Early mention of the use of peat dates back at least to Roman times when it was used as a fuel in homes. Peat continued to play a significant economic role in countries where trees were scarce, such as Ireland and Scotland, serving as a local fuel source in place of wood. In Finland and Ireland, it is still used today at an industrial scale to generate electricity. Elsewhere in Europe and in North America, peat is mainly used in horticultural applications.
Peat production through the ages
As in Europe, initial interest in Canada centered on the production of fuel peat. Commercial operations first began in Québec in 1864 and later extended to Ontario, but the activity remained small-scaled.
A small plant for the production of peat moss litter was built near Saint John, New Brunswick. The peat produced by the Musquash Moss Litter Company was sold as bedding material for horses. Operations ceased in 1895 after the plant burned down.
During World War I, sphagnum moss and peat were gathered from peatlands near Saint John, New Brunswick, for the production of surgical dressings.
In order to reduce its dependency on imported coal, the Canadian Government conducted several surveys of peat resources across Canada.
Before World War II, most of the sphagnum moss peat used in North America came from Europe, more particularly from the Scandinavian countries, Netherlands and Germany. Because of the war, traditional sources of peat were interrupted and efforts to develop local sources of peat triggered the modern era of peat production in Canada, mainly in British Columbia, Québec and New Brunswick.
Canadian companies became the main suppliers of sphagnum peat moss for the North American market. Although mainly used for animal bedding, peat was also used in horticulture and as packing and insulation material. Harvesting the peat consisted of cutting blocks of peat by hand with shovels and stacking them for drying. The blocks were then cut into chips at the plant and pressed into bales. Increased productivity was achieved by importing cutting machines from Europe.
Peat producers gradually abandoned the block cutting method in favour of the milling method using vacuum harvesting machines to collect the peat.
This was a period of growth and product diversification with the development of specialized potting soils intended for the various horticultural markets. Plant operations and bale handling benefited from automation.
Canadian horticultural peat producers initiate the first research project on peatland restoration, conducted by the Peatland Ecology Research Group (PERG) at Université Laval. This led to the development of Canada’s expertise in peatland restoration research.
The Canadian peat industry dominated the North American market and was present in many other countries, being the first producer of horticultural peat in the world. It was also a model in terms of its approach to the development of the resource as it fully endorsed the notion of sustainability and responsible use of the resource. The development of certification took shape and ecological restoration became a common practice.
The Canadian peat industry releases its first Industry Social Responsibility report
Peat became an energy source of ever-growing importance in Europe. In those days, peat land in the Netherlands was worth three times as much as land for cultivation.
Peat began to be used as fuel in the textile, earthenware and beer brewing industries. It was also used to improve soil.
A new product appeared: ash from peat. The ash left after burning peat for home heating, high in phosphorous with a minor amount of potassium, was applied as fertilizer.
Germany developed the technology for harvesting and pressing fuel peat into small bricks. The horticultural advantages of peat were recognized.
A new peat harvesting method was introduced. After milling the surface peat, large vacuum machines were used to collect the dry surface peat layer.
The use of peat for energy production has ended in most countries, except in Ireland and Finland. The value of peat in horticultural applications is recognized worldwide and Canada is the principal exporter of sphagnum peat moss.