German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN)


Peatland conservation: Situation and need for action

Situation in Germany

In Germany today, almost all raised bogs that remain intact are safeguarded in Habitats Directive sites or nature conservation areas, while only a small proportion of fens are protected in this way.

This is party because in EU law, while raised bogs (habitat types 7110 and 7120), transition mires and quaking bogs (7140), peaty depressions (7150) and bog woodland (91D0) come under the requirement to avoid habitat deterioriation under the Habitats Directive (Annex I), only one fen habitat type is afforded such protection (alkaline fens, type 7230). Acid-soiled fens and other peatland habitat types classified as vulnerable in the German Red List of Threatened Habitats do not come under the Directive. All bogs and fens, reedbeds, large-sedge swamps and wetland meadows rich in sedges and rushes are subject to statutory protection under Article 30 of the Federal Nature Conservation Act (BNatSChG). However, this only relates to peatland habitat types that can be currently classified as such and not to extensively managed peat grassland that can likewise be of great conservation value.

The protection therefore needs to be extended to include these peatland habitat types so that all threatened peatland habitat types in Germany are protected.

Even within established protected areas, the conservation status of peatlands is critical in many cases as the hydrological regime is frequently impaired. A further threat is posed by airborne nitrogen pollution and other nutrient run-off from agriculture.

In the second National Report in accordance with Article 17 of the Habitats Directive, the overall assessment given for active raised bogs in Habitats Directive sites was thus ‘favourable’ for the Alpine region but only ‘inadequate’ for the Continental region and even ‘bad’ for the Atlantic region. In many cases, there is a failure to carry out the systematic revitalisation of peatlands in protected areas needed to conserve biodiversity and ecosystem services.

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Peatland revitalisation

The most important step in revitalising peatlands is re-wetting to attain an intact hydrological regime. This lays the basis for restoring the characteristic features of the habitat and thus for colonisation by and conservation of peatland flora and fauna. If peat-forming plant associations become established in a re-wetted site, then the peatland can also regain its sink function. Re-wetting of peatlands is also a major factor in climate climate change mitigation, as peat decomposition virtually comes to a halt in the absence of oxygen, thus drastically reducing CO2 emissions. According to scientific estimates, climate-friendly re-wetting of drained peatlands in Germany would theoretically save up to 35 million tonnes CO2 equivalent per year (Freibauer et al. 2009). Successful revitalisation can at least partly restore peatland ecosystem services. There are also strong synergies to be had between nature conservation and climate change mitigation objectives.

Adjustable sluice, Allgäuer Moorallianz (photo: Ulrich Weiland)
Adjustable sluice, Allgäuer Moorallianz (photo: Ulrich Weiland)

Revitalisation needs thorough hydrological and ecological planning, however. Getting the water level right with due regard to hydrogenesis is crucial. If this is disregarded, there is a risk of destroying extant populations of rare and vulnerable animal and plant species, and of further compounding the climate-damaging impact of degraded peatlands. Full inundation is generally to be avoided, for example, as it carries the danger of large quantities of methane (CH4) being released. Ultimately, the water level to be aimed at should be based on the annually varying water levels of natural peatlands.

Renaturalisation still has its limits, however. Peatlands that have been too heavily affected by human influence cannot be returned to an original state. The peat layers of deposits from which peat has been extracted need thousands of years to regain their former depth. Extensive management and re-wetting of heavily degraded peatlands nonetheless helps cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Given the current condition of peatlands in Germany and the increasing pressures in the future as a result of climate change, revitalising degraded peatlands is very important.

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Peatland conservation strategies and programmes

National Strategy on Biological Diversity (NSBD):

The National Strategy on Biological Diversity (NSBD) published by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) in 2007 includes a specific vision on the conservation of peatlands. It also lays down specific aims such as safeguarding extant naturally growing raised bogs, the regeneration of raised bogs with minor degradation and of regenerable fens, extensive management of fens currently under intensive use, a significant reduction in peat loss, and maintenance of the functions of peatland as nutrient and carbon sinks. As responsibility for carrying out peatland conservation measures lies primarily with the Länder, the strategy targeted the formulation of concept papers on peatland development in all Länder by 2010 and their implementation by 2025. Aspects relating to climate change mitigation and ecosystem services play an increasing part in this regard. A position paper on potential and goals of peatland conservation and climate change mitigation has been compiled by the conservation authorities in the Länder rich in peatland. This further elaborates the general objectives for peatland conservation, sets out measures and instruments for their attainment and highlights explicit needs for action by policymakers.

