Peat: Matter of life and death
Once in a blue moon stories emerge from the bog, fresh from centuries in the dark. In perfect preservation, precious articles come back up to the light. Thousands of years of natural history and human stories lie waiting in our peatlands.
Watching a peat bog being depth-sampled is like seeing an illusionist at work. A long slender rod is pushed carefully into the soft moss. Down it goes. Another rod is screwed on and pushed down. More rods are added, deeper and deeper until they reach, in some cases, six or more metres in depth. Accumulating at roughly one millimetre per year, a metre of peat represents a millennium.
Each year as buds burst, the living surface of a bog is peppered with wind-borne pollen, and a new page is written in the pollen record. Thousands of years of changing landscape and ecology lie ready to be interpreted from peat core samples. Under the microscope, pickled pollen grains chart the rise and fall of forest, scrub, and heath through waves of prehistoric climate change. As the world has alternately frozen and thawed, trees of different species have flourished, dominated, and then been swept away – pine and elm, birch and beech, oak and ash.
At the other end of the scale from a pollen grain are the bog bodies. A man was found at Tollund by Danish peat cutters in 1950. After almost 2,000 years, his face was deeply tanned by peat juice, but otherwise his features are as they were in life. We know that his last meal was a gruel of wild and cultivated seeds including barley, flax and knotgrass.
In the 1980s a woman and a man were found in Lindow Moss in Cheshire by peat cutters using industrial peat extraction machinery. When he died between 2 BC and 119 AD, the man was in good health and in his mid-20s. His last meal was charred bread.
We know that Lindow Man and Tollund Man both met their end at the hands of others. Despite that, their exquisite preservation means that we have learnt much more about their lives than we have from the manner of their deaths. Protected by the peat time-capsules that held them for so long, they have left much to us.
Bog bodies in Wales include one from Cors Caron, another from Radnorshire and a third in a primitive wooden coffin at Tal y Llyn in Meirionnydd. All were found some time ago by peat-cutters, when cutting and stacking peats to dry were common summer tasks in treeless districts.
For heating and cooking, peat was a convenient though labour-intensive resource. In districts with few people and many bogs the supply must have seemed inexhaustible. Strictly speaking it is a renewable resource, but replenishment of peat is so exceptionally slow that only a handful of people in a peat-rich district could use it sustainably.
Like a fossil fuel, the energy in peat comes from its carbon content and like coal, the carbon in peat is dead plant matter. The composition of peat depends on the type of peatland where it formed. Bogs are acidic and form their peat principally out of the remains of Sphagnum mosses. Fens are alkaline and their peat comes from sedges, rushes or reeds. Both bogs and fens are cold and wet and it is these special conditions that slow the decomposition of organic matter. Over very long periods the plant material is slowly pickled and consolidated as peat.
Today we know we need to keep peat in the ground. The profligate burning of peat on an unimaginable scale in Ireland’s peat-fi red power stations is coming to an end just as the economically extractable peat resource is exhausted. Carved out, desiccated, incinerated: it has all been used. For the peat that’s gone up in smoke the only legacy now is in our atmosphere, changing our climate, putting our lives and precious habitats – including our remaining bogs and fens – at further risk. The further north and west we go, the greater the potential for peat to squish beneath our feet. Bogs are wild places, their centre of gravity is far from centres of population, and they have their own nature and culture. They are cold, wet, and windy, difficult to cross, dangerous to get lost in. The final twist in the peatland story comes surprisingly close to home. Imagine showing family or friends around your garden. Imagine telling them proudly that you’d bought a patch of Amazon rainforest, pulverised it, and used it to pot up geraniums. This is what we have all been doing. Well-managed peatlands store more carbon, more reliably and more permanently than any forest anywhere on the planet. They are home to rare and threatened species of plants, insects and birds that cannot live anywhere else.
For a long time it is in gardens that so much precious peat has been laid to rest. Dug up from the bog, dried out, packaged and shipped, then bizarrely put back in the ground in our gardens. Horticulture continues to fuel the commercial extraction of peat for use as a potting medium. Buying compost or plants from garden centres has for decades meant contributing to the wholesale destruction of wild peatlands both here and abroad. Thankfully the tide has turned and awareness is turning into action. The gardening industry has been dragged into the 21st century and is starting to address the urgent need to go peat-free. Forward looking outlets are starting to proclaim their peat-free status. The National Trust deserves special mention for leading the way on this issue for some years. Entrusted with caring for vast areas of peatland in Snowdonia and elsewhere, it makes sense that NT made the link between protecting the natural resource and the resources it uses in its many beautiful gardens. We can all help. Check with care when buying compost; some suppliers are hiding the true peat content of their products in small print. Write to ask suppliers for peat-free compost and don’t take any nonsense! Let garden centres know that you want only peat-free compost and plants.
Snowdonia’s peatlands are at long last receiving the care they deserve. Large-scale restoration projects are being led by the National Trust, RSPB, Snowdonia National Park Authority, and Natural Resources Wales. The Snowdonia Society is proud to support these projects and give people the chance to put on their wellies and get stuck into bogs and their conservation and restoration. We specialise in clearing conifer saplings; work that our volunteers can do effectively and which reaps its rewards quietly for decades into the future. Controlling conifers at the small sapling stage is by far the most efficient solution; if left unchecked the conifers would grow to shade and dry the peat, damaging its water-and carbon-locking superpowers. Each volunteer that helps is part of the solution. The bogs of Snowdonia hold a third of all the peat in Wales. These wild peaty places are entwined with our lives in remarkable ways, and more stories of life and death are surely locked up in them. Whether those stories are about our past or our future is for us to choose.
John Harold is the Director of the Snowdonia Society.