Peatlands and Agriculture - Issues Brief

Photo credit Penny Anderson

Peatlands and Agriculture - Issues Brief

In the first of our Issues briefs, we examine the interface between peatland conservation and agriculture. There are currently challenges and tensions in reaching mutually beneficial outcomes for both. We provide the historical context and how land usage can negatively impact the ecosystem services of peatlands. We then go onto make a series of recommendations as to how these challenges can be progressed or resolved. 

1. Farming and peatlands in the UK: A dynamic and evolving relationship 

Agriculture has a long history in the UK, with diverse practices across the four countries. Whilst there have been many changes in farming systems, some practices remain rooted in tradition. There are also significant differences between the agricultural issues affecting lowland peats compared to upland peats, therefore we will address the two in separate sections.  


1.1 Upland peatlands 

Upland peatlands, dominated by blanket bog, and are most extensive in high rainfall areas and are present to some extent across all upland areas of the UK. The nutrient poor soils mean agriculture is marginal - largely livestock farming with sheep and cattle - and heavily dependent on government subsidy.  

From medieval times, much of the upland area of Britain has been drained and cut for fuel peat around the hill margins. Burning was more recently incentivised and encouraged on peatlands in Scotland, North York Moors, Dartmoor and Exmoor, to provide livestock with young, nutrient-rich fodder. From the mid-20th century right up to the 1980s, successive governments invested heavily in draining blanket bogs, to stimulate production. Payments were given to incentivise drainage, and now even the most remote blanket bogs can be seen to have drainage features (Figure 1).  

Left - Aerial image of drainage channels on an area of blanket peatland in the North Pennines. Right - Ground level drainage channel

Although drainage grants ceased in the mid-1980s, farmers continued to be supported in ways which resulted in continued degradation of peatlands. Between 1970-1990, seeking to boost livestock production, the government offered higher payments for increased livestock densities (so-called ‘headage’ payments). This led to a 30% increase in sheep numbers on UK moorland sites1 (N.B. 1) and, although numbers have fallen, the impact on peatlands has been extensive. The well documented effects of drainage on peatlands2 are accompanied by the ongoing grazing and trampling by livestock, and the impacts of both managed burning, wildfire and atmospheric pollution. In upland areas, there has been a major shift from bog vegetation to heath and acid grassland, accompanied by dramatic reductions in key peatland species such as Sphagnum and rare, persecuted species such as the hen harrier (Circus cyaneus). Drained peatlands also show large areas of erosion features including bare peat, deep gullies and peat pipes with associated large carbon emissions.  

(N.B. 1 ‘Moorland’ is a generic term that is used to refer to cultural sites rather than a natural habitat type – a mosaic habitats make up these areas and may include: blanket bog; wet and dry heath; acid grassland; dwarf shrub heath; alkaline fen along with some smaller habitat types.)

In Scotland, crofting - in the Highlands, Western isles, and Northern isles – has its own legislation and management arrangements. Whilst in parts of England and Wales, commons grazing plays an important part in land management. Both commons and crofting practices date back millennia, contributing to the unique cultural fabric of the regions where they are practiced. Put simply, in many areas, farming is not simply about economics but a way of life. Indeed, across the UK’s nations, marginal farming exists in a large part not because it is profitable, but because it is heavily supported by government subsidy (Figure 2 and Table 1 in the Dartmoor case study below), even where it is potentially detrimental to the landscape and environmental objectives. 

Graph showing the proportion of farms in Scotland between 2021 and 2022 which had incomes above zero


1.2 Lowland peatlands 

Lowland peatlands are a mix of bogs and fens. Regions in Southern England such as Cambridgeshire and Somerset are dominated by some of the most extensive fens the UK. The often groundwater-fed, nutrient-rich fen peat means that they are some of the most valuable crop growing regions in the UK. Agricultural crops in this region contribute approximately £3 billion to the rural economy and provide an important source of employment for thousands of people3

Agricultural improvements saw vast areas of lowland Britain being drained in the 18th and 19th centuries to provide grassland and cropland, notably on and around the fens of East Anglia, Lancashire coastal plain and the Somerset Levels. Other major schemes occurred on the lowland raised bogs in the Forth and Clyde Valleys (e.g. Flanders Moss). In arable areas, ploughing, tillage and fertiliser all exacerbate peatland degradation. Subsidence and erosion and, in parts, the complete loss of peatland habitats and even peat soils are well recorded (Figure 3). 

