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Peatlands: Commercial Exploitation

Volume 799: debated on Monday 9 September 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to end the commercial exploitation of peatlands.

My Lords, we have taken action to tackle domestic extraction of peat. The National Planning Policy Framework, published in 2012, ended the granting of new licences for peat extraction. We continue to focus on reducing demand for peat in horticulture in England, and on the uptake of alternatives. We are investing in research to overcome barriers to peat replacement. The forthcoming England peat strategy will set out our approach to speeding up progress.

My Lords, I welcome some progress in this area, but the Minister will know that our peatlands hold the equivalent, or a carbon sink, of something like 20 years of industrial emissions. Although I welcome things such as the peat restoration programme, surely it is better that they are not destroyed in the first place than that they need to be reconstituted? The voluntary process for reducing the commercial use of peat is not meeting its target, so when are we going to have mandatory targets that end the use of peat for commercial reasons?

My Lords, I sympathise with all that the noble Lord has said. That is why we are working on recovery plans. Amateur gardeners account for two-thirds of the peat being used. We have to reduce our use of peat and go for peat-free products. I read of one that incorporates wool and bracken, for instance. We are working with industry; I am very pleased that Kingfisher, one of the big retailers, is moving towards peat-free compost. That is how we must all proceed in reducing the use of peat and restoring what we have. It is vital to our environment.

My Lords, building on that Answer, amateur gardeners find it very difficult to get high-quality compost that does not contain peat. Can the Minister expand a little on what the Government are doing to get retailers not only to stock less peat-based compost—ideally, none at all—but to be more informative about the price that the environment is paying for the quality of the compost that they are selling?

As an amateur gardener, I agree with what the noble Baroness has said. It is precisely why we have embarked on a £1 million project, which ends at the end of this year, co-funded by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, with growing-medium manufacturers and commercial growers. It is being undertaken by ADAS and the Quadram Institute. The results so far are very promising. Some of the new mixes have proved very successful, and that must be the way forward. Clearly, we need to produce different materials if we want ericaceous compost for seeds and all the different components of agriculture, but the results so far are promising, and that is how we must proceed.

My Lords, will my noble friend perhaps display a greater sense of urgency, considering that it takes 200 years to create a peat bog? Since there are flood prevention schemes, such as the Pickering pilot scheme, will the Government ensure that peat bogs are created as part of such restoration schemes and will they form part of the land management system under the eventual agriculture Bill?

Undoubtedly, peat bogs and fens help with flood management and improve water quality. Indeed, they play a considerable part in climate regulation, which is why in the wider research beyond what I have already described we are funding research into mitigation strategies—for instance, for lowland peatland. This research is being led by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. One of the things, of course, is not to let peat dry out.

My Lords, the problem is much wider than compost. Flora and fauna are being drastically affected. For example, the numbers of the iconic bird of the upland in summer, the curlew, have fallen dramatically because, without the peat bogs, they find it difficult to feed, in spite of their long beaks. Will he draw that to the attention of the agricultural civil servants in his department?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. The merlin, the dunlin and the golden plover are all birds that are also significant in their impact on the ecosystems and important in the peatlands. That is precisely why we want to concentrate on restoring peatlands and reducing peat extraction. Interestingly, the worst damage is being done in the lowland areas of peatland.

My Lords, being a farmer as well as an amateur gardener, I say that manure by itself would be a little too rich for some of the seedlings which we all need to prosper, but my noble friend is absolutely right about using compost and manure. Using them in the right mix and getting the right alternatives—natural alternatives such as wool and bracken—is the way forward.

My Lords, specifically on commercial peat extraction, as my noble friend Lord Teverson said, this is causing irreversible damage to some of the most historic and vulnerable nature conservation habitats and environments, so 2030 is too late to tackle this problem. Wonderful wetland habitats are being created from previous peat workings, such as at Westhay Heath. Why are the Government not doing more to promote such schemes to preserve more wildlife habitats?

My Lords, I am pleased to say, as I think I may have said before, that we have already allocated £10 million to restore nearly 6,500 hectares of degraded peatland. These projects started last year and are due to complete in 2020. They are about raising the water table and re-wetting peat, along with the revegetation of bare peat. A lot of work is going on and we absolutely recognise that we need to roll these large-scale projects out more widely.

My Lords, what work—and to what conclusion—has the Minister’s department undertaken on the application of a carbon tax on sales of peat?

My Lords, obviously, that is a possible action, but we want to find the alternatives that will make the use of peat redundant and unnecessary. Peat is a very important natural resource that we need for our ecosystems, which is why we want to pursue that route. However, the noble Lord is right: in the end, if we cannot get it done through this voluntary approach, we will have to look at all eventualities. That is where, with the peat strategy, we will need to be determined to improve the peatland situation.