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Funding mechanisms for peatland conservation

Because of the great climate relevance of peatland, the conventional nature conservation toolbox has been supplemented in recent years with additional, independent funding mechanisms for peatland conservation.

Industrialised parties to the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted under the Framework Convention on Climate Change and has been in force since 2005, committed to reducing and stabilising their greenhouse gas emissions. Trading in emission rights is one way of attaining this objective, and the EU consequently introduced an emissions trading system in 2005. Alongside technical means of reducing GHG emissions, the system also allows for the offsetting of natural CO2/GHG sinks. Whether this includes peatlands is currently up to the individual states.

The voluntary carbon market provides an opportunity to show commitment to climate change mitigation and nature conservation above and beyond statutory obligations, enabling companies to contribute voluntarily to sustainable development under the banner of corporate social responsibility.


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The paludiculture option

Paludiculture (from ‘palus’, a swamp or marsh) is a land management technique for the cultivation of wet peatlands under conditions that maintain the peat body and ideally promote peat accumulation. The management practice is primarily used on degraded, re-wetted peatlands without protected status. The most suitable crops for cultivation are renewable biomass crops such as reeds, sedges, peat moss or alder. These can be used as growing media in horticulture and gardening, as raw materials in the building and furniture industries, and as fuels. Harvesting the biomass without causing damage requires special machinery such as tracked vehicles. As well as cutting greenhouse gas emissions, paludiculture can also benefit threatened peatland animal species such as the aquatic warbler. Paludiculture may thus highlight new approaches for the cultivation and management of wet peatlands, both for agriculture and nature conservation.

Paludiculture is currently still in the testing and development stage. A requirement for its use is that there must be no conflict with nature conservation objectives for peatlands. To avoid risks, it is necessary to lay down good farming practice for the cultivation of organic soils, conduct comprehensive risk analysis, and carry out further pilot projects and accompanying research. There is also a need for further research on biomass to energy applications.

For paludiculture to be economically competitive, drainage-based land uses (such as growing maize for energy) must cease to be subsidised, with funding being directed instead to wet, climate-friendly cultivation on organic soils. Options and conditions for financial compensation also need to be explored and put into place if found appropriate.

University of Greifswald website on paludiculture

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Peat-free gardening

According to the German Garden Industry Association (IVG), peat extraction was underway on some 26,900 ha of bogs in 2010. That is about eight percent of the bog peatland in Germany. If extraction goes on at the current rate, the peat stocks approved for extraction in Germany will be used up in ten years at the latest. Germany currently consumes far more peat than it produces. Yet peat is a finite resource. It cannot be thought of as renewable because peat cutting progresses far faster than peat grows – just 1 mm a year.

Once the peat is gone, the land no longer provides a habitat for peatland flora and fauna. Both the drained peat cuttings and the extracted peat itself add even more to CO2 emssions. Peat cutting is therefore now globally unacceptable, in terms of both nature conservation and climate change mitigation. Countries such as Switzerland and the United Kingdom have already adopted official peat phase-out strategies. A national peat phase-out strategy should likewise be formulated and adopted in Germany so that surface peat extraction ceases as soon as possible. However, less peat extraction in Germany must not be allowed to result in more extraction elsewhere. There is therefore a need to step up application-oriented research on peat substitutes together with education campaigns and consumer labelling rules.

There are already many suitable alternatives for peat. Countries that had little peatland from the outset have long used other media. France, for example, uses more bark-based growing media. Compost, bark humus and wood, coconut, miscanthus and hemp fibre contain nutrients, retain water and improve soil structure. A wide variety of peat-free growing media for diverse applications have already been developed by adding sand, lava granules and clay minerals.

A number of nature conservation organisations provide consumer information on alternatives.

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Last Change: 12/11/2020