Business at garden centres is booming as people emerge from lockdown to start working on their gardens. Most people who care about their gardens also care about nature. Ireland’s richest source of biological diversity is not in our gardens, but in our peatlands.

Our bogs have been described as Ireland’s rainforests. Peatlands also contain our largest natural stores of carbon, as well as playing an important role in flood protection and water filtration.

So why are gardeners helping destroy Ireland’s richest biodiversity without even being aware of it?

Many gardeners buy commercial compost, and most compost sold in Ireland contains peat. Our bogs, built up over thousands of years, are being scraped and mined and turned into garden compost. The State-controlled Bord Na Móna is the largest producer of horticultural peat, but around a half a dozen other large commercial operators are also involved.

Bord Na Móna has announced plans to phase out dirty and inefficient peat mining for electricity production, but has no intention of exiting horticultural peat. In fact, in mid-2018, the company expanded into providing peat as bedding for livestock. Some operators may advertise their compost as having ‘low’ or ‘reduced’ peat content, but without independent verification, those terms are meaningless. Any peat content in compost supports the continued draining and destruction of our peatlands.

In 2018, Irish companies exported nearly half a billion euros worth of horticultural peat, much of it to the UK. Last January, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change recommended banning peat extraction for all uses in the UK. “There would need to be an accompanying ban on the sales of peat, given that two-thirds are imported, mainly from Ireland”, the Committee added.

Bord Na Móna says it is committed to reducing horticultural peat sales by 50% “as we transition to non-peat based horticultural products”. It claims to be keen to exit from the business. “Our ambition is to lead the way in this regard and not to be dragged along kicking and screaming”, Tom Donnellan of Bord Na Móna told the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action last November. The surest way to make sure this commitment is honoured in full is for the public to say ‘no’ to horticultural peat.

The government late last year issued a Consultation Paper reviewing the horticultural peat sector. In response, The Irish Peatlands Conservation Council (IPCC) pointed out that “The horticultural industry has had free rein to destroy substantial habitat for decades as the majority operate outside of planning and licensing and they have done little to protect SAC and NHA raised bog sites as a gesture towards mitigating their destructive impact”.

Further, the IPCC drew attention to the anomaly that no carbon tax is levied on horticultural peat, despite its obvious and quantifiable climate impacts. An Taisce would fully support, as an interim measure, the levying of carbon taxes on horticultural peat, pending an outright ban on its extraction and sale.

“There are good quality peat-free compost alternatives available to gardeners”, according to an An Taisce spokesperson. “When you’re visiting your garden centre or DIY store, be sure to ask specifically for peat-free compost. And if you object to bog destruction and care about biodiversity destruction and climate change, please consider asking your retailer to consider reducing or eliminating its use of unsustainable and ecologically damaging horticultural peat”.

Alternately, many people are now making their own compost. There are many resources online and your local authority environmental awareness officer will also have information. The IPCC, which is dedicated to saving Ireland's bogs, has useful instructions on its website:

The Aran islands have turned sustainable compost into a community business, with Athchursail Árann, the Aran Islands Co-op Recycling Project. It was recognised for eliminating three landfill sites and creating a community recycling system over 20 years. They generate compost on an industrial level with all the compostable material they collect on the islands.

Love your garden? Love nature? Then, for peat’s sake, say ‘no’ to the destruction of our bogs and ‘no’ to horticultural peat.

Contact: John Gibbons, PRO (087-2332689)