 2012 have undergone restoration efforts.

The Welsh administration has committed to an annual capital investment of £1 million to deliver restoration activity over the period 2020-2025.

In the RoI’s 2020 budget, €5 million was allocated to aid in the acceleration of peatland restoration, this was followed by an additional €5 million in the 2021 through the Carbon Tax Investment Programme.