Peat is dug out from lowland peat bogs - these areas have taken thousands of years to develop and are vital for certain wildflowers such as Sundew, sphagnum moss, Bladderwort, Bog Myrtle and Cotton Grass. The environment created by these peat bogs is essential for rare dragonflies, spiders and other invertebrates and provide feeding grounds for birds such as plovers, meadow pipits and skylarks. Peatlands occur when waterlogged conditions stop plants from from decomposing properly and the slow build-up of this partly-decomposed material produces peat - this is a slow process, producing at a rate of less than 1 mm a year.
Here's the sad bit - over 94% of these UK peat bogs have been destroyed or damaged and, along with them, the wildlife and wildflowers they support. This is a staggering amount of destruction. It is also now realised that peat bogs act as carbon dioxide stores, so disturbing them releases carbon dioxide into the air. The market for peat-based compost in the UK is responsible for 630,000 tonnes of carbon emissions a year - equivalent to 300,000 extra cars on the road. Although peat bogs only cover around 3% of the Earth's surface, they store as much carbon as all of the world's forests put together.
As gardeners and people concerned about the state of the environment, you can do your bit to slow down and eventually stop this destruction by not buying peat-based compost. If your local garden centre doesn't stock a peat-free alternative then ask them if they will consider it. The more people who asked for peat-free products, the more likely garden centres will start to take notice and stock it. If your local garden centre does stock it, then please consider buying it if you don't do so already.
Some composts may be labelled as "green" or "organic" - this doesn't mean they are peat-free - they may still contain 70% or so peat. Check the description carefully to ensure you are buying 100% peat-free.
Vital Earth Carbon Gold, Fertile Fibre, Moorland Gold and Pro-Gro are examples of suppliers of peat-free compost. In the nursery we use William Sinclair's New Horizon coir compost, made from coco-fibre.
Armed now with the basics of how your peat-based compost is contributing to a biodiversity crisis, how can you not go peat-free next time you need compost?
Cotton Grass photographed on Hothfield Common near Ashford in Kent. Hothfield Common contains Kent's last four valley bogs and is a site of Special Scientific Interest.