A UK Government agency has bought nearly 4,000 cubic metres of compost extracted from peatlands in Scotland, prompting criticism this “makes a mockery” of official climate policies.
Peat bogs have been referred to as “Scotland’s rainforests” because of the vast sums of carbon they store. But when bogs are mined for the production of compost, carbon is released into the atmosphere contributing to global warming.
Both the UK and Scottish governments have policies in place for peatlands to be protected and restored, and for peat-based compost to be phased out as part of their efforts to combat climate change.
However, the UK Government agency Forestry England has bought thousands of cubic metres of peat-based compost over the last five years.
In response to questions from The Ferret, Forestry England – part of the Forestry Commission – confirmed it had bought 3,767 cubic metres of peat-based compost between 2016 and 2020 from three suppliers – Sinclair Pro, Klasmann Deilmann and ICL (Everris Limited).
ICL, also known as Everris, is a fertiliser multinational which uses peat extracted from sites in central and south west Scotland. The firm has applied for planning permission to extend peat extraction operations in Dumfries and Galloway for several years into the future.
Its proposal has met opposition from local residents, conservation groups, and Scottish Government agencies, due to the negative impact peat extraction has on the environment.
Dr Janet Moxley, a soil scientist, said she was “disappointed” to learn Forestry England has continued to use peat, adding that in doing so the agency is at odds with the policies of the UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
She said buying standards date back more than a decade and state that peat-based compost “should not be purchased by public sector organisations”.
“Forestry England seem to be paying lip-service to the idea of protecting peatlands in the guidance that they issue to others, but at the same time are purchasing peat products for their own use,” Moxley added.
“It is time that all public sector organisations took seriously the damage caused by horticulture peat use. They should be ensuring that government guidance to protect peatlands and prohibit peat use is followed, and not claiming to protect peatlands with one hand while digging them up with the other.”
Laura Moodie, the Scottish Greens’ candidate for South Scotland, said: “The news that Scotland’s precious peat – a crucial carbon sink and biodiverse habitat – is being destroyed to grow trees makes a mockery of the UK government’s climate policies and their climate emergency declaration. It’s one step forward and two steps back.
“The Scottish Greens have been clear that none of the current climate bills of either government go far enough to tackle the ecological emergency; to discover that government agencies aren’t even following these scant standards is appalling.”
In reply, Mike Seddon, chief executive of Forestry England, said the agency was committed to improving its environmental performance in the face of the climate crisis.
He added: “Although we have already reduced the proportion of peat we use from 80 per cent to 65 per cent several years ago, we will keep pushing. The 100 per cent peat-free products we have trialled so far did not provide a sufficiently high production rate of successful forest transplants. We will keep collaborating with suppliers and testing alternatives.”
Seddon said the choice is not simple, however, and claimed that cutting peat could lead to fewer home-grown trees being planted or increase water and fertiliser use in other areas. He said either scenario would bring their own environmental impacts.
Seddon continued: “Cell-grown trees that use a proportion of peat allow more of the limited seed supply to survive, reduce our water and energy use and allows us to expand the planting season and diversity of species we use.”
Forestry England is overseen by UK environment minister Lord (Zac) Goldsmith. Goldsmith recently said that “peatlands are extraordinarily important from a climate point of view and from a biodiversity point of view.”
As previously reported by The Ferret, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) objected to ICL’s proposal for the continued extraction of peat at Lochwood Moss and Nutberry Moss, both in Dumfries and Galloway, due to its “negative impact on climate change.”
However, in support of its application to continue extraction at Nutberry Moss, ICL argued that the peat-based compost it produces from the site is important for the growing of trees by the Forestry Commission.