Northern Ireland growers have warned a ban on peat proposed in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs' (DAERA's) new Peatlands Strategy could wipe out the region's horticultural industry.

The Northern Ireland Peatlands Strategy 2021-2040 drafted by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs is currently under consultation.

The strategy will also encourage government bodies and agencies to stop using peat by the end of 2022.

It will also seek to ban the use, import and sale of peat compost in Northern Ireland by 2025, and conduct a review on the potential for a ban on peat extraction on all publicly owned land by 2022.

The Horticulture Forum, which draws its membership from across the whole horticulture industry, said that while it appreciated the need for such a strategy and supported the “direction of travel” of the proposals, it expressed concern at their potentially serious economic impact.

The group claimed the consultation had not adequately assessed the economic impact assessment on the sector which, despite huge investment in the search for alternatives, still relies on peat for both plant propagation and mushroom production.

The production element of the industry generates £100 million in gross output for the Northern Ireland economy.

Peat alternatives

Over recent years, great strides have been made in identifying peat alternatives containing materials such as bark, wood fibre, coir (coconut fibre), anaerobic digestate, bracken, wool and green waste compost.

However, according to growers, there are some uses for which no successful alternatives have yet been found, including plant propagation modules and mushroom casing materials. Research is ongoing but will take considerable time and sustained investment to produce results.

The recent Growing Media Monitor prepared by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and trade organisations found that last year, peat still accounted for 41% of the 5.6 million cubic metres of growing media used by professional growers and amateur gardeners in the UK.

Doug Thomson, a nursery stock grower, said: “The proposals, if implemented, will have a serious effect on an industry which recognises and supports the need to change.

The timescales to find and source alternatives contained in the consultation document are, in our view, unreasonable and unrealistic.”

David Dallas, representing a major mushroom producer group stressed that despite a considerable amount of research, no commercially viable alternative to peat has yet been identified.

“Until a suitable substitute is available, the loss of peat for mushroom casing will wipe out the mushroom production sector in Northern Ireland – a sector which has a farm-gate value of £46 million and employs 1,000 people," he said.

Hamilton Loney, chairperson of the Horticulture Forum for Northern Ireland, added: “We are supportive of the intention and direction of travel of this strategy and offered comment on individual elements in a spirit of constructive engagement while driven by the very serious concern expressed by our members.

"We stand ready to contribute to further discussion of elements of the proposals which are relevant to the interest and experience of members of the Horticulture Forum for Northern Ireland.”