Peat-free compost – list of local suppliers

We’ve started a list of local suppliers of peat-free compost (here), with prices and brands correct as at 30 March 2021; do let us know if you find any others in town. We’ll keep the list updated.

It’s important to avoid using multipurpose compost that contains peat, because of the large amount of carbon dioxide that’s released into the atmosphere when peat bogs are drained in order to extract the peat.

Peat bogs are also important for biodiversity, as they’re unique habitats that support a range of rare plants and other wildlife.

Until recently, peat-free composts tended to be more expensive, and sometimes less reliable; but this is changing as manufacturers adjust their formulations and improve their supply chains. The one real difference for ordinary gardeners is that many peat-free composts hold more water, for longer, than the old peat-containing multipurpose composts, so we have to be careful not to over-water seeds and seedlings (the top may look dry, while the compost underneath is still wet enough). This can be very useful in drought! – but it’s something to be aware of when starting seeds off.

There’s likely to be far less difference in price between peat-free and the older peat-based multipurpose composts, as an increasing number of countries ration licences for peat extraction, or ban it completely. Ireland was our main supplier (the UK has already exhausted most of its peat bogs), but they’ve banned peat extraction now.

Planning reforms and the Ox-Cam Arc – proposed changes

The Government has signalled its intent to reform England’s planning system in a white paper entitled Planning for the Future. Consultation on this closed on 29th October 2020. It is also committed to developing the Oxford-Cambridge Arc – the area that spans the five ceremonial counties of Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire- and will be consulting on this in the Spring 2021. Both these developments could have a huge impact in our area.

SB Friends of the Earth has many concerns about the planning reforms which are bad news for our communities, climate and local democracy. These include:

  • A reduction in democratic accountability and public scrutiny by undermining the ability of councils to set local planning policies and determine planning applications. Under the proposals, the development management process would be ‘streamlined’ with automatic planning permission for schemes in line with pre-agreed plans.
  • The proposals will widen and change the nature of permitted development. We are concerned that proposals will lead to homes in unsuitable locations or failing to meet basic standards.
  • In addition proper strategic environmental assessments and environmental impact assessments could be ditched – the consultation wants to make these faster and simpler.
  • South Bedfordshire and the wider south east will continue to be under pressure to increase housing development, to the detriment of efforts to combat climate change and increase biodiversity leading to
    • Loss of habitat
    • Pressure on our local rivers and streams to supply water for growing population
    • Increased water run-off from buildings leading to flooding, exacerbated by climate change
    • Housing which is built, not to the very highest efficiency standards but only “what is necessary”
  • Local new housing has often been unaffordable, even when allocated as such. Often it is not sold to first time buyers or as a primary home, rather being bought by investors or those who already have homes. There is nothing in the planning reforms or the Ox Cam Arc proposals that is likely to change this. Councils need to be supported to build affordable, efficient, low carbon housing for those most in need.
  • The proposals for the Ox-Cam Arc do not appear to have taken account ofthe loss of jobs and businesses caused by the Covid pandemic, nor any population and business changes caused by Brexit. While job growth may have outstripped housing growth in the past, the needs going forward will be very different. We need a different approach to meet net zero carbon targets which encompasses more use of technology and the development of a green economy
  • The planning system needs reforming, but not in this way. There needs to be a clear path for addressing climate change, improving biodiversity, more efficient use of technology, sustainable construction, greater resilience and a more equal society. Planning should promote health and wellbeing. It should redistribute the value of land. Planning permission triggers significant increases in the value of land, especially in South Bedfordshire and the South East where a piece of land may have a business opportunity 60 times or more of its agricultural value simply by being given planning permission. This contributes to the excessive cost of housing.

SB FoE will continue to campaign for a planning system and local development that addresses climate change and improves biodiversity and equality.

New interpretation board for Parson’s Close

Some of our members have made a new interpretation board for one of our bee-friendly sites, the one on the banks of the Clipstone Brook as it goes through the bottom of Parsons’ Close. There’s information about some of the insects and plants you can see there, now the wild flowers we’ve encouraged over the last few years have really begun to get established. Thanks to Leight0n-Linslade Town Council for the posts and boards to attach the interpretation board to!

Peat and gardening (again)

It’s still freezing, but winter aconites and snowdrops are coming into flower, and gardeners’ thoughts turn to sowing seedings and planting things.

Mainstream gardening media now urge us to use ‘peat-free’ compost, because digging up peat increases carbon emissions by releasing stored carbon into the air. Also, the peat bogs that are drained to provide our multipurpose compost are rare habitats, with their own biodiversity; they take on average 1500 years to form one metre of peat, yet that can be destroyed in a few hours with modern machinery.

Although we might only buy one or two bags of multipurpose compost a year, if it’s based on peat (and most still are), all those single bags add up; the amateur gardening market uses nearly double the amount of peat than the whole of the commercial horticultural sector (source: UK Government figures for 2019 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/peat-usage-in-growing-media-production#history.

