8 August 2011
Peatlands are some of the UK's most valuable habitats – damp, colourful wetlands that support an array of bog mosses and carnivorous plants, rare and unusual insects, and birds such as the golden plover.
Blanket bog, upland flushes, fens and swamps, lowland raised bog and fens are UK BAP priority habitats. These habitats vary in extent from 2.2 million ha (blanket bog) to 25,000 ha (fens).
As well as being incredibly valuable to wildlife, peatlands also act as huge carbon stores by locking up carbon within their structure. UK peatlands are estimated to store approximately three billion tonnes of carbon. Whilst most of our peatlands (by area) are in the uplands, there are significant areas of peat soils in the lowlands.
Peatlands under threat
Peatlands have developed over thousands of years, with peat accumulating by only a tiny amount each year. The way we manage our peatland habitats is critical to their future. In the recent past, large areas of peatland have been lost or damaged as a result of inappropriate landuse and management.
The UK uplands include extensive areas of blanket bog interspersed with other more localised peatland habitats. Many of the best areas of blanket bog are protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (ASSIs in Northern Ireland) and Special Areas of Conservation under the EC Habitats Directive.
As well as being incredibly valuable to wildlife, peatlands also act as huge carbon stores
Whilst large areas are still relatively intact, much of the resource has been damaged by inappropriate land use and management activities and in the past, by the effects of atmospheric pollution.
Inappropriate policy and support measures resulted in large areas being drained and in places, covered by trees. Increases in livestock numbers and inappropriate burning have also resulted in major damage with habitat degradation, habitat loss and loss of underlying peat soil. Degraded peatlands are not only of less value for wildlife but also lose carbon both to the air (as CO2) and in water as Dissolved Organic and as sediment.
A 2009 report from Cranfield University (on behalf of the RSPB) found that in the lowland peatlands of the fens an estimated 400 thousand tons of soil carbon is being lost every year. This is equivalent to an average wastage rate of around 1.2 cm/yr.
Although efforts have been made to slow the loss of peatland soils, peat is still being harvested at a rate of almost 1 million cubic metres per year, and currently less than 6% of the UK's raised bog habitat remains undamaged.
Working to protect our peatlands
The RSPB has been stepping up to the challenge of protecting the UK's vital peatlands. We are working in a number of ways, from ambitious habitat restoration projects and extensive research, to campaigning to safeguard peat soils, and advocating policies that help to protect our precious peatlands. We also manage our own peatland sites on reserves across the UK, and offer advice to help you to protect the UK's valuable peat resources, whether on a farm or in the garden.
Find out more about our work to help conserve and protect peatlands, both in the UK and abroad. More...