Functioning peatland ecosystems are some of the most carbon rich terrestrial ecosystems on earth, storing up to 30 times more carbon per hectare than a healthy tropical rainforest. Globally peatlands lock-up an estimated 550 billion tonnes of CO2e. To put this figure in context, the entirety of global CO2 emissions in 2019 was 36.44 billion metric tonnes.
Peatlands in the UK
In the UK, as a result of decades of land management practices that have disrupted ecosystem processes, 80% of peatlands are degraded. Where peatlands could be an effective natural carbon sink, UK peatlands are currently emitting vast quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, accounting for at least 3.5% of the UK’s total emissions…
The Office for National Statistics estimates that fully restoring the UK’s degraded peatlands could cost between £8-22bn over the next 100 years, but would save £109bn in terms of reduced carbon emissions alone.
On this page we will cover some of the key information about UK peatlands.
What is a peatland?
Peatlands, or mires, are waterlogged ecosystems, which capture carbon over long periods of time by preventing the decomposition of plant matter. Due to a lack of oxygen the carbon captured during photosynthesis is not released back into the atmosphere, being stored instead in the soils as peat. There are three main types of peatland in the UK including blanket bog, raised bog and fens . However, there are also many peatland-woodland intermediate habitats that naturally occur, like bog woodland or wetland scrub.
Bog woodland is a common, naturally-occurring habitat in cool, high-latitude climates. A high water table suppresses tree growth on the peatland, leading to stunted and widely-spaced trees.
3 types of bogs
Blanket Bog: a type of highly acidic peatland found in locations with cool, wet and usually oceanic climates. Usually found above 1000ft in the UK.
Raised Bog: Mostly found within lowland landscapes. Few raised bogs remain intact in the UK and most are found in nature reserves. A raised bog can be several meters higher than surrounding land level and is vegetated by characteristic bog species. These include cotton grasses, mosses, heather, cross-leaved heath, bog asphodel and deer-grass. Turf cutting, drainage and afforestation has resulted in the loss of 94% of the raised bogs in Britain, and 99% in Ireland. 
Fens: Naturally marshy regions, fed by mineral rich surface water or groundwater. Fens have a neutral or slightly alkaline pH, with high levels of dissolved minerals. Characteristic species include reeds, robust tall-herbs or tussocky sedge grass.
Watch this short 3-minute video: ‘The Extraordinary Story of Peat and Carbon’, which explains why the carbon storage process in peatlands is so effective.
Why are UK peatlands degraded?
As a result of decades of intensive land management practices including drainage, arable farming, atmospheric pollution, peat extraction, muirburn and overgrazing - 80% of peatlands in the UK are currently damaged, drying out and oxidising, releasing vast quantities of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that had been locked up for hundreds or even thousands of years.
In fact, UK peatlands currently emit an estimated 23 million tonnes of CO2e each year - equivalent to around half of all the combined carbon reduction efforts made annually. Preventing further damage to our peatlands and restoring their healthy functioning is therefore critical if the UK is to hit its climate targets. The most recent data attests that restoring peatlands in Scotland alone is likely to abate around 1 million tonnes of CO2e by 2050.
How can you tell if a peatland is degraded?
Healthy Peatland vs. Degraded Peatland
- Erosion: this remaining tuft of peat shows the previous ground level. The peat around it has been eroded away completely.
- Bare Peat: this peat is open to the air, leading to oxidation of the carbon stored in the peat.
- Absence of peat-forming vegetation, such as sphagnum mosses.
- Waterlogged ground due to a high water-table
- Diversity of peat-forming and other vegetation types, each supporting an array of associated species
What is peat used for today?
Gardeners that are using multi-purpose compost, both for individual and commercial purposes, may be unaware that these products contain 70-100% peat. It’s been used by commercial growers and at-home gardeners since the mid 20th century. Although peat-free alternatives are now available, we are still using approximately the same amount of peat annually as we did in the late 1990’s. Recent figures estimate that most of the peat (62%) for these products is imported from the Republic of Ireland, the Baltic States and Finland. Burning peat as a fuel also still exists, especially in island communities where firewood is not easily accessible.
Biodiversity in peatland ecosystems
Healthy peatland ecosystems play host to a biodiverse ecosystem of mosses, insects, moths, amphibians, reptiles, flowering plants, fungi, birds and butterflies. A lowland bog may hold over 3000 insect species, 800 flowering plants and hundreds of types of mosses creating a rich ecological fabric. Sphagnum mosses are the keystone bog species, in part because they can hold 20 times their own dry weight in water, ensuring the ground remains waterlogged most of the time. In terms of the carbon stored, a 15cm layer of living sphagnum can hold the up to 50 tonnes of carbon per hectare. 
Peatland species of conservation priority in Scotland include: carrion moss, the money-spider, adder, Haworth’s minor moth, mountain hare, marsh honey fungus, juniper, heath spotted orchid, large heath butterflies, black-throated diver, greater scaup, skylarks and the common toad (to name just a few!) Find out more about peatland biodiversity.
How can you help?
Forest Carbon currently has two peatland restoration projects where carbon is available for purchase:
1. Gameshope Loch, Scottish Borders
2. Rotten Bottom, Scottish Borders
Restoration of peatlands is a costly process, so we at Forest Carbon are working to address this problem by aligning corporate and private investors who want to mitigate their carbon emissions to cover these critical costs and enable land managers to kick-start restoration efforts.
If you are interested in peatland restoration or investment, please get in touch.
You can also read more about how peatland carbon offsets are validated and verified through the Peatland Code here.
 Smyth, Mary-Ann & Artz, Rebekka & Taylor, Emily & Evans, Chris & Moxley, Janet & Archer, Nicole & Burden, Annette & Williamson, Jennifer & Donnelly, David & Thomson, Amanda & Buys, Gwen & Malcolm, Heath & Wilson, David & Renou-Wilson, Florence. (2017). Implementation of an Emissions Inventory for UK Peatlands. LINK.