Whilst in some areas the rate of subsidence of the lowland peatlands has decreased with better maintenance of the water table in recent years, almost all fibrous peat has now been lost from the region4. The peat wastage means that much of the area now sits below sea level and is vulnerable to rising sea levels, however, fresh water is projected to run out in the region with 5-10 years3. This has led to huge and ongoing agricultural carbon emissions from the region:  

As a result, cropland is estimated to emit ~7,600 kt CO2e yr-1, 32% of total UK peat GHG emissions. Around two thirds of the cropland area is on ‘wasted’ peat (shallow residual organic soils where much of the original peat has already been lost).  

Peatlands converted to grassland occupy a further 8% of the UK’s peat area, and emit ~6,300 kt CO2e yr-1, 27% of total UK peat emissions. Drained intensive grasslands in lowland areas are the primary source of these emissions.” – Evans et al5

The Holme Fen post, showing the loss of peat from the fen surface since 1851

Although lowland peatlands are important for both employment and food security it is wise to balance the benefits of continuing intensive farming practices in the region against the economic and environmental costs. Regrettably, it is still the case that, for many farmers, continuing to farm these degraded areas can be economically more attractive than more sustainable management or rewetting and restoration.  


2. Land use and ecosystem service impacts  

Peatlands form Britain’s largest semi-natural habitat covering ~12% of UK land area7. However, 78% of UK peatland extent has either been lost altogether or substantially modified8. Most peatlands are utilised in some way: for production of livestock (intensive lowland grazing and extensive upland grazing), forestry plantation, recreation (e.g. grouse shooting), poultry rearing, turf production, arable cropland and market gardening. Most of these land-uses degrade peatlands in some way –always modifying vegetation and often lowering water levels. Whilst we have touched on the nature of agricultural usage of peatlands the impacts on specific metrics are summarised as follows: 

Carbon: Drainage causes significant, continued release of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions arising from the oxidation and erosion of peat. Agricultural management is responsible for 44% of UK emissions from peatlands9 equating to 1% of all UK GHG emissions10 (N.B. 2). The highest emissions from peatlands occur on the drained lowland arable and pastoral peatlands of the East Anglian Fens and the Lancashire coastal plain with drainage and cultivation causing physical peat losses in the Fens of between 0.27-3.09 cm per year11. In many areas, former peatlands have almost entirely wasted away (Figure 3).

(N.B. 2 Other references may have different figures according to different assumptions and some may be older. We have used the most up to date references which refer to total UK GHG emissions, rather than carbon only.)

Biodiversity and habitat: In the uplands, intensive grazing and burning modifies Sphagnum-rich natural peatlands towards heather and sedge-dominated peatlands, e.g., Milligan et al., 201612 noted a decrease in species diversity resulting from grazing, whilst other studies have found an impact on the Sphagna13. In the lowlands, pastoral and arable farming has removed the surface habitat associated with peatlands almost entirely to create farmed landscapes.  

Water quality: 43% of the UK population are reliant on drinking water taken from peatland catchments14. Upland degradation from drainage, burning, over-grazing and subsequent erosion, has had a marked impact on water quality.  Peat catchment streams are typically coloured brown due to organic compounds, derived from peat erosion. These compounds form carcinogenic substances when treated with chlorine during drinking water treatment15,16 and must be removed at great expense by water companies. As a result, water companies have begun to address the causes of peatland degradation as part of their capital works programmes. Likewise, in the lowlands, farming on peatland systems causes high levels of water colour alongside the usual water quality issues of lowland agriculture in relation to nutrient pollution of freshwaters.  

