Described as the ‘Cinderella habitat’, peatlands have long been uncared for, unappreciated and abused and, in the UK, only around 20% of peatlands remain in a near-natural state. The remaining 80% have been modified as a result of past and present management. This is due to largely unsuccessful attempts post-World War II to drain them for agricultural improvement and commercial forestry, as well as burning and grazing management. This, in addition to the construction of infrastructure for development and commercial peat extraction for horticulture.
A wide range of impacts over time have led to severe degradation of habitat and erosion of peat soil. Many peatlands have long been used as grazing for sheep and in areas high stocking densities has resulted in overgrazing and trampling, compounded on some sites by high populations of wild deer. Large areas of blanket bog were historically drained in an attempt to improve the land for forestry and agriculture although this is now no longer government supported.
Burning is an ongoing moorland management tool for grouse and livestock production. This has extended into degraded blanket bogs from the shallower upland heath soils. Frequent repeat burning can degrade bog habitat, leading to reductions or loss of key bog species (plants and animals), reduced structural diversity and dominance of more typically heath species. The subsequent habitat degradation can compromise sustainable grouse and livestock production.
Some localised extraction for fuel continues particularly in the Scottish Isles and in Northern Ireland. New threats include upland development such as tracks and renewable energy schemes. Poorly located and designed built developments with associated drainage and excavation of peat can result in peatland degradation and habitat loss.
Being relatively accessible compared to the uplands, the majority of lowland peatlands have been drained and most continue to be intensively managed for agriculture. The remaining peatlands are often surrounded by drained agricultural land which, in turn, impacts on the hydrology of the remaining habitat. In addition, tillage on arable peat areas can result in considerable soil loss through washout and wind erosion and further subsidence.
Centuries of drainage has seen some remarkable examples of peatland surfaces dropping several metres (Hutchinson, 1980). One of the consequences of this is an increased flood risk and increased costs associated with having to maintain drainage of the land. There are, however, some productive areas of semi-natural fen peatland in the lowlands (e.g. Anglesey and The Broads) where high water tables have been maintained and grazing livestock are managed at levels that allow some peatland vegetation to thrive.
Commercial mining of peat for horticulture, fuel and whisky production has largely taken place on lowland raised bogs, with numerous historic permissions still in existence, often with little planning control over management or after-use. Some permissions for extraction extend up until 2042 but there are government ambitions to phase out the use of peat in horticulture by 2030 (House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, 2012). Extraction of peat results in highly degraded landscapes and causes major losses of both biodiversity and carbon. In some cases particularly where peat extraction affects internationally important wildlife sites, Government has bought out these extant permissions, providing compensation to the mining companies e.g. Thorne and Hatfield Moors (Brown, 2002).
Above: Peatland pressures in the UK (UK Peatland Strategy)