Migrating birds feed on peatland insects, while snakes and lizards also thrive in these special places.
A failure to curb the use of peat in horticulture has caused millions of tonnes of carbon emissions since calls for action began three decades ago, campaigners said.
The Wildlife Trusts is calling for an immediate ban on all uses of peat for amateur gardeners and professional horticulture, warning a voluntary approach has been wholly ineffective.
Peatlands is a key carbon store – the largest in the UK – and extracting peat for use in horticulture releases carbon emissions, damages key wildlife habitats, and reduces the landscape’s ability to absorb water and curb flooding.
Investing in efforts to restore peatlands to combat climate change while allowing extraction of peat to continue is illogical and an inefficient use of public money, the coalition of local wildlife groups warns.
Analysis from the trusts found that despite a campaign to stop extraction taking off in the 1990s, gardeners and horticulture businesses have used an estimated 81 million cubic metres of peat since 1990.
That could have led to the release of between 14 million and 31 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change, which would remain locked up if it had stayed in healthy peat bogs, the groups estimate.
Voluntary targets to drive down peat use, with a goal set in 2011 to end its use by amateur gardeners by 2020, have been widely missed.
In 2020, nearly 900,000 cubic metres of peat were extracted from UK soils, with a further 1.4 million imported from Ireland and the rest of the Europe, “offshoring” the environmental damage of British peat use, the trusts warned.
In total, just over 2.29 million cubic metres of peat were dug up to be sold in the UK market in 2020, with a small amount also being exported to other countries.
Peat extracted for horticulture in 2020 alone could release as much as 880,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide over its lifetime as a growing medium – the equivalent of driving a car 2.2 billion miles, the trusts said.
The Government is consulting on plans to ban sales of peat for amateur gardeners in 2024.
But the Wildlife Trusts, which wants to see all peat use banned now, warn waiting until 2024 to take action could add up to 1.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – roughly equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of more than 214,000 UK residents.
The charities are calling for an immediate ban on the sale and extraction of peat for gardening and professional plant, fruit and veg growing, and a ban on importing peat from abroad.
Ailis Watt, peat officer at The Wildlife Trusts, said: “Each time governments dither over whether to ban peat use in horticulture, we risk losing more of this habitat that has taken millennia to develop, as well as losing its huge capacity for carbon storage.
“Extracting peat is bad for our climate and for wildlife. Peatlands provide habitat for a rich diversity of plants and animals.
“Migrating birds feed on peatland insects, while snakes and lizards also thrive in these special places.
“The UK is already one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world and extracting peat destroys complex ecosystems that are vital for nature’s recovery. It has to stop."
“Investing in peatland restoration whilst allowing extraction to continue is illogical and an inefficient use of public funds.”
Emily Beament is the PA environment correspondent.