Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be
The wet center is bottomless.
The wet center is bottomless no more. Seamus Heaney’s famous description of the Irish peat bog captures the omnivorous durability that has made them physical and metaphorical distillations of the land for millennia. Anything that can swallow an elk is a force to be reckoned with, but bogs have retreated in the face of modern appetites. They are becoming shallow, scattered testaments to past abundance. Last month, the Irish Peatland Conservation Council released a preview of its independent review of peatlands, which is due for release later this year. Peatlands have deteriorated substantially since the last report, conducted in 2010. Turf cutting has impacted 33% of the 1,182 sites in the study, 36% have been damaged by drainage, and less than 10% have seen any restoration efforts.
Ireland’s mantle of peat varies widely based on local topography, soil, and climate, but it is home to two broad categories: blanket bog and raised bog. Both are ombrotrophic, meaning that they receive most of their water from precipitation and are therefore acidic. Blanket bogs, common in the west of Ireland, typically cover large areas of flat or undulating land and average two to five meters in depth. Raised bogs, found mostly in the Midlands, are usually four to eight meters, but some, such as Raheenmore Bog in Co Offaly, reach depths of up to fifteen meters. Both categories are nominally protected under the EU Habitats Directive, but bogs and fens have the highest proportion of habitat assessed as unfavorable or bad of any habitat classification. In Ireland, raised bogs are especially vulnerable, persisting only in tiny, fragmented pockets. Industrial peat extraction is the main culprit in this decline. Peat has been used as an energy source in Ireland for thousands of years, but it was not until the turn of the nineteenth century that bog coverage began to drop precipitously. Even though peat extraction has been an industrial process throughout the modern era, it still bears romantic connotations for many people. In an interview with irish environment, Tony Lowes, Friends of the Irish Environment director, put it this way: “Peat extraction has been the largest unregulated mining operation in Europe. It’s associated with folksiness and country roads, but although it may seem heartwarming, it is environmentally disastrous.”
Photo by The Living Bog
Aside from preserving existing bogs, the obvious solution to the cultural and environmental void that bogs have left in their wake is rewetting. An ambitious effort to restore and expand peatlands carried out in close consultation with local communities would be socially and environmentally beneficial. Perhaps the greatest advantage would be carbon sequestration. Although bogs cover only three percent of the earth’s land area, they contain twice the amount of CO2 held by the world’s forests and are second only to the oceans as a carbon sink. According to Ireland’s National Peatlands Strategy, the country’s peatlands contain 1,566 million tons of carbon, roughly 64% of the total soil carbon stock. Another argument in favor of rewetting is the relative ease with which it can be accomplished. Many bogs require only gentle assistance. When drainage ditches are blocked, rainwater increases the water level, erosion ceases and within a few years sphagnum mosses, butterworts, sundews, and other bog plants return. The bog can be fully functional within five to fifteen years.
Because healthy peatlands are such potent carbon sinks, damaged ones are downright dangerous. The low oxygen levels of intact bogs inhibit the digestion of organic material by aerobic microbes. When bogs are drained or disturbed, decomposition accelerates and carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. The one caveat to this seemingly simple equation is methane. Peatland rewetting effectively stops CO2 emissions, but it also results in renewed methane output. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the benefits of CO2 sequestration far exceed the repercussions of heightened methane emissions. Last spring, a study by Günther et al found that methane radiative forcing does not undermine the climate change mitigation potential of rewetting. Although methane is about thirty times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2, their results indicate that rewetting diminishes long-term warming. This is because of the comparatively small quantities of methane emitted and the fact that it only remains in the atmosphere for around ten years rather than 300 to 1,000 in the case of CO2. These findings are consistent with those of other reputable studies, including the 2012 Carbon Restore report by Dr David Wilson of University College Dublin, commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency. Dr. Wilson’s research demonstrated that rewetting cutaway bogs would yield environmental and economic benefits. Drawing on his findings, the Joint Committee on Climate Action advised the government in 2019 to rewet 270,000 hectares over the next twenty years, including an initial 130,000 hectares by 2030.
Photo by The Living Bog
Bogs are beginning to make waves in the legal sphere as well. In July, the European Commission issued a Reasoned Opinion in which it chastised Ireland for its failure to assess the environmental impact of industrial peat extraction. The Commission gave Ireland three months to bring itself into compliance, after which it may refer the matter to the Court of Justice of the EU. In the past month alone, two cases relevant to bogs have come before the Supreme Court of Ireland. The environmental organization Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) is arguing that a July 1 Supreme Court decision struck down the provisions of the Planning Act under which seven planning applications from Bord na Móna and one from Westlands Horticultural were made. The Court struck down the process partly because it did not allow for public participation when permission to apply for ‘substitute consent’ is first requested from An Bord Pleanála. In a July 28 hearing, neither An Bord Pleanála nor the State clarified whether they would concede or contest the cases. The matter will be heard again on November 10.
Furthermore, the Court ruled unanimously in favor of FIE in the “Climate case,” finding that Ireland’s 2017 National Mitigation Plan fell “well short” of the government’s obligations under the 2015 Climate Act. The Act commits the government to achieving the transition to a “low carbon, climate resilient and environmentally sustainable economy by end of the year 2050.” The Court’s ruling requires the government to formulate a more concrete and ambitious plan. Bogs do not figure directly into the case, but the court’s ruling has provided the government with an opportunity to incorporate a more ambitious peatland agenda into its new National Mitigation Plan. In addition to its immediate implications, the case is consequential because it means that all future National Mitigation Plans will be subject to judicial review. All the same, progress will not come without the strident efforts of constituents and environmental organizations. In an August 7 interview with Green News, Dr. Áine Ryall, Co-director of the Centre for Law and the Environment at University College Cork, said, “Everything turns on the public keeping up the pressure on Government for more ambitious and more urgent action on climate.” Supporters of peatland conservation should indeed remain wary, but the contents of the 2020 Programme for Government and comments by members of the government leave room for cautious optimism that a new peatland paradigm will be forthcoming.
