During the last century, one of humanity’s main goals has always been constant growth, in order to reach undefined well-being. This growth can be seen in everyday life and it affects agriculture above all. Major impacts include the impoverishment of soil, deterioration of water quality and the destruction of natural environments. So, sustainability is the new frontier in human development and finding the balance between nature and human needs.

Can this balance be applicable to peatlands? The short answer to this question is yes, possibly.

Paludiculture is the use of peatlands for agriculture or forestry, without draining the land itself. Suitable crops are alder and cattails. Using this methodology, peat can be conserved, while, at the same time, leaving space for the production of biomass. This practice could be an important element in climate action since draining bogs contributes significantly to the emission of greenhouse gases. 

One type of paludiculture is Sphagnum farming. This uses sphagnum mosses as a crop and can replace peat for horticultural use as it has the same properties. Its use would stop turf-cutting practices for horticulture. 

To understand better how paludiculture and sphagnum farming work, I organised an interview with Dr Hans Joosten, professor at University of Greifswald, where he teaches Peatland Studies and Paleoecology. Dr Joosten has devoted his life to the protection of peatlands. For 20, years he was Secretary-General of the International Mire Conservation Group [mire equals active bog, ed].

“I invented the word “paludiculture” in 1998, in an article about the necessity for peat farming. I visited Ireland for the first time in 1986 to install dams in Clara Bog in the Midlands. And even though the first steps for the restoration and conservation of peatlands were taken, in Europe there was still a big pressure for peat extraction. So, the issue still is that we need to find an alternative”.

Dr Joosten during our interview

So, the most relevant question now is: can Paludiculture or Sphagnum farming be considered as tools for bogs’ conservation? 

Not completely: Paludiculture is focused on production and that will always contradict conservation in some way. But this practice is more sustainable and can contribute to nature’s protection. That’s because peatlands have always been used to extract peat, and they end up drained and depleted. However, with paludiculture (or, more precisely, with sphagnum farming) you can produce a peatlands’ crop without actually destroying the environment itself. Indeed, in a bog, only a small part of the primary production of mosses becomes peat (around 10/15%), so the remaining 90/85% can be harvested and treated in order to be used for horticultural purposes.

On one hand, peatlands are used for peat extraction, but they are also drained to gain arable or grazing land. Could paludiculture be used to rewet a bog as well? 

Paludiculture was actually born with that purpose. To drain a bog for use in agriculture is unsustainable, however to rewet land and leave it for wilderness is unsustainable as well, as it reduces arable land. Paludiculture focuses on finding agricultural techniques that work in wet conditions and that can produce something useful. This may seem too complex to put in place but remember that draining a peatland leads to a lot of maintenance problems for the field, that requires a lot of work in any case.

Can these practices be put in place by a single local farmer, or is there a need for an expert to lead this kind of work? 

Certainly, this topic is still developing and is still being studied. First of all, you cannot think of sphagnum as a normal plant, but as a crop: you want to maximise its production. So, we have done a lot of experiments regarding for example how water levels can change the output. Other variables are the use of fertilisers or different variants. These concepts are applicable to every crop. You cannot expect that a single farmer is going to undertake this. The effort should be shared by the community or even the country itself. Let’s start by saying that in Ireland you have the perfect conditions for these practices. So there’s a good starting point…

Sphangum moss could be used as a crop for agriculture
Sphagnum moss

Do you think that the EU is facilitating this kind of conversation, or is this still an unknown topic? 

In this case, we need to truly differentiate paludiculture and sphagnum farming: the latter is still not known enough, but we’re working on it. As for paludiculture, it has long been hindered by European laws. For instance, if a farmer who is cultivating a crop on drained soil, would try to rewet that land for paludiculture, they would then lose their direct payment [element of EU agricultural support: a form of payment that is not linked to production, ed.]. This is because paludiculture is not recognised as a form of agriculture.

When we started this kind of project, we managed to rewet a piece of land. Under EU regulations, this was seen as a loss of grassland and so of biodiversity. This is unbelievable! Rewetting brings back much more biodiversity and equilibrium in terms of carbon emissions. So, we had to buy another grassland area to leave it for wilderness to “equal” the change. It would be very restrictive money-wise for people to follow our example!

We are currently lobbying for these regulations to be changed, and we succeeded in getting paludiculture explicitly mentioned in the CAP, so payments will be available for this practice. I think Europe is ready for this change!

That’s great news and really something to look forward to! Thank you for your time!

So, maybe paludiculture and sphagnum farming are not the complete answer to the conservation of peatlands, but they could surely be a good compromise. This practice could be used to rewet arable or grazing land without losing the benefit of production. These “renewed” wetlands might not go back to wild nature, but they could have a great impact on reduction of CO2 emissions, improvements in soil and water quality and increase of biodiversity along with a resource for new incomes in rural areas.

Article written by Silvia Contin

Read also: The Process of Change for Peatlands’ Sake – interview with Nuala madigan from IPCC

Visit MoorWissen for further information on paludiculture