Peat is like Snow

Year of Soils? Peatlands? Re-wilding?

It’s more important than ever not to confuse conservation and agriculture.

The Inuit apparently have more than 20 words for different types of snow to distinguish various conditions and possibilities, even danger.  So why do we use only one word for ‘peat’?

Materials called ‘peat’ range from living natural bog landscapes to burnable black fuel to millennia-old agricultural fields.  All they have in common is a very large proportion of plant-based organic matter, usually greater than 50% – it is their history that makes them different.  How and to what extent have natural conditions, time and human effort made them what they are?

Natural conditions including climate, geology, and landform lead to the formation of soil with a very high organic matter content.  In some places, the conditions allow for a continuously growing natural bog or blanket.

Time results in mosses (or other plants) dying, becoming compressed, and gradually decomposing.  Eventually, they become burnable peat (and with much more time and pressure, coal).  Fully dried peat will not rewet and turn back into a paste; it may crumble but will not dissolve, due to chemical changes which happened during drying.

Human effort since agriculture began in the Neolithic gradually transformed many hectares of natural soils into more productive and workable fields.  On highly organic ‘peaty’ soils, the action of digging or ploughing aerates the soil, making it more capable of supporting grasses and crops, as does careful siting of arable fields or lazybeds together with various forms of drainage.  In the climate of the West of Scotland, it may be that the human effort of tillage resulted in permanent change to the structure and characteristics of the soil.  Research suggests that blocking drains to try to undo centuries of agriculture may not result in a restored bog ecosystem or all of its benefits.

Most would agree that these three – bog, fuel, and field – are clearly different, and each have their place.  In particular, re-use of neglected agricultural land would contribute to food security and community sustainability.  Even when derelict and covered in rush, many small fields retain their hard-won potential.  Careless language confuses us.   We need to call things by their right names: the word ‘peat’ is best used for the burnable black stuff, a ‘bog’ or ‘mire’ to describe a growing natural landscape, and ‘highly organic soil’ to describe past and present agricultural fields.

Peat is like snow – we need a lot more words to enable us to say what we mean.

But at least, until terminology catches up, let’s avoid confusing agriculture, conservation, and a nice warm fire.

A range of blackland soils, or 'earthy peats'
A range of blackland soils, or ‘earthy peats’ >60% OM