Gardeners urged to avoid using peat to save British wildlife

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The Independent Online

Amateur gardeners have been warned by conservationists that thousands of species are being put in danger by their use of peat.

Despite campaigns by green groups and celebrity gardeners such as Monty Don, Charlie Dimmock and Alan Titchmarsh to raise awareness of the importance and fragility of peatland habitats, the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) claims that the majority of gardeners have failed to cut their use of peat in recent years.

As a result, the SWT fears that gardeners' buying habits are damaging wildlife-rich habitats in Europe, endangering a variety of species and directly contributing to the threat of global warming.

Peat is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation matter that forms over centuries in the waterlogged, sterile, acidic conditions of bogs and fens. These conditions favour the growth of mosses, especially sphagnum, which support plants and animals.

Although little more than three per cent of the earth's land is covered in peat, its importance has been recognised by the European Union for conservation under the Habitats and Species Directive. Peat bogs "lock up" carbon that would otherwise increase the greenhouse effect.

However, despite apocalyptic warnings of greenhouse gases affecting the planet, the SWT is alarmed that peat continues to be the favoured growing medium among gardeners, even though the habit only started in the 1950s following aggressive marketing by the peat industry.

"It is disappointing to see that peat use has remained stagnant, with a massive volume being used by the amateur gardeners," said Stuart Brooks, head of conservation at SWT.

Peat has been extracted in "astronomical" amounts from Scotland since the 19th century and in recent years the "tradition" has been exported to areas of northern and eastern Europe, where regulations are less stringent. The SWT claims that a particularly "worrying trend" is the growth in the volume of peat from areas which are home to species unique to the habitat.

According to figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the amount of peat used in horticulture has remained static over the past seven years, despite efforts to promote alternative soils.

Over the past few years, celebrities and environmentalists have joined campaigns to convince amateur gardeners to give up their old habits. But recent research indicates that this group still accounts for two-thirds of the peat used in the UK.

Campaigners are now urging the Government to provide retailers with more access to peat alternatives to meet demand and encourage gardeners to make their own compost.

"Every year thousands of tons of waste that could provide valuable compost is being dumped into landfill," said Mr Brooks. "We are increasing recycling, so let's get composting in the mix too."

Peat used to cover some 95,000 hectares of the UK but now only 6 per cent of that remains in Britain, with two-thirds of it in Scotland.