Peat compost will be banned in NI by 2025 under proposals which have been set out in DAERA’s new peatland strategy.
A 12-week public consultation on the plans opened for responses on Wednesday and is due to close on 1 September 2021.
The draft strategy includes the proposal to phase out the “use, import and sale” of peat compost in NI by 2025.
The ban could have significant implications for the horticulture sector, particularly mushroom growers.
The document proposes a review into a potential ban on peat extraction on all publicly owned land by 2022. It also suggests that an evaluation is conducted into planning permission for peat extraction on privately owned land.
The key priority of the strategy is to improve the environmental condition of NI peatlands for carbon storage and biodiversity, and so a series of long-term targets are set throughout the document.
The broadest target is to have all semi-natural peatland vegetation managed for “biodiversity and ecosystem function” by 2040.
Similar targets include having “degraded peatland habitats” prioritised for restoration by 2030 and to have all “high priority degraded peatlands” under restoration management by 2040.
DAERA wants to stop overgrazing on peatlands and wants drains to be blocked for bog re-wetting
With peatland making up 12% of the total land area in NI, this could have significant implications for many upland farmers, but the exact steps that will be needed to meet these management requirements are not set out in the document.
However, it is clear that DAERA wants to stop overgrazing on peatlands and wants drains to be blocked for bog re-wetting.
“Since healthy peatland ecosystems all depend upon the maintenance of a high-water table, any drainage is damaging,” the document reads.
The strategy states that “inappropriate levels of grazing and trampling” by livestock can have adverse effects on habitats, although DAERA acknowledge that under grazing can also be a problem in some instances.
The document states that 44% of DAERA’s forestry is on peatland and re-establishing tree cover on certain deep peats can lead to a net loss of carbon to the atmosphere.
The strategy suggests that trees should not be replanted after harvest, and peatland should subsequently be restored, if subsequent tree growth is likely to be poor.
Nitrogen deposition due to ammonia emissions is also an issue for peatland habitats, but policies surrounding this are to be included in a separate ammonia strategy from DAERA.
Stocking rates on peatlands need to drop significantly to allow habitats to be restored to favourable environmental condition, a conservation scientist has said.
Speaking on a webinar last week, Professor Joe Morris said the target stocking rate for peatland restoration is 0.07 livestock units per hectare, which equates to around one breeding ewe per five acres.
He said that degradation of peatlands has been seen in areas that are grazed at around 0.2 livestock units per hectare, or roughly one ewe per two acres.
There are challenges over communal grazing rights and getting a consensus that will bring rather fragmented interests together
“The aim is to get stocking rates down to those restoration levels. The incentive payments to promote that are not adequately targeted at the present time,” Morris maintained.
Another issue flagged by Morris was that a lot of peatland is commonage where its management is governed by long-standing grazing rights held by local farmers.
“There are challenges over communal grazing rights and getting a consensus that will bring rather fragmented interests together,” he said.
Although peatlands act as major stores of soil carbon, Jim Rouquette from Natural Capital Solutions said restoration is usually more about stopping any more carbon being emitted from degraded sites, rather than sequestering additional carbon from the atmosphere.
“If they are recovering, they are still emitting carbon at a slightly lower rate. By the time they are fully restored to near natural conditions, they are more or less carbon-neutral,” he said.