Photo by The Living Bog
Last month, Malcolm Noonan, Minister of State for heritage and electoral reform, visited sites in Meath and Westmeath that are being restored through the joint efforts of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Bord na Móna, and the Irish Peatlands Conservation Council. One of the bogs he toured, Crosswood Bog Special Area of Conservation in Westmeath, is one of nine raised bogs in the Midlands that Bord na Móna is restoring. In his remarks, Minister Noonan underscored the potential of bog restoration to combat climate change, noting that the restoration of over 1,800ha of raised bog – currently funded under the carbon tax fund – will reduce annual carbon emissions by 4,945 tons. Meanwhile, Minister of State for land use and biodiversity Pippa Hackett called for new locally led payment schemes for rewetting peatland in the Midlands under the umbrella of the Rural Development Programme.
The government also allocated €15 million in its July stimulus package to restore 33,000 hectares of Bord na Móna peatlands. The Irish Times welcomed this announcement in its “View” article on the subject but noted that two conditions that the government has itself outlined must be fulfilled: the rehabilitation must not be perfunctory, and the process should facilitate an equitable transition for workers whose jobs are affected. The 2020 Programme for Government commits the state to supporting a just transition for workers and conducting a feasibility study on the establishment of a “Renewable Energy Hub” in the Midlands. It also states that the government will carry out a national land use review including farmland, forests, and peatlands. Further rewetting will, it says, “be considered.”
One of the challenges of bog conservation is that damage is not always obvious. Even a superficially intact bog can become a net emitter of CO2 if it is damaged by overgrazing, tree planting, or burning. For instance, blanket bogs subjected to grazing can lose four to six times more carbon than pristine ones. Among the more unexpected culprits of peatland destruction are wind farms. Blanket bogs are often located on ridges and mountain tops–perfect terrain for turbines. The vehicle tracks and excavation associated with wind farm construction and maintenance can convert bogs almost instantaneously from carbon sinks to carbon bombs. They can also vitiate peatlands in the long term by creating new drainage channels that hasten erosion and permanently lower the water table. A study published in June by Chico et al. in Earth Surface Processes and Landforms found that this drainage can affect the whole peatland, not just areas adjacent to the turbines. They concluded that this release could, in many cases, neutralize the drawdown benefits of the wind farm.
It is against this backdrop that Midlands residents and wildlife groups are urging Bord na Móna to abandon its plan for a wind farm on a bog at Derryadd, Co Longford, which is located within an area designated by the Longford County Council as the Mid-Shannon Wilderness Park. An Bord Pleanála approved it even though the planning inspector it assigned to the case recommended refusal. Bord na Móna has countered that the wind farm and surrounding buffer zone would “only” comprise 200 hectares of the 1,900 identified for the park. It has also asserted that the wind farm would cut CO2 emissions much more than the bog beneath it. This is true if one discounts the potential for damage to the bog, but the findings of Chico et al. merit, at minimum, a reappraisal of the potential for long-term harm.
The implications of wind farms for peatlands are potentially far-reaching. As Bord na Móna transitions to a peat-free future, some of its holdings will be reassigned to bog reclamation projects, but others will be repurposed for clean energy production. The company’s future, and those of the employees who depend on it, will require a successful shift to producing renewable energy on their 80,000 hectares. Bord na Móna will therefore have to walk a tightrope, producing clean energy while minimizing harm to peatlands. In light of the recent discoveries about wind turbines, it should conduct thorough environmental impact assessments to ensure that wind farms are placed in the areas least prone to destabilization. More fragile terrain may be better suited to restoration, solar arrays, or other comparatively low impact activities.
Photo by Bord na Móna
Not long ago, the elimination of peat from Ireland’s energy matrix would have seemed unfathomable. It has been a key energy source for thousands of years, and its importance only grew in the twentieth century, when the exigencies of World War II led to the creation of Bord na Móna and the near sanctification of industrialized turf cutting. That era is coming to an end– Bord na Móna has committed to a complete phase out of peat-generated electricity by 2027. The unused peatlands resulting from this phase will make restoring peatlands easier, but these efforts will nonetheless be met with strong opposition in some quarters. This was made clear in the reaction of the Irish Natura & Hill Farmers Association (INHFA) to the EU’s new Biodiversity Strategy. The Strategy calls for the creation of Strictly Protected Areas, which would include peatlands and reclaimed wetlands. The INHFA says this policy could stop all farming on marginal and reclaimed wetlands. Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice said it would transform the west of Ireland “into a theme park” if applied to the twenty percent of land across the country classified as peatland.
This controversy came on the heels of another brouhaha, which arose between the INHFA and the Irish Wildlife Trust when the latter advocated removing sheep from the commonages on the Nephin Mountains and Owenduff in Co Mayo. For peatland restoration to achieve and retain a public mandate, it will have to be made compatible with the prosperity of local communities through payment schemes, retraining programs, investment in rural ecotourism, and allowance of low-impact enterprise in less sensitive areas. On one hand, bogs are museums that present an unrivaled historical and ecological record. They are also living landscapes in which a delicate balance must be struck between flora, fauna, and local communities.
James FitzGerald is Senior Intern at irish environment magazine and a student at Williams College, Massachusetts, where he majors in history and Chinese. He is currently writing a thesis on the history of environmental policy in the Brazilian Amazon.