Down in the bog, mischief stirs

The peat industry thinks it is helping to save boglands. Conservationis ts beg to disagree. Richard D North investigates
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The Independent Travel
There have been few poems written about bogs. They have featured in few paintings. Except as opportunities to see large skies and wide horizons, even the most dramatic of Britain's mosses, as they are called, have been neglected.

Perhaps this is because in the best of them, especially in the vast expanse of the islands' greatest treasure, the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland, the sheer wetness at almost any time of year makes movement on foot actually dangerous. And in the summer, when the yellow spiky flowers of the bog asphodel soften the scene and one can savour the scent of bog myrtle, the melodious humming of insects is also accompanied by their insistent biting. Still, boglands have their fans.

For the next two Sundays, the English and Welsh county, and the Scottish national, Wildlife Trusts are inviting the public to visit boglands as part of the fourth National Bog Day. In some cases people will see thriving habitats of great interest and beauty. More often, they will see places which are struggling, though still lovely.

Take Wem Moss. It is the southernmost of the Cheshire-Shropshire raised mires. My guide was Francesca Griffith, sites manager for the Shropshire Wildlife Trust. She says: "The point about mires is that they are only fed by rainwater: that is their only source of nutrient. They're called raised mires because the sphagnum mosses which grow here hold water, and so they raise the water table." At Wem, as in most bogs, the process continued with painful slowness for 12,000 years. Because the nutrient levels are so low, and conditions acidic and wet, dead mosses do not rot. Instead, they compact to make peat: at Wem, this is six metres deep in places.

For the best part of 1,000 years, growing bogs have seemed useless to mankind. They made inadequate grazing and were too wet for crops. A few of their plant species could be used for medicines or dyes, and that was about it. The best that could be said for them was that peat could be cut, dried and burnt. This sense, that they were at best a sort of mine, continues: the Government has just issued new rules for peatland management under Mineral Planning Guidance. Now, it is the value of peat as garden humus which makes it valuable.

Almost all our boglands have either been damaged on purpose, or are islands of relative wetness in a sea of drainage. Even at Wem, where there has been little peat extraction, the bog is surrounded by drained farmland and dryness is a serious problem. It discourages moss growth and encourages encroachment by birch saplings.

It is the peat industry that conservationists love to hate. The Peatlands Consortium, which includes bird, insect and plant groups, has campaigned for stricter listing of bogland sites. We are reaching the point where their campaign risks being counter-productive.

The industry believes it has made great strides in becoming acceptable; 1992 was a turning point. Fisons, which had dominated the business, sold its peatlands - with their valuable planning permissions - to a team called Levington Horticultural. The new group cut a deal with English Nature and the Government in which all its peatland reserves were given to the conservation quango. Just as important, Levingtons agreed a programme under which peat-cutting would leave a layer of peat sufficient for subsequent restoration of growing mosses - and eventually the formation of new peat - to take place.

For all that bogs grow very slowly, they are - according to hopeful modern thinking - capable of being restored to vigour. Alan Shaw, of Levingtons, believes this process will defuse the conservation dilemmas of his firm: "The new Mineral Planning Guidelines classified 6,000 hectares as near-perfect boglands and we all agree they should be preserved for posterity. There's a further 5,000 hectares which is classified as capable of regeneration and we all agree that should be kept. That gives the UK about 11,000 hectares of raised mire, as a refuge for loads of species.

"But there's 55,000 hectares which have been manipulated and messed about since the 12th century. Out of those, the industry works 5,000 hectares which we would say is a sustainable use, because once we've finished working them they can be given over to constructive conservation, which can be more valuable than what went before."

The new policy does not satisfy Stephen Warburton of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, campaigning for the Humberhead Peatlands National Nature Reserve, which includes the biggest commercial peat reserve in the country on Thorne and Hatfield Moors. "The Moors is the fourth most insect-rich habitat site in Britain after Windsor Great Forest, the New Forest and Dungeness. There are 3,000-4,000 species... The Government has promised the earth, and yet what happens is that our fourth best site has been shot to pieces for horticultural trivia. Also, the archaeological record is doomed by the English Nature deal."

This view has it that every bag of peat is selling off a priceless pollen and climate record: it is as though English cathedrals were being ground down for roadstone. English Nature, proud of its plans for places like the Somerset Levels, one of the great conservation battlegrounds of the past 20 years, accentuates the positive.

Brian Johnson, in charge of peatland policy at EN, says: "If English Nature got its hands on all the peatlands now, the only thing we would gain is bringing forward the programme of rehabilitation which is in place anyway. Remember, we're talking about land which has been worked for many years, not about incursions into virgin territory. In fact, all vegetated land is now firmly protected."

So can we now buy English peat with a clear conscience? "That's an interesting question," says Dr Johnson and, down the phone, I could not be sure if he was smiling. "We hope other peat companies will go down the Levingtons route. Certainly, under the Environmental Protection Act, everyone has to negotiate rehabilitation. We haven't gone all the way yet, but we've gone a long way."

Oddly, B & Q, the DIY and garden centre firm which worked hard to get its peat policy right, may have got the wrong end of the stick. It will not sell peat from designated conservation sites. But the real issue is not whether the peat comes from places which are ecologically rich, but that it should come from places whose rehabilitation is guaranteed to make them even more rich after exploitation.

In September, the EU's "Eco-labelling" process will investigate growing mediums. It will have to review evidence that alternatives such as coir and compost have their own difficulties, let alone a higher price. Crucially, it will have to determine the real efficacy of the present UK guidelines.

Meanwhile, Ms Griffith and a small army of other enthusiasts prepare to welcome thousands to what remains a habitat whose discreet charms are known to very few. If it has been raining, take your gumboots. If it has not, stay close to someone smoking a big cigar - the best defence against the insect life conservationists make so much fuss about.

For details of Bog Day, call the Wildlife Trusts on 01522 544400, and in Scotland 0131 3127765