Plans to prolong the mining of peat at two sites in Dumfries and Galloway have alarmed environmental groups, who want a ban to protect the climate.
Israeli fertiliser multinational, ICL, has applied to extend operations for ten years at two peat mosses, one near Beattock, the other near Annan. This would enable mining to continue into the 2030s, resulting in the removal of hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of peat.
Environmentalists and the Scottish Government have highlighted the vital role of peat in cutting climate pollution. Peatlands store large amounts of carbon which can be released when they are damaged, drained or mined, worsening global warming.
The protection and restoration of peatlands is seen as a key part of the Scottish Government’s strategy to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. Ministers announced in February that they would spend £20 million on peatland restoration in 2020-21, and promised to invest £250 million over 10 years.
But in an initial “screening determination” in 2018 ministers decided that peat extraction could be continued at Lochwood Moss, sited between the A701 and the A74(M), without an environmental impact assessment being carried out.
“The development is not likely to have a significant effect on the environment,” ministers said at the time – leaving environmentalists “extremely alarmed.”
The decision on whether to allow a further 10 years of extraction at Lochwood Moss and another site by the A75, Nutberry Moss, is now in the hands of Dumfries and Galloway Council. Both sites are run by ICL, which uses peat from Scottish sites to produce growing media for gardeners.
Correspondence on the council’s website shows a local planning official advising ICL on how to alter its application to make it more likely to succeed – despite Scottish Government policy.
In an email about Lochwood Moss to ICL’s agent on 13 January 2020, the official initially stated that the council would be “unable to support/justify granting a further 10 year permission for extraction operations, particularly as government policy and advice aims to phase out the use of peat for horticultural purposes and wishes to see Scotland’s peatland’s restored.”
However, the official went on to advise that the council “would be willing to consider the application more favourably if it was proposed that continued extraction of peat was working towards a phased restoration of the site.”
The conservation charity, Plantlife Scotland, stressed that healthy peatlands had a “vitally important role” in the fight against climate change. “We simply cannot understand why permission is still being granted to extract peat, releasing vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere,” said the group’s head, Alistair Whyte.
“We are extremely alarmed that Scottish ministers appear to be advising that extraction on this scale is ‘not likely to have a significant effect on the environment’.”
Whyte wanted to know why such advice was being provided. “These sites, and any other previously-worked extraction sites, should be restored as a matter of urgency, using tried and tested peat restoration techniques,” he argued.
“An outright ban on any new peat extraction should be introduced immediately. It simply beggars belief that the government is restoring peatlands with one hand, and allowing them to be dug up with the other.”
Peat extraction ‘totally at odds with climate emergency’
The Scottish Wildlife Trust pointed out that, as well as storing carbon, peatlands provided clean water and homes for wildlife. “These benefits far outweigh the financial value gained from continued industrial exploitation,” said the trust’s public affairs manager, Bruce Wilson.
“Continuing to extract peat for horticulture is totally at odds with addressing the climate emergency and the Scottish Government’s commitments to funding long-term peatland restoration.”
He added: “It makes no sense to spend £250 million on restoration to help meet climate and biodiversity goals while allowing horticultural peat extraction to continue, particularly when alternatives to peat compost are readily available.
“Dumfries and Galloway Council should take this opportunity to send a clear signal that it takes the climate and nature emergencies seriously and reject these damaging extraction proposals.”
The Scottish Government insisted that peatland restoration was central to its plans to combat the global climate emergency. It had invested in the restoration of 20,000 hectares, and would consider “all options available” to phase out the use of horticultural peat.
“Scottish planning policy sets out that commercial extraction of peat should only be permitted in areas suffering historic, significant damage through human activity and where the conservation value is low and restoration is impossible,” said a government spokesperson.
“It would not be appropriate to comment on the live planning proposal, which is under consideration by Dumfries and Galloway Council. In respect of the Lochwood screening determination, ministers were satisfied that no sensitive or designated areas would be impacted and the proposal reflected existing operations and therefore environmental impact assessment was not necessary.”
ICL promised to comply with any planning obligations aimed at restoring the peat mosses when mining ended. “ICL is not in breach of any regulations in connection with peat harvesting,” said a company statement.
“ICL has invested and is committed to supporting the UK government’s voluntary target to phase out peat use in professional growing media by 2030. ICL is at the forefront of exploring sustainable alternatives.”
ICL supported moves to help professional growers choose more sustainable gardening materials, taking into account wildlife, water use and pollution, the company stated. In 2015 ICL launched its own brand of peat-free fertiliser, which it said was “gaining traction”.
The company added: “With the volume of suitable professional grade peat alternatives insufficient to meet current UK demand, ICL completed a significant capital investment in 2020 at its Scottish site, building a new manufacturing plant utilising a locally sourced alternative.
“While fully supporting and working with the latest research to phase out peat usage in professional growing media by 2030, ICL in the meantime continues to support UK professional horticulture and forestry by, where possible, sourcing local peat rather than importing from mainland Europe.”
ICL pointed out that peat had been harvested at Nutberry Moss since the 1850s. Peat had been extracted from Lochwood Moss for 30 years, it said.
A spokesperson for Dumfries and Galloway Council said: “It would be inappropriate for the council to comment on a live planning application other than to confirm that it will be considered against relevant local and national planning policies, together with any other material considerations.”