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A short history about peatlands

Luftaufnahem Venner Moor

Germany was once a very bog-rich country, with an area of over five percent, roughly the size of Saxony (source: Mooratlas, 2023). The peatlands are mainly located in northern Germany, in Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Brandenburg, but also in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg. Over thousands of years, thick layers of peat have formed, some of which are up to eight meters thick. Today, however, peatlands have dramatically lost their area and now cover only 3.6 percent of Germany’s land area (source: GMC), 95 percent of which is drained and no longer recognizable as such a peatland. What has been formed over thousands of years has been destroyed within a few decades. In this article, you can find out exactly how peatlands in Germany have developed and what has contributed to their dramatic decline.

When is a bog a bog?

In order for a bog to be declared a bog, two things must be fulfilled for a soil scientist:

  1. At least 30 cm thick layer of peat
  2. At least 30 percent organic matter

Accordingly, the picture below is also a bog as long as the peat thickness is at least 30 cm. However, this peatland emits large quantities of greenhouse gases and is fueling the climate crisis, while the right-wing picture portrays peatlands as a climate sink. It is therefore essential to distinguish between an intact and a drained bog. The decisive factor here is the water! Botanists would also say that certain typical bog plants must also grow for a bog to be an intact bog (source: NLWKN).

Agricultural used peatland in the Venner Moor on the edge of the nature reserve

Did you know that in Germany, a 15 cm thick underground layer of peat stores as much carbon as a 100-year-old forest above ground on the same area (source: NABU)?

Why have peatlands been destroyed?

At that time, peatlands were regarded as wastelands – impenetrable mystical areas that people tried to harness for human use in various ways. The history of peatland use in Germany therefore goes far back into the past. As early as the 18th century, at the time of Prussian peatland colonization, people began draining peatlands and making it usable. At that time, the climate crisis was not yet an issue and it was primarily important to make areas urban in order to create settlement areas. Drainage was often seen as a means of economic and cultural development.

The development history of the Venner Moor is a prime example of many peatlnads in northern Germany. Today it is a 218-hectare nature reserve to the north of Osnabrück. The area is characterized by the use of peat cutting by farmers and industrial peat extraction, the remains of which are still visible today. So let’s take a little trip back in time to the 18th century to understand the development of the Venner Moor and why it is the way it is today.

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Wet and mystical bog landscape in the Venner Moor nature reserve with dead trees

Peat extraction

“To the first his death, to the second his need, to the third his bread.” This is probably the best-known saying that sums up the beginning of peatland use with all its challenges, because it took several generations before people were able to “live” from the peatland. Initially, peat extraction was primarily used for urbanization, to create settlement areas for a growing population. Later, the peat was used for heating and ultimately also for cultivating these areas. Initially, the peat was extracted by hand. Enormously hard physical work. Peat was later mined on an industrial scale for use as fuel and in horticulture.

Cultivation history

While the nutrient-rich fens could be easily used for agriculture, the raised bogs first had to be extensively peat-drained in order to cultivate them. Various methods have been used over the last few centuries, always with the aim of removing water from the peatland.

  • Fehnculture (from the 17th century): In order to make the peatland usable, elaborate canal systems were created to drain the peatland.
  • Bog burning culture (from the 18th century): A very time-consuming and low-yielding process in which the peat was burnt in a controlled manner and the fertile ash worked into the topsoil. The area could be used for 5 to 6 years, but needed 30 to 40 years to regenerate. A farmer therefore needed at least 5 areas of equal size to survive from farming. Mainly undemanding crops such as potatoes, buckwheat and oats were cultivated.
  • German raised bog cultivation (end of the 19th century): The areas no longer had to be burnt and peated in order to cultivate them, but were instead drained on a large scale. However, nutrients in the form of liquid manure and dung also had to be incorporated, which is why raised bogs are naturally very low in nutrients. However, due to the heavy peat depletion, the areas could only be used as permanent grassland after several years.
  • Mixed sand culture (from the 20th century): In this method, a thick layer of sand was applied to the previously drained areas. This process was even supported by the state in order to drain large areas and make them urban.

71% of the peatlands in Lower Saxony are currently used for agriculture (source: Mooratlas 2023). Some grassland areas were also once peatlands, but are now grazed by cows and are therefore hardly recognizable as such, as shown below.

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Rewetted and restored area in the Venner Moor nature reserve near Osnabrück

The history of peatland landscapes in Germany is characterized by human intervention such as peat extraction, agriculture and conversion to grassland. These activities have led to considerable habitat loss and the release of greenhouse gases. Despite increasing awareness of the importance of peatlands, the potential for their protection and restoration is far from exhausted.

With the donation MOORathon 2024 you can support the restoration of the Venner Moor with the movement of your choice. Help us and support our mission now to turn the moors back into climate protectors for our planet!

Let’s use the #moormentum

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