Peat-free alternatives have improved tremendously over the last few years. They may still be a little more expensive, though this may change as more countries ban peat mining because of its damaging effect on climate change. For example, most of the peat used in multipurpose composts in the UK has come from the Republic of Ireland up till now, but Ireland recently announced a ban on mining peat for horticultural use.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be collating information about people’s experience with various brands, and we’ll also try and publicise details of who’s selling which brands, locally. And we’ll try and suggest a few non-commercial alternatives that work (spoiler: most experts recommend using commercial compost for seed-sowing, as drainage and sterility are important; but after that, there are homemade alternatives that would save money as well as the environment).

New banner on Engine Idling

Air quality – we have produced three banners reminding motorists to turn off their engines when the car isn’t moving. One of the local schools has asked for a banner, and other places have expressed interest in having one to remind people. There’s more on our page about air quality explaining in a bit more detail why it’s important. to prevent air pollution.

Help Central Beds Council find places for trees and shrubs!

06 January 2021

Central Bedfordshire Council’s sustainability plan1 makes provision for planting a million trees by 2030., to help absorb carbon, reduce pollution, and help wildlife. Trees and shrubs can welcome shade in summer, and help reduce flooding.

Now CBC needs to know where to plant them! Can you think of a space where even a single tree or shrub could be planted? Perhaps there is a small patch of mown grass, or a corner of a field near you, where there’s room for a tree or shrub, or a small group of them. NB It’s important not to choose anywhere that’s already a good carbon sink, like established pasture, or anywhere that’s important for wildlife.

A motion was passed by Central Bedfordshire Council in February 2019 to set aside £1.68 million for tree and shrub planting, to combat climate change and support birds, butterflies and other insects.

Shrubs like guelder rose, dogwood and spindle can be really useful for biodiversity, and their much smaller root systems cause fewer problems than larger trees in an urban area. Hawthorn trees are small, but they support so much wildlife: “Common hawthorn can support more than 300 insects. It is the foodplant for caterpillars of moths, including the hawthorn, orchard ermine, pear leaf blister, rhomboid tortrix, light emerald, lackey, vapourer, fruitlet-mining tortrix, small eggar and lappet moths. Its flowers are eaten by dormice and provide nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinating insects. The haws are rich in antioxidants and are eaten by migrating birds, such as redwings, fieldfares and thrushes, as well as small mammals. The dense, thorny foliage makes fantastic nesting shelter for many species of bird.” (https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/a-z-of-british-trees/hawthorn/)

Community groups can apply for a grant for planting trees and shrubs – details here:  https://www.centralbedfordshire.gov.uk/info/42/stronger_communities/678/community_grants/4#:~:text=About%20our%20tree%20grant%20fund,November%202020%20to%20March%202021).

However, if you don’t belong to a group and you see an area near you that is crying out for shrubs or trees, and you could find enough people to help water the plants over the first couple of years as they get established, do contact South Beds Friends of the Earth (info@soutbedsfoe.co.uk) and we’ll help put you in touch with people at Central Bedfordshire Council who can help. Or you could contact Cllr Victoria Harvey, who seconded the motion and is working closely with officers to deliver the project.

1 https://centralbedfordshire.app.box.com/s/ejlz0344y534z796lyglaykwd3rua9s

Box on page 17 – “1 million trees planted by the Council by 2030”

Air pollution

17 December 2020

Air pollution has been in the news this week, with a landmark ruling that air pollution contributed to a child’s death. Announcing the ruling, assistant coroner Philip Barlow said today: “I will conclude that Ella died of asthma, contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution.”

The ruling is likely to increase pressure on the government and on local councils to start taking real action to reduce air pollution, which in many places is well above legal limits.

This is an issue that affects everyone; it’s generally accepted that outdoor air pollution kills 40,000 people a year. The ruling has been reported very widely, not just in environmental sections – for example, see reports from the Daily Mail, The Sun, The Telegraph, The Guardian, and the BBC

We’ve just published a leaflet on engine idling, and have a little more information about it here.

Briefing our MP on plastic

In September 2020, several members of South Beds Friends of the Earth had a Zoom meeting with our MP, Andrew Selous, about strengthening the Environment Bill that was due to restart its passage through Parliament.

He shared our concern that the Bill as it stood wasn’t strong enough, and we discussed ways we might help him improve it. He asked us for a briefing on why plastic pollution is so harmful, and in particular, to flag any evidence so far on harmful effects to humans. The briefing we sent is here

Brian Eversham’s talk on ‘Nature and Climate’, 01 February 2020

Earlier this month, All Saints Church was again packed again for a meeting organised by Leighton-Linslade Low Carbon Town (the partnership between Christian Ecology Leighton Linslade and South Bedfordshire Friends of the Earth). This time the talk was presented by Brian Eversham, Chief Executive of the Beds, Northants and Cambs Wildlife Trust, Wildlife Trust for Beds, Cambs and Northants and Visiting Professor, Cranfield University, on the subject ‘Nature and Climate: what’s happening to local wildlife? how can nature help us?