Water regulation: Whilst peatlands have little ability to absorb storm waters (they are often described as a sponge but are, in their natural state, an already water-saturated system), natural peatlands are naturally hydrologically rough due to the pattern of hummocks and hollows on their surface. This surface topography slows surface water run-off in turn reducing flood peaks in peatland streams. Burnt, over-grazed peatlands or converted peatlands, in contrast, are hydrologically much smoother, exacerbating flooding17. Whilst unblocked drains channel water more rapidly to streams and rivers. In short, flashy catchments with large areas of blanket bog, such as the Aire or Calder Valleys in Yorkshire, there is a very strong economic imperative to stop burning or over-grazing peatlands to reduce costly urban flooding. 

Healthy peatlands provide invaluable ecosystem services. Credit North Pennines National Landscape


3. Tensions, challenges and the future 

From the late 20th century, UK agricultural policies(N.B. 3) shifted slightly towards subsidising upland farmers and landowners for reducing grazing densities on sensitive habitats including peatlands and limiting burning, whilst offering grants for restoring/rewetting peatlands. There have been similar increases in peatland recognition for lowland areas too but often improvements for peatland conservation or sustainable management are viewed as ‘challenging’. Post-Brexit agri-environmental payments, which were already limited, have reduced by approximately £1 billion from £3.5 billion under the common agricultural policy  (CAP)18 to £2.4 billion post-Brexit19 meaning that governments are faced with the difficult decision of where and how this money may be best spent.  

(N.B.3 Although we refer to ‘UK agricultural policies’ it is important to note that policy making across the UK is devolved across the four nations, whilst there are many similarities, we will aim to highlight key points where countries differ.) 

With country governments revisiting or developing schemes post-CAP, it is vital that replacements are not merely a proxy for the basic payment scheme. Schemes should seek to ensure strategic targeting to habitats which offer the greatest range of ecosystem services. This will help to identify areas where continued traditional productivity or more novel peatland ‘products’ delivered through restoration (e.g. water quality, nesting habitat, rare species, etc) should be the priority. Actions should be geographically prioritised to deliver benefits at the landscape scale. Figure 2 illustrates how farmers can struggle to make a living in marginal regions. Poor incomes may lead to farmers leaving entirely, or intensifying production or changing land-use to increase revenue, both of which may result in negative impacts on peatlands (e.g. scrub encroachment or degradation) and on rural communities.   

Whilst there has been much emphasis placed on schemes which give ‘public money for public good’, these are still in their infancy. There is minimal regulation to protect peatlands so they remain vulnerable to land-use change, and poor uptake of the schemes and options which will deliver the greatest benefits to them. Although cross-compliance can work to offer greater regulatory protections (e.g. the Muirburn Code in Scotland), it is difficult to police or enforce in remote, peat-dominated areas.  

We summarise the challenges of harmonising policies with land management practice and outline these below in 10 key recommendations that we believe will work for both people and peatlands.  

Summary diagram of the 10 key recommendations

Read more about our recommendations in our Agricultural issues key recommendations document

Front page of agricultural issues recommendations pdf


Dartmoor Case Study: How the independent review highlights the challenge of finding balance between agricultural policy and conservation

Dartmoor is not in a good state.”  

Independent Review Panel, 2023 

This case study looks at farming and conservation challenges within Dartmoor National Park and the Dartmoor independent review20 which concluded in December 2023. It is set in the context of the transition from CAP to the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) - the system which will replace the EU agricultural stewardship agreements and, in many ways, it is representative of the peatland story across the UK. There are extensive peatlands on Dartmoor, of which 99% are in a degraded condition. Here, we examine the findings from the independent review which highlighted many of the factors that we have discussed in this paper. This case study highlights many of the common themes and tensions seen across the UK when it comes harmonising agricultural and conservation outcomes. It evidences why changes to our current approaches are necessary and there are clear links between the findings of the Dartmoor report and our key recommendations for agriculture and peatlands.  

