Our greatest ally in the climate crisis is the soil beneath our feet. Soil is home to a quarter of all Earth’s species. It can hold 65% of the world’s fresh water and it provides 95% of the food we eat. It is one of our most precious resources – and when we look after it, soil can also make a huge contribution towards tackling climate change. Healthy soils act as a carbon sink by drawing carbon down into the ground – they have the potential to store more carbon than all the world’s vegetation combined!
What is peatland and why is it so important?
Peat bogs are a globally rare habitat, they are home to many special plants and animals including lichens, peatland waders, diving beetles and otters. Peatlands are the UK’s largest terrestrial carbon store, holding 3.2 billion tonnes!
However, UK peatlands are under attack due to deliberate burning to support grouse shooting, which, in itself, is bad for the environment. Grouse shooting has led to many of our peat bogs becoming a source of carbon emission, rather than a carbon store, with 75% of those emissions being a direct result of burning. Peatland burning also amplifies other environmental impacts because the drying of underlying peat soil damages ecosystems and affects water quality.
How do you restore a peat bog?
In the UK, organisations such as the WWF, The National Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage and Forest Research (to name but a few) are working hard to reverse the damage, by covering bare peat areas with vegetation and blocking drains to raise the water table, recreating the water-logged conditions needed for this specialised habitat. Sphagnum moss, cotton grasses, bog asphodel and cuckooflower are also being reintroduced to restore this precious ecosystem to it’s former glory.
Moors For the Future is a partnership combining lots of different organisations working together to preserve this rare habitat.
How can we make a difference?
You don’t have to be a big organisation like the WWF to be able to help, there is plenty we can do in our own gardens.
Buy peat-free compost. Most garden centres and nurseries sell at least one variety, all compost sold by RHS is peat-free and the Co-op has also started to sell Westlands New Horizons peat-free compost in over a thousand of its shops. Only buy potted house plants and indoor potting mix where peat isn’t a component. It’s easy to swap to peat-free alternatives for mulching, such as bark chippings, coir, wood fibre and homemade compost.
Try the No-Dig theory! This is the practice of minimising soil disturbance by not digging existing soil in your garden and planting in surface compost instead. No-Dig not only maintains the healthy functioning of ecosystems under the ground but also prevents CO2 escaping from where it is stored in the soil. You can find a step-by-step guide on how to follow the No-Dig method on the Garden Organic Website.
Don’t smother your garden in plastic. Artificial grass might seem like a low maintenance, non-muddy alternative to your natural lawn but it has wide-ranging impacts on the natural world. Creating a dense plastic barrier on top of the soil prevents it from absorbing carbon and disrupts finely balanced ecosystems. On top of that, the process of manufacturing, transporting and installing the plastic ‘turf’ leads to the accumulation of a big carbon footprint. Artificial grass also sheds microplastics which easily travel throughout our environment and become present in our food, water and even the air we breathe.
Clearly, artificial grass is not the way forward so what other alternatives can you use? The most obvious solution is to stick to natural grass. It provides a wonderful surface to walk and play on while helping to increase biodiversity. Keeping your lawn dense and having well-placed paths and stepping-stones prevents mud from spreading. In family gardens thick layers of bark chip in play areas are also a safe, cost effective option. You could even take part in No Mow May and allow parts of your lawn to grow freely which is beneficial on many levels, in particular giving pollinators more time to collect nectar.
Soil is home to millions of living things and acts as the biggest carbon sink on Earth. It is the source of life, not simply a source of life, so it couldn’t be more important that we all make efforts to restore it.