Natural England launched a "comprehensive review" of the condition of England's peatlands and the vital role they play in combating climate change last week, in a report titled 'England's Peatlands - Carbon Storage and Greenhouse Gases'.
The report provides detailed mapping information on the extent and condition of England's peatlands.
The report says damage has been caused by "drainage, regular burning or cultivation", adding: "In essence, the mechanism that would allow England's peatlands to actively store up new reserves of carbon has been turned off."
The report estimates that peatlands are releasing almost three million tonnes of CO2 each year - equivalent to the average emissions of over 350,000 households.
Natural England chief executive Helen Phillips said: "This report is a wake-up call - England's peatlands are a crucial buffer against climate change but have been extensively damaged by centuries of inappropriate management. We have to stop the rot and ensure that peatlands are properly looked after as one of our most precious environmental resources."
The report found that around 40% of deep lowland fen peat is now under cultivation and a further 22% is drained for intensive livestock grazing. Some 30% of our upland blanket peat is under rotationally burnt moorland. More than a fifth of blanket peat has been dried out by shallow moorland drains called "grips", while 14% are marked by "haggs" and gullies - the erosion features that form as peat becomes exposed and is washed away.
The report says re-wetting dried out bogs and minimising damaging practices could "substantially" reduce these carbon losses and "cost-effectively deliver an important contribution to meeting the UK's carbon targets".
Philips added: "We can no longer approach peatlands as limitless resources that we can exploit without consequence. Their condition has major implications for our response to climate change, the alleviation of flooding, the quality of our water supplies and the future of many rare and important species. Our report has shown the value of peatland restoration in the battle against climate change and we should do all we can to give peatlands a more sustainable future."
Following the recent launch by Defra of their Act on CO2 peat campaign targeting amateur gardeners who use the majority of the peat (around 70%) that is used in horticulture, Environment Secretary Hilary Benn MP said: "Natural England's report is a timely reminder of what's at stake if we fail to look after our peatlands. Peat soils are extremely valuable carbon stores as well as being home to wildlife and important to archaeology, and we should be doing everything we can to protect them."