Peat bogs saved as US giant is bought off

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Ministers will this week save two of Britain's finest wildlife sites from being dug up to nourish the country's gardens, in the biggest victory for nature conservation for years.

Ministers will this week save two of Britain's finest wildlife sites from being dug up to nourish the country's gardens, in the biggest victory for nature conservation for years.

In an unprecedented move, they will agree to buy out a giant multinational company's right to "mine" the ecologically rich Thorne Moor, in Yorkshire, and Wedholme Flow, in Cumbria, for peat.

The American-based company, Scotts, will be given about two years' grace to exploit another important site, Hatfield Moor, also in Yorkshire but will then have to stop there too. It is expected to switch much of its production in to "green" alternatives.

The agreement, due to be announced on Wednesday, will mark a victory for a 10-year campaign, backed by Prince Charles, and avoid a looming confrontation: the company had threatened to take ministers to court if they stopped it stripping the sites. Last week, militant environmentalists invaded seven of its office buildings, factories and workings in the latest in a series of direct-action protests.

The sites are rare examples of English raised bogs, less than two per cent of which remain undamaged. The last remnants of a primeval wilderness, they are home to many rare species including the nightjar, the golden plover, the boghopper beetle, the great sundew (Britain's largest carnivorous plant), and a small yellow fly called the "hairy canary". Thorne Moor alone boasts 3,000 species of insects, 150 of them endangered.

Although the bogs were officially conserved as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, the company was working them under planning permissions given in the days when peat was cut by hand, a slow process that allowed the bogs to recover. But in recent decades they have been stripped by giant machines to help provide the two and a half million cubic metres of peat used annually by British gardeners and horticulturalists.

Environmentalists have long campaigned against the practice, with little effect. Sales of peat increased, as gardeners ignored ecologically-friendly alternatives. But last year Friends of the Earth and other groups specifically targeted Scotts, embarrassing the company.

The Minister for the Environment, Michael Meacher – who has been trying to save the bogs since taking office five years ago – has now brought off a deal with the company. In exchange for a seven-figure sum, Scotts will cease mining the moors, which will receive strict protection by becoming EC Special Areas of Conservation. English Nature – the official wildlife watchdog, will begin restoration work.

Craig Bennett of Friends of the Earth said: "If this goes ahead, it will mark an important precedent. For once people and wildlife would be given priority over the depredations of a giant corporation."

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