Gardeners' demand for peat accused of threatening Estonia's eco-system

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British gardeners' love of peat is threatening to destroy the fragile ecology of Estonia, where millions of tons of deposits are being cut for export, ecologists warned yesterday.

British gardeners' love of peat is threatening to destroy the fragile ecology of Estonia, where millions of tons of deposits are being cut for export, ecologists warned yesterday.

Environmentalists have succeeded in banning peat cutting in much of the UK but, with no let-up in demand, the problem is simply being exported to the Baltic republics. Commercial peat extraction destroys wildlife habitats and contributes to global warming, according to experts speaking at a regional conference organised by an ecological non- government organisation called Religion, Science and the Environment. The peat bogs of Ireland have been devastated by mechanical extraction and British firms have been accused of plundering the habitats of smaller countries for profit.

Estonia, about the size of Wales, is digging up close to three million tons of peat a year, according to green groups, at a rate six times faster than nature can replenish. That output is expected to soar as foreign investors turn to the Baltic.

Less than 5 per cent of the former Soviet republic's peat bogs had so far been exploited but those vital habitats could be pillaged in as little as 15 years, Aivar Ouepa, a green campaigner, said. The disappearance of those carbon-loaded wetlands could be devastating to the dwindling populations of endangered species such as brown bears and golden eagles.

Matti Ilomits, professor of ecology at Tallinn University, urged the British to switch to non peat-based products. "It's important to explain there are many sustainable ways to keep your garden," he said.

The tiny republic has a unique eco-system of primeval forests and wetlands that are home to a number of species no longer found elsewhere in Europe. The 500 remaining bears rely on cranberries that flourish in the peat bogs. "The cranberry is a vitamin bomb," Mr Ouepa explained. "The bears need them to restart their digestive system as they emerge from hibernation."

Teddy Goldsmith, acknowledged as one of the founders of environmentalism in the UK, criticised British gardeners for abandoning traditional composting methods in favour of peaty soil conditioning. He said: "It's crazy to be digging this stuff up and shipping it thousands of miles to the UK and burning all that fuel to get there, when people could be using their own kitchen and garden waste to make compost instead."

Extraction also releases huge deposits of carbon dioxide that would otherwise remain safely absorbed in the soil.

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