A horticultural firm claiming to lead the way in moving towards alternatives to peat-based compost, lobbied the UK Government to be allowed to sell the product to gardeners beyond 2030, an investigation by The Ferret has found.
Westland Horticulture – which extracts peat from a site in Midlothian with some of the “most threatened habitats in Europe” – has claimed to be “sector leading” in eschewing peat-based compost because it contributes to global warming.
However, in documents obtained by The Ferret under freedom of information law, Westland can be seen lobbying to be allowed to continue selling the compost to gardeners for the next decade or so.
Peatlands have been described as Scotland’s rainforests because of the large amounts of carbon they store – estimated to be equivalent to around 140 years’ worth of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. But when these areas are mined for peat the carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.
In December 2021 the UK Department for the Environment (Defra) launched a consultation on a proposed ban on the sale of peat-based compost in England and Wales by 2024.
Other options presented in the consultation include continuing with “business as usual” by allowing a voluntary approach on phasing out peat, or permitting its continued sale subject to an additional charge.
Correspondence obtained by The Ferret shows Westland responding to Defra after it shared a document with industry and environmental groups ahead of the public consultation.
The documents reveal that in August 2020 Westland argued that “the proposed environmental strategy needs to acknowledge the positive role peat (when carefully managed) can play in delivering a sustainable growing media plan for the amateur and commercial horticultural sectors”.
The horticultural firm also called for a “roadmap” to “enable and allow the amateur market to use 30 per cent peat use by total volume by 2030 move towards 20 per cent by total volume beyond 2030”.
Defra initially refused to release the documents in response to The Ferret’s request, claiming that “respondents were under the expectation their responses would be treated in confidence”. It cited the “public interest in Defra being able to carry out its formal policy making processes in confidence”.
However, after an appeal to the Information Commissioner, which oversees freedom of information in England and Wales, Defra released the documents.
Westland’s peat extraction operations at Auchencorth Moss, near Penicuik, have previously been criticised as an “archaic practice” for which there is “absolutely no need” by the Scottish Wildlife Trust.
Speaking in 2017, when Westland’s license to extract peat at the site was renewed, the SWT pointed out that “lowland raised bogs” such as Auchencorth “are among the rarest and most threatened habitats in Europe, and take thousands of years to form.”
The permission granted to continue peat extraction granted by Midlothian Council in 2017 does not expire until 2042. The council claimed at the time it could not restrict Westland’s activities without being “liable to pay compensation for loss of income.”
Mark Ruskell MSP, Scottish Greens environment spokesperson, said the restoration of peatlands is key to tackling the “twin crises” of biodiversity loss and global warming.
“There is absolutely no need for the continued use of peat for horticulture and it is extremely disappointing to see commercial operators seek to delay important initiatives that will protect our environment,” Ruskell added. “I urge authorities on both sides of the border to press ahead with plans to restore vulnerable habitats and not allow vested interest to derail this important work.”
Joan Edwards, director of policy and public affairs at The Wildlife Trusts, said: “We’ve known for years how harmful the effects of peat extraction are. Peatlands are vital carbon-storing habitats and it’s absolutely crucial that they remain intact for nature’s sake and to help us tackle climate change.
She added: “The government’s voluntary target for the horticulture sector to stop selling peat compost to gardeners by 2020 has clearly failed and been unsuccessful in changing the industry. For the sake of wildlife and the planet, it’s time for the UK Government to stop dithering over this crucial issue and bring an end to peat compost sales in our shops and garden centres immediately.”
A Defra spokesperson said that peatland policy is a devolved matter but governments across the UK are “working together to identify opportunities for closer collaboration”.
The spokesperson added: “We have published a full consultation on banning the sale of peat and peat containing products in the amateur sector by the end of this parliament. This forms part of our England Peat Action Plan setting out the Government’s commitment to protecting and restoring these precious landscapes.”
In September 2021 the Scottish Government published ‘A Fairer, Greener Scotland: Programme for Government 2021-22,’ in which it stated that it would “take forward work to develop and consult on a ban on the sale of peat related gardening products as part of our commitment to phase out the use of peat in horticulture.” However, it has yet to publish a timeframe for the proposed ban.
The Ferret revealed in 2021 that UK Government bodies overseen by Defra had bought thousands of tonnes of peat-based compost over the past five years, despite government policy being in favour of phasing out its use.
FOIs have shown that Westland is among the companies supplying peat-based compost to UK Government forestry bodies.
Westland declined to comment.
Photo Credit: iStock/Geogif