In 2023, Natural England, the statutory advisory body for nature conservation in England, had to make the decision as to whether they should extend some of the existing higher-level stewardship agreements for a further 5 years to aid transition. In the event, they took the decision to do this, under the proviso that the numbers of livestock should be substantially reduced; habitat features which comprised the SSSIs within the National Park were becoming degraded as a result of overgrazing. This came as a shock to many of the commons graziers there and, as a result, the Dartmoor independent review panel was convened by the government to review the situation. Higher-level stewardship agreements were developed to incentivise farmers to undertake environmentally-beneficial farming practices that improve or maintain (where already favourable), habitats on high-value nature areas.  

Blanket bogs are a particularly important feature of Dartmoor; high rainfall and the rolling landscape are ideal for peat formation and Dartmoor therefore represents one of the most extensive peatland areas in southern England. However, despite its significant blanket peatland areas, the University of Exeter estimates that only 1% of these are in favourable condition with their hydrology intact – an extent of just 300 ha. The review highlighted the need for a landscape scale approach to the whole area rather than the current system of individual agreements.  

Much of the area of Dartmoor is common land(N.B. 5) - a situation applicable to many large upland areas - comprised of multiple ‘home’ commons with no contiguous boundaries between them and the central ‘Forest of Dartmoor,’(N.B. 6) much of which is blanket bog. However, most of the agri-environment agreements are for the single commons, each with different stocking rates.  

This is in spite of the ability of stock to move between the adjacent areas. This system means that agreements do not ‘hang together’ to deliver holistic outcomes at the landscape scale. 

(N.B. 5 Across England and Wales there are approximately 572,000 ha of common land. Although it is called ‘common land’ commons are largely privately owned. These areas date back to medieval times, when they were owned by a ‘lord of the manor’ and commoners were local people who were granted ‘rights of common’ for a variety of purposes including grazing, fuel cutting and fishing. Although the area of commons has been vastly reduced now, where they remain the administrative structure has remained largely unchanged since their inception. Further information can be found at: Commons Act 2006 - Explanatory Notes ( 

(N.B. 6 ‘Forest’ is an ancient term derived from the Latin ‘nova foresta’ meaning ‘new hunting ground’ and was a mosaic of habitat that supported deer and boar, which was set aside for the King to hunt. The concept was imported by the Normans post-conquest and had its own administration and set of laws, ‘Forest law’. These royal forests covered approximately one third of England, and penalties for poaching or taking wood were severe, activities which were permitted on commons were illegal in the forests. These ancient areas are still marked on maps of England now, and many of our most famous forests including the New Forest and the Forest of Dean began life as ‘royal forests’, but forest law ceased to be enforced around the 17th Century and much of this area is now common land again.) 

A flock of sheep


The review also highlighted a need for greater financial resourcing of statutory nature conservation bodies to fully monitor large upland SSSI sites. Prospect(N.B. 7), 202121 noted that Natural England had suffered budgetary cuts of 66% over the period 2011-2021.  Although the review was specific to England, all governmental bodies require significant resourcing to monitor and ensure that favourable condition status is achieved or maintained. This allows adjustments to management and stocking as an iterative process with transitions built in to avoid big changes at any one time. Budgets should also ensure that the country nature conservation bodies are able to access suitable technology such as drone surveys and GIS.   

Another key finding from the independent review showed that Natural England is under-resourced in terms of people – the number of advisors working on Dartmoor has fallen from 10 people to just 1. Three large moorlands and some additional smaller peatland SSSIs comprise the protected areas of Dartmoor and cover ~23,000 ha. It is not possible for one person to cover this adequately and the independent review noted the need for increased resourcing. Specialist knowledge of the area was also highlighted as necessary, along with the need for robust monitoring and a more scientific approach to data collection. The review also noted that the Commoner’s Council was not functioning effectively. The panel found that it, “proved impossible to establish, with any degree of certainty, the total number and breakdown of livestock grazing on the moor at any time”- this is one of the legal duties of the Council laid out in the Dartmoor Commons Act of 1985.

