Easter survey reveals the need for faster action on peat-free gardening

Thursday 13th April 2017

As the nation’s gardeners prepare for spring, a new survey reveals a lack of real choice for consumers looking for peat-free composts at garden centres and other outlets. It highlights the need for more determined action to phase out peat use from the gardening industry and to protect wild peatlands.

In March, 238 volunteers responded to a survey by Friends of the Earth, Plantlife, RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts. They found that:
• only 19% of almost 1,300 products on sale were clearly labelled as peat-free;
• a third of respondents did not find peat-free compost clearly available;
• half of respondents who checked prices found peat-free compost to be more expensive than peat-based options;
• there was often little awareness or concern about the impact of peat among retail staff;
• most respondents reported a lack of product choice, price incentive or clear labelling to encourage consumers to buy peat-free.

The survey results show how difficult it still is for amateur gardeners to buy peat-free. This is despite the high profile of the peat-free gardening issue in the 1990s and early 2000s, the availability of quality peat-free alternatives and repeated commitments by the garden industry and UK government to phase out peat use. Environmental groups are calling on industry and governments to take determined action – and urgently – to protect remaining peatlands from the devastating impacts of this trade.

Industry figures show that:
• bagged peat-free compost increased from 5.9% of the market in 2011 to 9% in 2015;
• peat still accounts for more than half of the total material used in bagged composts;
• the amount of peat in the retail market increased by 50,000m3 from 2012 to 2015;
• across the UK garden industry, more than 2 million m3 of peat was used in 2015.

While commercial peat extraction from Britain’s bogs has been reduced, our use of peat in gardens is now degrading bogs elsewhere. In 2015, more than half of our peat came from Ireland and around 7% from elsewhere in Europe (primarily the Baltic States) – leaving a third (around 700,000 tonnes) from peatlands in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland.

Peatland is home to a variety of scarce and unique wildlife, and provides vital services for people. Peat bogs store vast amounts of carbon, which must kept in the ground to avoid contributing to climate change. A loss of only 5% of UK peatland carbon would be equal to the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. These bogs also act like a sponge, soaking up rainwater, and can help to reduce flood risk. Water filtered through healthy peat bogs is of a higher quality than water from degraded bogs, making it cheaper to treat as drinking water. Around 70% of our water comes from British uplands, and over half of this passes through peat.

Sandra Bell, Friends of the Earth campaigner, said: “Gardeners have a key role to play in buying peat-free compost – and in asking for more choice and promotion by retailers. This survey highlights a clear need for faster and more determined action by the garden industry and retailers to meet the UK government’s commitment to phase out peat use from amateur gardening by 2020.”

Jenny Hawley, Plantlife’s Senior Policy Officer, said: “The survey shows an appalling lack of choice for consumers and the devastating impact of this continuing trade on Europe’s peat bogs. We need to protect and restore our peat bogs for plants and animals, for good water management and to prevent climate change. Peat bogs develop over millennia, so they’re a limited and unsustainable resource – often classified as a fossil fuel.”

Adrian Thomas, RSPB wildlife gardening expert, said “I've gardened peat-free for over 20 years now, and grown thousands of plants that way. The quality of peat-free composts has really improved in recent years, and I think they're now just as good if not better than peat. The bottom line is that it is important that in making our own garden a wonderful place we don't damage a part of the planet elsewhere.”

Steve Trotter, England Director for the Wildlife Trusts, said: “Gardeners can make a real difference by not buying peat-based products but the garden trade is failing in its duty to phase out peat and give its customers real choice to go peat-free. A few responsible traders are leading the way but the pace of change is far too slow. The Government must now honour its pledge to phase out peat for garden use by 2020. The market isn’t delivering so the Government must now take effective action.”

This call is also supported by the Irish Peatland Conservation Council (IPCC). Katie Geraghty, Campaign Officer, said: “Gardeners choosing peat-free compost can help save Ireland’s wonderfully wild boglands and protect endangered species like the Curlew. Recent research has shown that there are only 123 pairs of breeding Curlew left in Ireland - a 97% decline since the 1980s – and they depend on bog habitats to breed.”