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Volume 836: debated on Thursday 22 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in restoring peatlands, and by what date they expect all degraded peatlands to be restored.

My Lords, I declare my interests in farming and land management, as set out in the register, and draw your Lordships’ attention to the fact that I have been involved in numerous peatland restoration projects. The Government have made good progress in restoring our peatlands; we have accelerated the rate of peatland restoration in England through the Nature for Climate Fund, launched in 2020. Through this fund, we have so far provided £35 million for peatland restoration projects, financially committing us to restoring approximately 27,000 hectares of peatland. This represents significant progress against our ambitious commitment, made in the net-zero strategy, to restore 280,000 hectares of peatland by 2050.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. We all know that well-managed peatlands can sequester carbon and mitigate flood risks, but about 80% of UK peatlands are in a degraded condition, and we are still selling it for horticultural use. Can the Minister go a little further and tell the House when the threshold of 35,000 hectares, which the Government committed to restore by 2025, will be restored—he already mentioned 27,000—and what the plan is for the remaining 245,000 hectares they committed to restore through the net-zero strategy by 2050?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising the important issue of peatland restoration. We are making good progress to deliver the commitments to restore the 35,000 hectares of peatlands by 2025. She alluded to the fact that we are aiming for about 27,000 at the moment. It is fair to say that we are slightly behind the target, but also that there have been some good reasons for that—namely the pandemic, which slowed everybody up, but also that it is quite difficult to plan and organise these things. They tend to be back-loaded rather than front-loaded in their completion. Since making that commitment, restoration activity has been delivered through our agri-environment schemes, and most significantly through the Nature for Climate Fund, as I said. This fund has already financially committed the Government to restoring the 27,000 hectares of peatland, and 11,000 hectares of that have already been delivered. We are also fully committed to restoring the 240,000 hectares of remaining peatland by 2050.

My Lords, given the role that peatlands play in flood defences, as the noble Baroness said, will the Minister pay tribute to all those involved in the Slowing the Flow pilot scheme in Pickering? Will he ensure that more private sector funding, either from water companies or others, can also be factored in to speed up the programme to which he refers?

My noble friend makes a very good point on the involvement of private companies. It is one of the Government’s aims to involve them more and get a bigger response from them shortly.

My Lords, I have raised this with my noble friend before. Wildfires are one of the greatest dangers to our peatlands. They get very much worse when heather is allowed to grow out and become hard and woody. Then, during a drought you can have a fire that lasts for six weeks with endless fire engines being deployed and the peat still burning underneath, as happened on Saddleworth Moor. Does he not recognise that this is one of the greatest dangers to our peatlands?

My noble friend makes another very good point on the use of a range of different measures for protecting our uplands from wildfire. We have in our armoury, if you like, the ability to cut heather, and we still allow people to burn heather in certain areas and, in particular, to use that as a defence against wildfire.

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Ritchie referred to the use of peat in horticulture. Will the Minister remind the House what the Government have done and what they will do in the future to reduce to zero the use of peat in horticulture, both domestically and commercially?

My Lords, we need to give the horticultural industry some time to adapt. I assure the noble Baroness that the Government are committed to banning peat in horticulture. The reason we have not got there yet is primarily down to parliamentary time. I hope that we will be able to address that issue very shortly.

My Lords, 95% of respondents to the Government’s 2022 consultation supported a legal ban on retail sales. Retailers, including B&Q, Tesco, the Co-op, the Royal Horticultural Society and Dobbies, have ended the sale of peat in bags of growing media. The horticultural industry requires clarity. When will it get it?

As I said in answer to the previous question, the Government are committed to this ban, and it will be in place by 2030.

My Lords, over the past few years, we have seen a shocking rise in wildfires, many of which destroy peatlands. With the El Niño effect, we are expecting even more this summer. What are the Government doing to prevent wildfires to avoid further destruction of our precious peatlands?

My Lords, the Government are committed to a range of activities to prevent wildfire. I discussed two of those just now: cutting heather and burning heather. We also have the fire service on standby and are in constant communication with the fire service across the country to address wildfire issues.

My Lords, peat has been an important domestic fuel in the Highlands for centuries. Is the Minister aware that bags of peat are still freely available in Scottish shops to burn on open fires? This seems inconsistent with our other policy objectives with regard to the conservation of peat.

The noble Lord makes a very good point. I am sure that he is aware that peatland matters in Scotland are a devolved issue. I understand that, for historic reasons, there is an inclination towards peat. I hope, as I am sure he does, that it is on the decline.

Is the Minister aware that it takes millennia for peat bogs to form? Do the Government have any idea of the ratio between the so-called restored peat bogs and those that are still being disrupted?

I am entirely aware of the amount of time it takes to create peat. I spent a great deal of time doing peatland restoration work.

My Lords, the Science and Technology Committee, which I chaired at the time, produced a report on nature-based solutions to climate change. One of the things it recommended, because of confusion related to both woodland and peatland codes, was that the Government should have a strategy for land use. Subsequently, an ad hoc committee of the House of Lords recommended that a land use commission should be set up. The Government were resistant to both these recommendations of two independent House of Lords committees. Can the Minister suggest what the Government intend to do about a land use strategy?

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. The Government have every intention of publishing their land use strategy shortly.

My Lords, I did not intend to intervene but in view of the answers I am bound to ask the Minister whether, in a consensual and non-divisive way, he would mind approaching the Duke of Rutland to ask him not to continue burn-off in the south Pennines, which is clearly damaging not just the peat bogs but the general environment, including the atmosphere in my city of Sheffield?

I am not aware of the specific details that the noble Lord has raised. I commit to finding out about them. Perhaps I can drop him a letter on that subject.

My Lords, planting conifers on deep peat is probably one of the biggest reasons for peat’s degradation; I think about 20% of peat degradation is caused by that. Can the Minister confirm that there will be no more planting of conifers on deep peat and that, where it has happened in the past, when those trees are felled they will not be replaced?

The noble Lord is absolutely right on his statistics and the danger that conifers pose to peat. I do not have the details available here now, but I commit to write to him on that subject.

My Lords, the Minister said that one of mitigations is that the fire service would be on standby. I have always thought that the nature of the fire service is that it is always on standby. What assessment have the Government done in the light of my noble friend’s Question to ensure that the fire service resources are going to be adequate, given the increasing likelihood of wildfires of various sorts, the El Niño effect and, of course, climate change?

I thank the noble Lord for his interesting question. The Government have taken a number of initiatives in preventing wildfire, and that is the start point from which we work. We are in communication with the fire service on a permanent basis relating to this. Obviously, when the risk is elevated, we are in constant communication with it to make sure that it is available for that activity.