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Peatlands - our Amazon rainforest

Written by: Jonathan Pinnick, NFFN Sustainable Lead for Northern Ireland

Peatlands are an iconic feature of the Northern Irish landscape. They perform multiple functions, including giving homes to a suite of rare, specialised forms of wildlife; storing large amounts of carbon; regulating water quality and hydrological conditions; preserving a record of our past, and providing outdoor spaces for recreation and enjoyment. They are in effect, our Amazon rainforest! However, for too long we have taken this valuable natural resource for granted.

Peatlands in Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, peat soil covers approximately 12% of our land area. The raised bogs, blanket bogs and fens that make up peatland habitat have the potential to be some of the most nature-rich landscapes in the country, but as a result of decades of draining, overgrazing, burning, tree planting, and peat extraction, the majority of our peatland is in a damaged and deteriorating state. Of the 242,000 thousand hectares of peatlands in NI, an estimated 86% is degraded.

A similar pattern is found across the rest of the UK. Consequently, our peatlands overall are unable to provide their host of ecosystem benefits and are net emitters of CO2, contributing the equivalent of 5% of the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. This represents twice as much carbon as the tree planting targets recommended by the Committee on Climate Change are likely to capture.

In order to fully utilise the power of nature to tackle the twin climate and nature crises, it is therefore essential that we restore our peatlands.

How did we get here?

At this point you may well be asking yourself, how did we allow things to get so bad? The uncomfortable truth is that much of our peatland resource in Northern Ireland is owned or managed by farmers. However, it is ill-conceived agricultural policy, rather than any bad intent on the part of farmers that has led to much of the damage.

The current direct payment schemes created under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which account for the vast majority of agricultural subsidy support, do little to incentivise good practice or encourage farmers to view their land beyond productive output. The comparatively low payment rates which areas of actively farmed peatland attract (even through agri-environment schemes), due to their perceived lack of agricultural value, has created a legacy of poor management. Farmers have been installing drainage ditches, applying lime, fertiliser and slurry, and inappropriately grazing peatlands for decades – all in a misguided attempt to “improve” the land.

Looking ahead

A transformational change of approach to how we manage our peatlands is urgently needed. Achieving this will require a radically different system of support payments. Based upon the principal of public money for public goods, future agricultural policy must ensure that all farmers are rewarded for delivering nature-friendly farming practices and ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, water and air quality, and flood risk mitigation. Combined with appropriate education, support and advice, this could potentially bring about a major shift in farmers’ attitudes, as they would come to view their land as a suite of natural assets, which if carefully managed, can generate significant financial returns in addition to that which they receive for selling their produce.

We know that peatland restoration is possible through reducing (or temporarily removing) grazing pressure, covering bare peat areas with vegetation, blocking drains to raise the water table and return the waterlogged conditions and re-introducing peat-forming Sphagnum mosses into areas where they have been lost.

Restoring peatlands at a landscape scale will require time and significant government investment beyond the redirection of agricultural subsidies. However, it has cross-Departmental relevance and should be viewed as a critical component of green growth and an investment priority given its potential to create green jobs, tackle climate change, improve water quality and biodiversity and prevent flooding. Studies have shown that peatland restoration in Northern Ireland provides approximately £4 in public benefit for every £1 invested. DAERA must make the case within the NI Executive that peatland restoration is more than an ‘environmental issue’.

These arguments were central to NFFN NI’s response to the recent Northern Ireland Peatland Strategy Consultation.