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

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Product Manager / Product Marketing Manager / Product Owner

    COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Product Manager / Product Owner is required to jo...

    Guru Careers: Carpenter / Maintenance Operator

    £25k plus Benefits: Guru Careers: A Carpenter and Maintenance Operator is need...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Coordinator

    £17600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum cares for one of the largest...

    Recruitment Genius: Experienced PSV Coach & Minibus Drivers

    £12500 - £24500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Drivers wanted for a family run...

    Day In a Page

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'