We had intended to post a report of Professor Eversham’s talk, but it was so full of interesting information that we’ve found it impossible to condense; we’ll probably split it into two or three blog posts, so we can include some of the slides he very kindly gave us. There’s a lot to think about in it.

Meanwhile, if you fancy pre-empting us, Professor Eversham gave us a link to a very similar one he gave a few years ago – you can find it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4quVtXyHxGQh .

And below is the press release we sent the Leighton Buzzard Observer, which will give you a flavour of the talk. Watch this space for our more detailed reports!

Churchwarden Nick Clarke welcomed the audience and invited our local MP, Andrew Selous, to chair the meeting. Mr Selous commented that we would all have noticed the decline in sparrows around our houses, and in farmland birds generally.

Professor Eversham said that climate scientists’ predictions are gradually coming true, with more frequent and more violent natural disasters like the apocalyptic wildfires in Australia and California, and the more frequent and more devastating flooding in many countries, including the UK. It’s happening now.

Wildlife living in northern and upland areas will be worse off than species living in southern and lowland areas, as there won’t be so many places it can migrate to. Wildlife has had to do this before, during ice age cycles millions of years ago, when our wildlife managed to migrate from the Mediterranean, back to Leighton Buzzard, and back to the Mediterranean, eight times in the last million years, twenty times in the last three million years.

However, this time around Britain is an island, cut off from mainland Europe. And we’ve built major cities, and a motorway network, and a rail network – we’ve carved the countryside up, so wildlife responding to climate change can no longer move easily from place to place. New developments, new roads and railways not only destroy habitats directly, but they stop wildlife moving around in response to climate change.

Also, for the first time in sixty million years, the climate is warming from an already warm period, which none of our current species has ever experienced. We should take our children to walk in bluebell woods pretty soon, because as the climate warms, trees will come into leaf earlier, and the flowers won’t get the spring sunshine they need to reproduce; we won’t have carpets of bluebells any more.

We need to keep any rise in temperature to one and a half degrees, which will mean sea levels rise by up to half a metre. We’d be able to protect the fenlands of East Anglia, which are the most productive agricultural land in the country. But if the temperature rises more than that, sea levels would rise by a metre or more and we won’t be able to protect that area – we’ll have Peterborough-on-Sea, and we’ll lose the best farming land this country has.

Another huge threat to wildlife is tidiness on agricultural land and in gardens. A couple of generations ago, you would never have seen a clean crop without weeds; now, if a field has poppies in it, people come from miles around to photograph it. Wildlife needs places where we let the grass grow longer and where we don’t cut things back over the winter.

For the last twenty years or so, the Wildlife Trusts have worked on maintaining ‘Living Landscapes’, linking protected areas into bigger nature reserves connected by wildlife corridors and better managed with climate change in mind, and reconnected to their local communities. If people don’t know about or hear about wildlife, they will not protect it.

We also need to see that any development that damages wildlife habitat puts back more habitat than it destroys. We can’t have developers blackmailing local authorities into saying ‘Well, you can either have a road junction, or you can have green space. You can either have a school, or you can have green space.’ If a development is to happen, it needs to provide a full set of resources.

We already know how nature can help us; we just need to let it. You don’t need to plant trees to create woodland, you simply need to stop preventing trees growing and they will create their own habitat of trees and scrub and grassland. And after seventy years, the grassland around them will store nearly as much carbon in its soil as the trees have in their timber.

Peat bogs bury carbon in their peat soil, and sequesters it for literally tens of thousands of years. The sad thing about peat bogs is that most of them have been destroyed, mainly to be bagged up as multipurpose compost for gardeners. And farming on drained peat soils loses nearly an inch of peat a year.

Carbon offsetting isn’t really a solution, thinking we can just carry on emitting carbon and plant a few trees instead.

Future generations will be baffled that we wasted all the oil and coal we have by just burning it. We could have had enough renewable energy for the whole planet instead, and saved the oil and coal as rare and precious commodity to make the plastics we really need and which we don’t have alternative materials for.

Questions from the audience included how we can mitigate the damage that will be caused by the proposed Oxford to Cambridge expressway; how can new developments be built with high-quality green spaces for wildlife and people, as at Cambourne in South Cambridgeshire; and how we must see that when the UK chairs the COP26 meeting this autumn on climate change, we achieve real international leadership on climate change, not just talking about it.

Andrew Selous commented, “We are building brand new houses now that are what I call the houses of yesterday”; he mentioned the installation of gas-fired central heating, and a lack of newer technologies such as built-in photovoltaics and ground-source heat pumps. He then pointed out that fitting gas-fired heating in new homes will be illegal by 2025, so houses built now will need to be retrofitted – why can we not get it right first time?

Afterwards, many people stayed behind to discuss specific issues in small groups. The main message from all the groups was that we need to make sure our local councillors know that the town’s residents care about loss of habitats, and would like more action to prevent climate change – only one councillor attended the meeting!

For further information and practical actions, see the South Beds Friends of the Earth website at http://southbedsfoe.co.uk/, email us at  info@southbedsfoe.co.uk , or follow our Facebook page.