Peatlands are some of the UK's most valuable habitats. They're damp, colourful wetlands supporting an array of bog mosses and carnivorous plants, rare and unusual insects and birds.
Blanket bog, upland flushes, fens and swamps, lowland raised bog and fens are UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP) priority habitats. These habitats vary in extent from 22,000 square kilometres (blanket bog) to 250 square kilometres (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 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.
Protecting peat soil in the fens
In 1852 an iron post was driven into the peat at Holme Fen, Cambridgeshire until it rested on the clay beneath. Its top was cut to the level of the peat and since then has been used to measure the shrinkage of the peat. Today the Holme Post rises 4m above the ground.
A recent RSPB commissioned report by Cranfield University has found that 380,000 tonnes of soil carbon is being lost from peat soils each year in the East Anglian Fens, largely as a result of drainage and arable farming. This equates to 9 per cent of the total carbon loss from soils across England and Wales despite the peat soils of the Fens making up only 0.12 per cent of the landmass. This is equivalent to the emissions from the 65,000 households, of Peterborough.
The report also highlights that losses are far from uniform with the significant peat deposits covering just 8 per cent of the East Anglian Fens. Much of this is concentrated in a handful of drainage districts, for example Southery and District which covers 5 per cent of the total area of the Fens but contributes 22 per cent of the total estimated carbon emissions.
Lowland peat sites, when drained, are excellent for food production, however, this use of peat soils comes with environmental consequences. As a valuable store and potentially a massive source of carbon, conserving peat soils is important if we are to achieve our target of reducing GHG emissions. The report shows peat reserves in the Fens are localised, especially the important deep peat where annual wastage is greater. This raises some big questions for Government, farmers and society more generally about how we use these relatively small areas of land and how carbon loss from these peat soils can be stopped.
Protection and restoration
The RSPB is involved in a wide range of projects working with a diverse group of partners, to conserve and restore peatland habitats both in the UK and abroad.
Campaigns and advocacy
The RSPB takes an active role safeguarding important wildlife sites and in developing and advocating effective policies to ensure that industry and consumers are supported and encouraged to make environmentally-friendly choices.
Peatlands are dynamic systems whose habitat quality and carbon storage potential depend on a range of factors. A robust knowledge base is essential to identify the right policies and management to make the most out of our peatlands.
We also own and manage some vitally important areas of peatland in the UK. Several of our reserves encompass a variety of peatland habitats and we continue to work to conserve and restore these areas.
We provide free advice sheets on a number of aspects linked to peatland management.
A new beginning for Scotland’s majestic Flow Country. PDF, 3.2Mb.Bringing life back to bogs
Overcoming policy barriers to peatland restoration. PDF, 227Kb.Realising the benefits of peatlands
A critical synthesis by Richard Lindsay to inform policy development in oceanic peat bog conservation and restoration in the context of climate change. PDF, 4.4Mb.Peatbogs and carbon - a critical synthesis