(N.B. 7 Prospect is a union representing a significant number of civil servants and workers across science, technology and specialist sectors. They have produced a number of ‘State of Natural England’ reports discussing the resourcing and budgeting of the organisation.) 

Diversifying management 

The panel also discussed that income from farming is both poor and is falling (Table 1). Livestock farming on these marginal peatlands is underpinned by subsidy, without which many farmers would not be able to survive; this is analogous with other upland areas of the UK. To increase income, farmers on Dartmoor have moved away from mixed grazing models due to the cost of housing cattle off the common. Instead, they are increasing the numbers of hardier breeds of sheep which require less care and can be overwintered on the commons, which is leading to overgrazing of sensitive plants. There have also been significant decreases in the numbers of ponies on Dartmoor. Cattle, ponies and sheep graze differently and on different plants, so a return to a return to a mixed model was highlighted as important step in restoring the habitats. This highlights that it is important that subsidy does not merely serve to plug the income gap brought about by market pressures. Agri-environmental payments must be geared to delivering public benefits, with private finance mechanisms augmenting any short fall by supporting environmental outcomes. 

Table 1. Average net income from less favoured area grazing livestock farms (these are farms on marginal lands – typically UK upland areas with poor grazing) (Source: DEFRA, 2023). 
Net farm business income source 2021/2022 2022/2023
Agriculture net income   +£200 -£10,400  
Agri-environment payments gross   +£12,300 +£12,900  
Basic payment   +£26,400   +£19,700  
Diversified/other   +£3,900   +£3,300  
Total   +£42,900 +£25,400  


The panel also discussed increasing burning (termed ‘swaling’) on Dartmoor to control gorse, Molinia and bracken growth. They reiterated that burning on all deep peat areas was rightly banned. Rewetting, they advised, is essential, though they acknowledged that farmers did not have enough financial incentive to rewet SSSIs in unfavourable condition. However, it is important to appreciate that many of those who farm Dartmoor are graziers with no tenancy or landownership, meaning they lack the rights to carry out restoration interventions. Furthermore, they often have little appetite for rewetting. Incentives through private finance, such as the Peatland Code, are often not available to common graziers due to lack of asset ownership. The majority of the restoration work is therefore being led by the Southwest Peatland Partnership supported by South West Water. The panel noted the need for a just transition with a fair and robust payment scheme that will reward those who manage their habitat features well, as opposed to offering perverse incentives for farming degraded land.   

The independent review urged that the socio-economic impact of any restoration needed to be considered. However, these peatland areas are in the National Park where the Sandford Principle should apply and is indeed enshrined in law as set out in the Environment Act (1995) (11A, article 62) “where there are conflicts between socio-economic interests and the conservation purposes within a National Park, that the conservation objectives take priority”. It is important that conservation outcomes are not always subjugated by economic objectives.  

In summary, the independent review highlighted the need for: 

  • Sufficient resourcing for the statutory body [Natural England (NE)] to carry out its monitoring duties and oversight of agri-environmental agreements; 

  • That farmers need appropriate levels of support to achieve conservation outcomes, linking to resourcing of NE;  

  • Need for clear accountability for the numbers of livestock being grazed on large commons sites such as Dartmoor and assessment of the appropriate stocking model (i.e. mix of stock);  

  • Effective hydrological restoration of the peatland sites on Dartmoor at the landscape scale; 

  • Landscape scale recovery which unites large areas such as Dartmoor under one agreement rather than the current system of individual agreements which do not work together holistically. 



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2. Lindsay, R., Birnie, R. and Clough, J. Impacts of artificial drainage on peatlands. IUCN UK peatland programme. 2014. Available: Accessed 29/11/2023  

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