Peat sales ban, new woodlands and wildcat’s return in Government green plans

Gardeners will be banned from buying peat as part of a range of measures to tackle the climate and nature crises being set out by the Government.

Plans being outlined by Environment Secretary George Eustice also include restoring peatlands, increasing tree planting, creating community woods and setting a new 2030 legal target for species to halt declines in nature.

A new taskforce will be set up to take forward work on reintroducing creatures which have been lost from England such as the wildcat and return species such as beavers to new areas of the country.

As the Government sets out its green plans, environmentalists called for efforts to restore 30% of the UK’s land and seas by 2030, with public funding for “vast landscape-scale” projects, to stop declines in nature.

Mr Eustice is launching new plans for peat and trees and action on species as part of efforts to curb the emissions driving climate change and reverse declines in wildlife in a speech from Delamere Forest, in Cheshire.

As part of his speech, Mr Eustice is expected to say: “We will be amending the Environment Bill to require an additional legally-binding target for species for 2030, aiming to halt the decline of nature.”

He will describe the move as “a huge step forward” adding: “We hope that this will be the net zero equivalent for nature, spurring action of the scale required to address the biodiversity crisis.”

The trees plan includes a goal to treble tree planting rates in England to 7,000 hectares of new woodland a year by 2024, funded through a £500 million fund, while a new multimillion pound tree planting grant will provide more incentives for landowners and farmers to plant and manage trees.

At least three community forests will be created and Mr Eustice will also outline measures to better-protect existing trees and woodlands, saying: “It is our ambition that all woodlands in England will improve the environment, acknowledging that our woods and trees are vital habitats.”

Mr Eustice will also confirm plans to ban sales of peat products by the end of this Parliament, in 2024, subject to consultation, to preserve carbon-storing peatland habitat.

Campaigners have been calling for an immediate ban on sales of peat to gardeners after voluntary goals to end sales of peat compost for amateur gardens by 2020 were missed, and as the sector is off-track on a phase-out of its use in commercial horticulture by 2030.

The Wildlife Trusts said the move was “long overdue” and urged the Government to make sure the sale of peat is banned before the UK hosts a global climate summit, Cop26, in November in Glasgow.

The plans on peat also include funding to restore 35,000 hectares (86,000 acres) of degraded peatland in England in the next four years, and a consultation this year on phasing out peat in horticulture across all sectors.

Just a fifth of the UK’s 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) of peat are in good condition and overall peatlands – which range from upland moors to rich agricultural fenland – currently emit 23 million tonnes of emissions a year.

Healthy peatlands trap in carbon, helping tackle climate change, store water to curb flooding and provide habitat for plants and animals, but lose these functions if the peat is damaged, drained or dug up for sale.

A recent survey by the Wildlife Trusts found just one out of 20 leading garden retailers has pledged to eliminate peat from its shelves this year, which is bought by gardeners in products including bagged compost and potted plants.

Responding to the announcement to ban sales to amateur gardeners, Wildlife Trusts chief executive Craig Bennett said: “The time for procrastination is over and we urge the Government to get on with the consultation as soon as possible and make sure the sale of peat is banned before the UK hosts the global climate conference Cop26 in Glasgow in November this year. ”

He said the Government’s initial target to restore 35,000 hectares of peatland was disappointing and called for a commitment to restore all upland peatland and at least a quarter of lowland peat.

He said: “It’s essential that we stop nature’s decline and restore 30% of land and sea by 2030 – doing so will help wildlife fight back and enable repaired habitats to store carbon once more.

“Vast, landscape-scale restoration projects need funding by government to help us reach this target because, at the moment, only 10% of our land is protected for nature and only half of this is in a good state,” he said.

Richard Benwell, chief executive of the Wildlife and Countryside Link coalition of nature groups, welcomed the move to put a species recovery target into law.

He said: “The Government has accepted the principle that we need a legally-binding target to halt the decline of wildlife.

“If the legal detail is right, and the targets are comprehensive and science-based, then this could inspire the investment and action needed to protect and restore wildlife, after a century of decline.”