Ticking Time Bomb

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It’s all very well the Forestry Commission telling us to plant forests across Britain to beat climate change, but where is the standard-bearer for our bogs?

Those bleak, windswept quagmires of squelching earth, which thrive on the colossal rainfalls that have made this November so depressing, could be the salvation of Britain’s carbon pollution problem.

Their vital statistics are truly impressive. Britain’s bogs store 5.5 billion tonnes of carbon, more than half the entire country’s carbon storage, or 35 years’ worth of the UK’s carbon pollution. Compare that with our forests, which store 150 million tonnes of carbon.

That isn’t to say we should slash down forests and turn Britain into a giant swamp — for one thing, trees are far better at soaking up carbon. No, this is a hare and tortoise race: the trees race ahead and after a century or so stop growing, while the bogs plod along but can grow for thousands of years, so they lock away staggering amounts of carbon.

That’s why boglands across the globe hold about the same amount of carbon as all the world’s plants and trees. And Britain has about 8 per cent of the world’s bogland, so that’s a considerable resource in our own backyard. And it’s all thanks to our appalling wet climate.

Because so much rain falls, especially in the North and West, the ground becomes waterlogged, the water turns acid, and only sphagnum moss and other special plants can grow on it. When those plants die they become preserved in the acid waters like a pickled gherkin, holding their carbon in glorious heaps of peat. As long as the bogs remain wet and healthy, the carbon stays locked out of harm’s way from the atmosphere — which is why Britain’s bogs have sometimes been called our rainforests.

And how do we treat these national treasures? By thoroughly abusing them through drainage, burning, ploughing and overgrazing, in the name of farming, horticulture and development. It is a national disgrace. But we can all do something about it.

There’s no excuse for buying peat compost that has been ripped out of a bogland when perfectly good peat-free alternatives are available. And the same can be said for buying potted plants in peat compost. Worse still, as bogs become degraded, they start to release carbon dioxide.

So we are sitting on a potential time bomb. It would be far cheaper to lavish our boglands with care, pump them up with water and replant them with their natural sphagnum moss than to plant new forests. They may not be sexy, but bogs have a huge part to play in cleaning up our climate.

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