After a bank holiday weekend spent hiking in the Peak District, I couldn’t be more in awe of the UK’s upland peat landscapes – they truly are iconic. Globally, peatlands are often called a ‘superpower’ in the fight against climate change given the incredible capacity they have for soaking up carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it indefinitely. In the UK they are often referred to as ‘the national rainforest’ storing more carbon than the forests of the UK, France and Germany put together. Alongside this, peatlands are important sources of clean drinking water, incredible ecosystems supporting a huge variety of plant, insect, animal and bird species and iconic tourism and recreation destinations – as I discovered when attempting to walk Kinder Scout along with thousands of others!
What is the England Peat Action Plan?
While landowners across England and Wales are protecting these precious landscapes, just 13% are in a near-natural state. In a bid to increase this percentage, Defra has published the long-awaited England Peat Action Plan – a “plan for the management, protection and restoration of our upland and lowland peatlands, so they deliver benefits for nature and the climate”.
The Plan outlines how Defra intends to work with landowners to reverse degradation, protect topsoil and restore as much peatland as feasible to a ‘near natural’ state. However, as they note, there’s potentially some big trade-offs to these goals. For example, some of England’s lowland peat is among the most productive agricultural land in the country: widescale restoration of those areas would potentially have some big impacts on food security.
The CLA perspective
The CLA has been working closely with the Peat Team at Defra, and plenty of our recommendations have made it into the final Peat Action Plan. For example, this Plan acknowledges how restoration isn’t a one-time event, it’s an ongoing process, taking decades – even centuries – to come to fruition. We highlighted the importance of carefully considering any potential targets for restoration, and Defra has indicated that they will set these targets in the upcoming Net Zero Strategy. Other interesting points from the Plan:
- A new peat map for England will be developed;
- The Nature for Climate Fund will be used to kickstart restoration projects in the short term, while the Environmental Land Management Scheme will be used as the main delivery mechanism from 2024;
- A Lowland Peat Agricultural Taskforce has been established, with a number of CLA members sitting on regional sub-groups, and this group will be making recommendations on how to protect farmed peatland in summer 2020;
- Burning heather on blanket bog has been banned; and
- Conservation covenants will be introduced through the Environment Bill to ensure peat restoration projects are permanent.
As George Eustice noted in his foreword to the Plan, landowners are the most important stakeholders to engage as “custodians of these iconic landscapes for centuries,” so the CLA will continue to work closely with Defra on the implementation of this plan.