I’m one of a pile of signatories to this letter to George Eustice, Secretary of State for DEFRAomnishambles. Most of the other signatories know a lot more about peat and gardening than I do, but I can tell you that my enthusiasm for growing tomatoes, generated in lockdown last year, means that I know how difficult it is to source genuinely peat-free compost even if one is trying.

And my engagement with peat goes back decades. I can remember being in a group of wildlife campaigners in a meeting with Richard Benyon while I was still at the RSPB (which makes it certainly a decade ago) where we were having the same discussions that are still being had. The Minister then, as no doubt the Ministers now, preferred encouragement to regulation – that’s why nothing much has changed in a decade. The coalition government could have set us on the route to phasing out peat back then, but they didn’t. That wasn’t because of a pandemic, or Brexit, or cuts to Natural England (though they did exist), but because Conservative ministers will always avoid making people do the right thing when they can pretend that people will, of their own free will and out of self interest, do the right thing. You couldn’t have a more palpably failed recipe for environmental improvement than ‘Let’s just rely on people to behave well’. Think peat use, think plastic bags, think lead shot, think raptor persecution, think burning on… errrr… peatlands. Think sticking to covid rules?

This issue is covered in The Guardian and on the BBC website. And those of you with a dog-eared copy of Fighting for Birds might cast a glance at pages 257-9 for what I wrote about this subject almost a decade ago.


9 Replies to “#peatfreeapril”

  1. Very well said Mark. Absolutely right of course, it is very difficult to find a growing medium being sold at garden centres and other outlets that is peat free. It is an excellent letter but I doubt whether Eustice will take the slightest notice of it.
    Again as has been said so very many times before, this Government at Westminster is a total environmental and wildlife protection failure. As you point out, their approach is all wrong but more than that they will do anything for money and for any organisation that makes money, even if it damages and destroys wildlife and our environment in the process. Because of this they are closely allied to such outfits as the peat extraction industry and the shooters of wildlife for the fun of it.

  2. On my first post-lockdown trip to the Somerset levels I was haeld up by a 38 tonner being loaded with bags of garden centre peat and from Ham Wall reserve there’s always at least one peat mountain, maybe 50 feet high, in view. So much for the voluntary effort.

    At the other end of the scale, the last Forestry Scotland annual report showed 900 hectares of deep peat restored from plantation at a cost of £3.7m.

  3. We’ve tried to be peat-free for many years. Luckily we get a lot of leaf-fall and make leaf mould every year – a good substitute. This year I’m experimenting with growing blueberries and managed to track down peat-free ericaceous compost without much trouble.
    Maybe, as with plastic carrier bags, put a premium on peat-based composts and pass the money on to peat restoration projects.

    1. Lyn – well done. yes, and that was one of the suggestions that Richard Benyon toyed with and rejected a decade ago.

  4. Efforts to phase out the use of peat go back much further than a decade and it is hugely depressing that garden centres and supermarkets are still piled high with peat-based products. It is one thing to give voluntary schemes the chance to succeed before resorting to legislation but when years of evidence show this is not working it is time to regulate.

    1. I’ve had no difficulty buying peat-free compost, but it is vastly outnumbered by the bags of peat they sell everywhere.
      Over the past few years, I have written to several outlets, asking them to stock only peat-free, but none of them will.
      They all say gardeners want peat, so they fill the need.

      I’m probably not well enough informed, but can think of no instance of voluntary restraint ever being exercised. I think the government, in deference to campaigners’ requests, just asks the malefactors to do something they know fine well they will not – but they’ve tried to solve the problem, haven’t they, that useless set of clowns.

  5. I’ve been using peat free compost for some time and trying to persuade others to do the same. This year a friend told me he’d bought Spent Mushroom compost that was peat free but according to the internet it does contain some peat as peat is used as a “casing” material .
    As I was interested in this I emailed the Soil Association to ask if organic mushroom growers use peat. The answer surprisingly was yes but they are intending to phase it out by 2025.

  6. The farm I worked on in Suffolk grew on hop plants for sale to other farms that actually produced the hops. That meant very large quantities of 100% peat that went through a special machine to make blocks of it that hop cuttings could be transferred into. If such farms could go over to peat free alternatives with no problem then no one else should have an excuse for still using it. It might be a bit of a stretch to say hops are a vital rather than recreational crop, but none the less if the change was made here there would be no reason why it can’t be made for growing pretty flowers.

    If I was world leader I wouldn’t just ban peat in gardens I’d also ban artificial fertiliser, pesticide and herbicide use for non food purposes too. There can be a very heavy environmental costs in their production as well as use, far too high for the sake of begonias. In the U.S.A approx 25 BILLION dollars is spent on lawncare every year. A big part of that is fertiliser to make them look really green, so no surprise run off from lawns has been identified as a significant cause of the eutrophication of waterways there even in places like Chesapeake Bay.

    Rather depressing how gardens could be great for the environment and environmental education through growing your own food and wildlife gardening, but in reality they’re more like a black hole for conservation. With comparatively low spec uses (we’re not talking about holding a house’s walls up for decades) gardens are perfect for reuse and recycled products. Whole bricks from demolition jobs used for walls and barbecue pits, garden furniture made from waste plastic collected from the sea and beaches saving a hardwood tree home or abroad and allowing it to go through its natural life cycle rather than end up a prop for an arse, literally. Crazy paving made from old concrete slabs largely bypassing the need to dig up more aggregates for the same purpose. Food and garden waste composted to help your own plants grow, in house and garden recycling.

    I can’t see how any future, credible governmental initiative on getting children closer to nature or growing their own food for health and educational reasons can work without gardens being a central element of it. Currently though we are going in completely the wrong direction with the vast majority of the country’s gardens becoming lifeless outdoor spaces for plastic lawns, tropical hardwood tables and patio heaters. How many future Chris Packhams have we already lost because a young child never got the chance to encounter a ladybird in the increasingly standard ‘garden’ that has about as much nature as a super market carpark?

  7. It is not all loss, the birds enjoying worked out peat areas around Avalon marsh area including RSPB Ham Wall have been at the backbone of Somerset birding probably hundreds of them enjoying the great number of different species.
    Indeed that area has been greatly responsible for the increase in numbers of Bitterns, Great Crested Egrets and the Crane project plus others that tend to be kept quiet about.
    For gardening I do not use Peat except a small amount if I want to sow seeds as I cannot get good results for seeds with peat free.

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