Two attempts to extend peat extraction in Scotland have either been withdrawn or rejected by planning authorities since they were revealed by The Ferret.
The applications by fertiliser multinational ICL sought to extend peat extraction by a decade at one site, near Lanark, and another in Dumfries and Galloway.
But since The Ferret reported on the respective proposals in May and June this year, the former has been rejected by Dumfries and Galloway Council, and the latter has been withdrawn by the developer.
Peat extraction, and the use of peat in compost, has come under criticism from conservation groups and environmentalists because it contributes to climate change.
Peat bogs hold large amounts of carbon, storing twice as much globally as all of the world’s forests, according to the UN.
But when peatlands are damaged, drained or mined, large quantities of carbon are released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, the gas responsible for the majority of man-made global warming.
Peatlands also play other important roles in terms of providing homes for wildlife, helping to prevent flooding, and filtering water.
ICL mines peat at several sites in Scotland for use in the production of compost, also known as “growing media”.
On its website, ICL states that it uses “the best quality UK peat resourced at our state of the art Scottish production facility…to make sure that your growing media performs to its maximum capacity”.
In May, The Ferret reported that ICL had submitted a planning application to extend peat extraction at Lochwood Moss, near Beattock, for an additional 10 years.
In June, we revealed that ICL was also seeking a 10 year extension at another peat mining site at Hillhouse Farm, near Lanark.
The proposals drew opposition from scientists and campaigners concerned about their environmental impact.
Dumfries and Galloway council recorded 51 representations “received in the months of May and June 2020 objecting to the application” at Lochwood Moss, according to a report from planning officials.
On 3 July, Sepa informed Dumfries and Galloway council that it wished to reverse its previous view on the Lochwood Moss application.
Sepa wrote: “We previously responded to a consultation for the above application and did not object. However, we would like to withdraw our earlier response dated 09 July 2019 […] Sepa objects in principle to the continued extraction of peat for an additional 10 years and its associated negative impact on climate change”.
On 19 August, Dumfries and Galloway council officials recommended that the application should be rejected.
That decision was ratified on 26 August, on the grounds that “the continuation of peat extraction, which would result in the release [of] further carbon emissions into the atmosphere, would also conflict with statutory provisions to mitigate climate change”.
On 24 August, ICL withdrew its application to extend peat extraction at Hillhouse Farm in South Lanarkshire, before the council had considered it.
Sepa told The Ferret it has now “strengthened” its position against peat extraction.
This represents a u-turn on its previous stance regarding peat extraction at the Lochwood Moss site in Dumfries and Galloway. Last year, Sepa said it had “no objection” to the plans.
Sepa said its policy change came in response to 2019’s Climate Change Act, and recommendations made by the UK Committee on Climate Change in January 2020.
But it took until July 2020 – less than two months after The Ferret highlighted the peat extraction proposals in Dumfries and Galloway – for Sepa to tell the local authority it wished to reverse its 2019 position and, instead, oppose the plans on environmental grounds.
According to Laura Moodie, the Scottish Greens’ Holyrood candidate for the South of Scotland, The Ferret’s coverage “prompted a lot of concern in Dumfries and Galloway and South Lanarkshire and a concerted local Scottish Greens campaign.”
The two councils’ planning websites show that scores of objections to the proposals were submitted from residents, following our reports.
An application by ICL to extend peat extraction at Nutberry Moss – another site in Dumfries and Galloway – remains open at the time of writing.
This application has also received a number of local objections since we reported on it in May this year, along with an objection from Sepa submitted on 6 July.
In response to questions about what led to Sepa’s change in position on peat extraction applications, the agency’s head of water and planning, David Harley said: “For many years Sepa has sought to minimise carbon losses from developments on peat in accordance with Scottish Planning Policy and more recently this position has been strengthened.
“Key to this was the passing of the Climate Change (Emissions Reductions) Act 2019 on 31 October 2019, setting a net zero target for 2045.
Harley continued: “In January 2020 the UK Committee on Climate Change also made the following recommendations on peat extraction in support of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2045;
“In its 2019-20 Programme for Government, the Scottish Government pledged to phase out the use of horticultural peat by increasing uptake of alternative growing media and work is underway to fulfil this commitment.
“With regards to the Lochwood Moss application, Sepa was first consulted on the 25 June 2019 and we initially did not object to the application on 9 July 2019. In June 2020, we were consulted on the restoration plans for the site and made aware that the application for the time extension had not been decided.
“We took the opportunity to revise our original advice due to the changes in legislation and guidance on peatlands as a carbon store.”
A spokesperson for ICL said: “ICL continues to strive to help meet government targets to phase out peat usage in UK professional growing media by 2030.
“The company remains at the forefront of exploring sustainable alternatives to peat and, as an industry partner, has committed resources in the recently completed five-year Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board project: responsible sourcing and manufacturing scheme, part-funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
ICL added it has an ongoing programme to research peat alternatives and has “already committed significant investment to the production of professional grade peat alternatives”.
Photo by Dawid Kalisinski