For centuries, UK peatlands have been subject to competing sectoral land use and resource demands, generally resulting in their progressive degradation. There is now considerable interest in improving their management, especially in the uplands, partly because of their extreme sensitivity to environmental change and partly because of increasing recognition of the range of ecosystem services they provide. A change in emphasis in the research agenda has been detected, shifting from what peat ecosystems are to what they do. This is linked to a paradigm shift in the attitude of governments and, more generally, in civil society, to account for the wider values of ecosystem functioning. The ecosystem approach is used here as a framework to present more integrated thinking about future peatland management. Key questions, identified for societal consideration and debate, are matched to the 12 principles of the ecosystem approach sensu the Convention on Biological Diversity. A case is made for a more functional approach to defining management objectives based on delivery of ecosystem services. A compatibility matrix is used to indicate the possibilities of simultaneous delivery of services and likely incompatibilities among services. A critique is presented of features of UK upland peat ecosystems which characterise their ecological ‘status’ and societal context in relation to climate-change issues. The relative importance of climate as opposed to human activities in both peat formation and subsequent development remains a tantalising question, the resolution of which is highly relevant to the maintenance of existing peat and possibilities for ecosystem restoration, given changes in the climate envelope. Setting policy priorities requires a strong interdisciplinary evidence base. It also demands greater understanding of the effects of both direct and indirect human activities, as well as climate change, on the ability of upland peat ecosystems to deliver societal benefits, which previously may have been undetected, undervalued or simply taken for granted.