Rates of disappearance of dead material of Polytrichum alpestre and Chorisodontium aciphyllum from a moss turf community and of Drepanocladus uncinatus, Calliergon sarmentosum and Cephaloziella varians from a moss carpet community, measured using litter bags over 2 years, were 1.5% year-1. Decomposition potential, estimated using loss in tensile strength of cotton strips inserted into the different bryophytes on the two sites, was also low. Ranking the five plant species in order of decomposition potential, from highest to lowest, gave D. uncinatus, C. aciphyllum, C. sarmentosum, P. alpestre and C. varians. The time taken for the tensile strength of the cotton strips at depths of 1–3 and 4–6 cm beneath the surface to decline by 50% varied from 1–2 years under the first two species to 3–4 years beneath the last two species. The main causes of these slow rates were low temperatures, short active season and low pH. Differences in decomposition between species, sites and with depth were related to temperature, nutrient status, water content and anaerobic conditions. Variation in anaerobic conditions beneath D. uncinatus, C. sarmentosum and C. varians in the moss carpet resulted in wide variation of decomposition rate beneath these species and with depth beneath C. varians. The peat in the moss turf was aerobic and experienced higher temperatures, but the average decomposition rate was no higher than in the moss carpet, because the peat was of a poorer quality and had a lower pH.