The message of a recent report on bogs in Ireland is unambiguous: bogs are critical resources for the Irish people, and the protected bogs need not to be cut but to be left alone or restored. We have heard this message before, from the European Union and from environmental activists such as Tony Lowes and the Friends of the Irish Environment. The importance of this additional support for the message is that it is from a broad range of Irish scientists and academics, using a “strong scientific and socio-economic evidence base,” and funded as part of the important Irish EPA research program, Science, Technology, Research and Innovation for the Environment (STRIVE). No longer can the opponents of protecting the environmental benefits of our bogs raise the EU flag to flog outsiders trying to destroy a piece of Ireland. The bogs are there for all the people of Ireland to benefit from.
The activities that have threatened and continue to threaten the bogs are no surprise: industrial and domestic peat extraction, private afforestation, overgrazing, and recreational pursuits. A more recent threat is that associated with wind farms since there have been several instances of peat slope failures resulting from the construction of wind farms on or near bogs. Politically, the domestic harvesting of peat remains the most contentious issue.
Scope and Value of Bogs
While much remains unknown about the full scope and range of bogs in Ireland, the report details what we know, in part from the work of this group. Peat soils cover 1,466,469 hectares (ha) or 20.6% of the land in the Republic of Ireland (RoI), and there are “no more intact raised bog landscapes in Ireland.” What remains of active raised bogs, about 2,000 ha, is being destroyed by 2-4% every year by turf cutting. Less is known about the area covered by active blanket bogs, but it too remains under threat from cutting and development. While we bemoan the ongoing loss of rainforest in far away places, an equally deplorable loss is happening under our noses.
What are we losing from the destruction of the bogs that the authors call “our oldest natural heritage” and the “country’s last great area of wilderness”? As turf cutting and other activities destroy bogs, we lose critical biodiversity that provides a habitat for unique flora and fauna. The report has expanded the knowledge of what species live in the bogs, how they contribute to the total value of natural resources in the country, and how these resources can be managed in the future to preserve them. As a result of the work of the researchers, two species not before known in Ireland were identified — one a mite and one a beetle — as was one other mite species that may be new to science in general.
Perhaps for the first time, the report thoroughly documents the critical role that the bogs play in managing the level of carbon in the Irish atmosphere and in efforts to control the runaway emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Irish and global atmosphere. The high water table of the bogs promotes the preservation of dead vegetative matter without decay, which in turn serves as an efficient and extensive sink for capturing and storing carbon from the air. Raised bogs in particular are very effective carbon sinks. When the bogs are cut or disturbed, the carbon no longer is stored but instead CO2 is released into the atmosphere contributing to global climate change. The report refers to these processes as the “carbon dynamics” of bogs.
In assessing the climate change implications of the destruction of the bogs, the researchers found that more than 75% of the soil organic carbon in Ireland is contained within peatlands. Near-intact (not badly destroyed by cutting) bogs may sequester about 57,402 tons Carbon/year, which is equivalent to 0.21 Metric tons of CO2.
The report demonstrates that while turf cutting may bring private benefits for those who burn this fossil fuel, it also has social costs paid for by the entire community. It can also be argued that those who burn the peat are exposed to adverse health effects from breathing in the smoke from burning peat. After all, “Peat is amongst the most carbon intensive of fuels.” At 129.
The group offers thirty-nine recommendations for addressing the problem and all are thoughtful and deserve attention. Here we will focus on certain of the 10 “critical” recommendations (Note 1). Establishing a National Peatland Strategy, a National Peatland Park, and a Peatland Strategy Working Group are all sensible institutional policy steps to further protect the bogs, but they all will take time and financing to implement. Money is obviously hard to come by at the moment, and for the short-term future, and time is not on the side of the bogs, with 2-4% of raised bogs destroyed each year.
These institutional structures can address the sensitive issues such as how to implement a cessation of turf cutting on all designated bogs, including blanket bogs, and how to manage any turf cutting on other bogs so that the cutting does not aggravate the carbon emissions and loss of biodiversity. This longer-term process can also address the politically and socially sensitive issue of what the report calls, “the cultural attachment to turf cutting.” Such an attachment, whatever its origins and continued viability, needs to be balanced against the environmental and climate impacts from turf cutting, and an educational campaign to this effect is needed. John Hines postcards were charming in their time, but that time passed away a long time ago.
In the meantime, the priority must be to immediately do what the law already provides: stop people from cutting on the 55 raised bogs that are designated Special Areas of Conservation. National authorities, and politicians, are obligated to not just keep re-declaring what the law already provides, but they are obliged to actually take enforcement action, including fines and criminal sanctions, to the extent permitted, against those who refuse to obey the law. As the report concludes, “… the majority of peatlands have been damaged because of legislative inertia and lack of enforcement” (at page 4). Designation as protected spaces and other paper protections are no longer enough.
While the report repeatedly calls for immediate enforcement of the law against ongoing illegal turf cutting, there is scant attention as to just what “enforcement” is available and who is going to apply it. While “enforcement” has been taken by appeals to the EU for failures of the Irish government to implement Directives, what is needed now is enforcement against individual illegal acts of turf cutting. What remains to be seen is what laws exist that allow for such enforcement and who is going to take such enforcement – local authorities? EPA? Public Prosecutors? Perhaps it is time for a special environmental enforcement unit to take civil and criminal actions, as is common in cities, counties, states, and the federal government in the United States and other jurisdictions.
Once the illegal cutting is physically stopped, then the institutional structures put in place can consider how to handle the blanket bogs, as noted above, and what, if any, compensation is due to the turf cutters. The report offers a significant recommendation that rather than paying turf cutters money for not cutting, the government ought to purchase the bogs to protect, preserve, conserve, and remediate the bogs. Public ownership of these important natural resources would allow for the public to effect better management, including restoration work. The report recommends that restoration should include blocking drains that release water from the bogs and to rewet the bogs to promote “paludiculture,” such as the growth of Sphagnum moss and alder.
Note (1). Other recommendations include: require an Environmental Impact Assessment for any commercial peat-cutting; require planning permission for any peat extraction over 10 hectares; require Appropriate Assessment for any renewable energy project on blanket bogs; require an EIA for wind-farm development on peatlands; require restoration of peatland ecosysytem, through re-wetting or wetland creation on cutaway bogs; as well as a number of specific planning and management practices for any development that impacts bogs, including sheep grazing, forestry and burning peatland vegetation.
Florence Renou-Wilson, Tom Bolger, Craig Bullock, Frank Convery, Jim Curry,
Shane Ward, David Wilson and Christoph Müller, BOGLAND: Sustainable Management of Peatlands in Ireland, Prepared for the Environmental Protection Agency by University College Dublin
See “Submission on the Cessation of Turf Cutting Scheme,” in the Reports section of irish environment discussing the submission by the Friends of the Irish Environment.