British Archaeology, no 28, October 1997: Comment

Why peat extraction must be stopped

The Labour Party in opposition promised to act, writes Richard Morris

Britain's lowland raised mires are among the strangest and most fascinating places in Europe. They are also among the scarcest: more than 94 per cent of them have been damaged or destroyed.

Lowland bogs are living things, home to rare dragonflies, birds and insects. On their surfaces live plants such as sundews, butterworts, bog rosemary and sphagnum mosses. When the plants die they do not rot, because a high water table and acidic conditions inhibit decay. Instead, they form peat. The peat can accumulate for thousands of years.

The history of bogs is important to history. Peatlands are rich in archaeological material which seldom survives elsewhere. Ancient boats, bodies, trackways and organic remains which have vanished from dry sites all endure in peat bogs. So does wood, and with it the tree-rings that help refine and extend our ability to date objects and sites elsewhere. Basal layers of peat may seal earlier cultural material (like flints) and evidence for previous land-use.

Within mires lie layered remains of plants, pollen, seeds and insects which provide evidence for ecological and environmental change. The pollen record may reflect events further afield, like the clearance of forest by early communities, while deposits of volcanic ash may correlate with yet more distant episodes. Bogs also help present-day estimations of future climatic change, because they testify to the frequency, rapidity, and scale of changes in the past.

Future advances in science will enable bogs to tell us even more. That is, if the bogs still exist. Of the c 247,000 acres of lowland raised bog which existed in mid-Victorian Britain, just 15,000 acres now remain. Over half of this surviving area is subject to permissions for peat extraction.

Most of these consents were awarded in the 1940s. Their continuing currency means that even our most important bogs, those since designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), are being destroyed. Parts of the 7,500 acres of Thorne and Hatfield Moors are now so damaged that English Nature is considering whether SSSI status should be withdrawn.

English Nature has adopted a conciliatory stance towards extraction companies, negotiating confidential agreements which leave a little peat behind and provide for the conservation management of old workings. Such deals won't save the palaeo archive. Nor will English Heritage, because ancient monuments legislation does not extend to environmental evidence for cultural history.

Even where 'real' archaeology exists, extraction technology isn't a very subtle way of recognising it. When peat is mined the bog is drained, living vegetation is stripped, and the desiccated peat is milled by machines. For every Lindow Man retrieved from a bog, others are likely to be shredded in a bag.

The contradiction of killing rare wild species to grow garden plants or to mulch shrubs on roundabouts becomes almost unbearable when it emerges that most horticultural use of peat is unnecessary. Garden plants don't need it, and peat-free growing media are available - or would be if everyone insisted on using them.

The CBA has joined with RSPB, Plantlife, the Wildlife Trusts and others in a Peatlands Campaign Consortium. The consortium has done much to encourage the use of peat-free products. This month we will be urging the Government to deliver the promises on peat that it made in opposition, and to close the legislative gap which leaves Britain's palaeo-environmental record largely unprotected.

You can make a difference too. Buy peat-free composts, or make your own. When buying plants, ask if they are grown in peat-free compost. Ask your local gar den centre for a copy of its peat policy. If the garden centre stocks peat mined from SSSIs, go elsewhere.

Local authorities are responsible for parks and public spaces: ask whether your council has signed the Wildlife Trusts' Peatland Protection Charter. Look for soil improvers and mulches carrying the new eco-label symbol - bogs will not have not been damaged to make them.

Good peat-free products have failed to make much impact on the market because peat is so cheap. In 1992 the Labour Party warned the peat industry 'that unless there is a voluntary agreement to reduce peat extraction substantially and promote alternatives, we shall introduce a strict fiscal and/ or regulatory regime. '

The year before, a Shadow Treasury Minister wrote that 'we would wish to remove or reduce VAT on products such as . . . alternatives to garden peat'. That Shadow Minister was Chris Smith MP, now Secretary of State for Culture. Given peat's cultural significance we have written to ask him when action can be expected.

For peat's sake, please ask your MP to do the same.

Richard Morris is the Director of the CBA

A guide to garden composting, Waste Not Want Not, is available from The Wildlife Trusts, Waterside South, Lincoln LN5 7JR, price £1.00.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1997