Environment: Campaigners' victory will not protect peat

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The Independent Online
Controversial plans to remove the special wildlife designation from parts of two big English bogs were abandoned yesterday. But, says Nicholas Schoon, that will not save them from peat extraction.

Environmental groups celebrated, but the conservation saga of Thorne and Hatfield Moors on Humberside appears no nearer a happy ending after English Nature's decision yesterday. The ruling council of the Government's wildlife watchdog decided to drop plans to remove Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) status from nearly a fifth of their combined area.

These moors on Humberside are fine specimens of raised, lowland peat bogs - a rare habitat in Europe. It consists of a huge, low mound of peat which has accumulated over thousands of years, with its own collection of plant and animal species living on top.

Despite their SSSI designation, for many years they have been damaged by peat extraction - which lowers the water table and dries them out, killing the special bog vegetation. In the past few decades this has escalated, thanks to massive, mechanised extraction to provide peat for horticulture.

Five years ago English Nature did a deal with Leavington, the company which has long-established planning permissions to extract the peat. The relatively undamaged majority of the moors, covered in vegetation, were given over to the conservation arm in order to protect them as nature reserves.

Leavington was given carte blanche to keep mining peat from the remainder, until it got within half a metre of the underlying rock. Then it would have to stop, so the thin layer of remaining peat could hopefully be restored as bog.

In effect, the deal gave the company about 30 years more exploitation of the moors. It was decried by environmentalists, who said it was wrong in principle and that further extraction would keep on lowering the water table - threatening the rest of the moors.

This year, English Nature's top officers had proposed removing the SSSI status from those parts of the moors being worked by Leavington. But yesterday, English Nature's council rejected the proposal, because it could not be certain that continuing extraction would not damage the rest of the moors.

Conservation groups were delighted but, as English Nature pointed out, the decision does nothing to get Leavington off the moor.

To do that, the local council would have to revoke the company's planning permission for peat extraction - in return for which it would have to pay large sums in compensation. Alternatively, the Government would have to change the law concerning planning and wildlife sites. Both environmentalists and English Nature can agree that is necessary.