Unravelling Ireland’s Peatlands 

16 May 2024 - // Features
Carolanne O’Brien
Communication & Engagement Officer with Teagasc Signpost Programme

Once viewed as desolate wasteland, now they emerge as vital carbon captors and biodiversity havens

“We have no prairies 
To slice a big sun at evening— 
Everywhere the eye concedes to 
Encroaching horizon,

Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye 
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country 
Is bog that keeps crusting 
Between the sights of the sun.”

Bogland, by Seamus Heaney

Extending across more than 960,000 hectares, peatlands blanket almost 14% of Ireland’s land area, equivalent to almost 137 million football fields. However, despite their vast expanse, the opening lines of Seamus Heaney’s “Bogland” evoke a barren landscape, a landscape devoid of the expansive vistas traditionally celebrated in the hymns of nature. Instead, peatlands appear as creatures of rugged beauty with a haunting allure and yet wholly enclosed and inhospitable.  

This portrayal has deep historical roots as boglands across Ireland have long been viewed as marginalized wastelands, observed through the lens of poverty and hardship, valued only for their provision of fuel among less affluent rural communities. Consequently, these lands were drained for agricultural use and later extensively exploited for mass peat production, emerging as a pivotal source of fuel and later electricity. 

Boglands across Ireland have long been viewed as marginalized wastelands, observed through the lens of poverty and hardship, valued only for their provision of fuel among less affluent rural communities. 

Yet, within Heaney’s verses lies a nod to changing perception. Today, amidst a global climate and biodiversity crisis, the perceptions surrounding peatlands in Ireland are changing. Now recognized as carbon-rich ecosystems hosting vast wildlife habitats, there is growing acknowledgment of the need for their restoration and conservation. No longer seen solely as wastelands or sources of fuel, peatlands are valued for their crucial role in mitigating climate change and preserving biodiversity. 

Nature’s Crucial Carbon Captors

Despite covering only 3% of the Earth’s land surface, peatlands store approximately 15-30% of the world’s soil carbon in the form of peat—twice as much carbon as all of the world’s forests combined. As you walk across the boglands of Ireland – the most extensive type of peatland in the country – your feet sinking into the wet ground, you would never suspect the scars these lands bear, nor the remarkable carbon-capturing capacity hidden beneath your steps. 

Boglands that have escaped the influence of human exploitation play a crucial role in carbon capture through a process involving special plants like sphagnum moss. Sphagnum mosses possess a remarkable ability to absorb and retain water, holding up to 20 times their weight. This feature enables them to play a vital role in capturing carbon dioxide from the air. As these plants die and decay, the waterlogged conditions of the bog prevent them from fully decomposing, allowing layers of peat to accumulate over time. This accumulated peat acts as a storage unit, trapping the carbon from the dead plants inside it. As long as the bog remains wet and undisturbed, this carbon remains locked away underground. 

Today, amidst a global climate and biodiversity crisis, the perceptions surrounding peatlands in Ireland are changing. 

Tristram Whyte, Conservation Policy and Fundraising Officer at the Irish Peatland Conservation Council (IPCC), explained that this process is far from simple. He uses an analogy to illustrate the intricate environmental repercussions: likening the draining of a section of a bog to a sink. When you drain a sink, the water doesn’t just disappear from the immediate area around the plug; instead, it affects the entire sink. Similarly, draining even a small portion of a bog doesn’t isolate the impact; it affects the entire ecosystem.  

This analogy underscores a critical point: the release of carbon due to bogland degradation exacerbates climate change as the entire bogland transforms from a carbon sink into a carbon emitter. “If you’re removing peat from a bog, it’s not sequestering carbon; you’ve drained it. It’s leaking off carbon and is essentially an open mine.” This issue is compounded by ongoing bogland degradation across Ireland, where 47% have been degraded for socioeconomic reasons and turbary rights – granting citizens the authority to extract peat for fuel on their land. 

Cranalagh More Bog, Longford, Ireland. Photo: Carolanne O’Brien

However, the far-reaching consequences of bogland destruction also trigger another pressing and perhaps more visible issue: habitat loss. 

Guardian of Habitats

In their natural, healthy state, peatlands teem with life, from the high-pitched call of the curlew to the silent movements of the viviparous lizard. Yet due to years of peat extraction, forestry, and agricultural reclamation, these once thriving habitats have been stripped of their resident flora and fauna, rendering them eerily silent and desolate – perhaps even more stark than Heaney could have imagined.  

Whyte tells us, “If you look in the EPA Bogland report, it says 90% of peatlands in Northwestern Europe have been drained and destroyed. So, if you remove 90% of a type of habitat, you’re going to have a biodiversity crash. And that’s what’s happened in Ireland,” leaving just 1% of peatlands across the country still capable of sustaining life.   

This type of loss prompted the Irish government to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency in 2019, making Ireland the second country in the world to do so. This emphasized the urgent need for conservation efforts to protect Ireland’s remaining peatlands—the fragile guardians of both carbon capture and biodiversity. However, despite the urgency signaled by this declaration, progress in restoring boglands and safeguarding their habitats has been slow.  

Agricultural Field, Longford, Ireland. Photo: Carolanne O’Brien

Whyte highlights a historical issue dating back to 1999 when the Irish government agreed to halt peat extraction on bogs designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). Unfortunately, enforcement of this agreement was lax, and Irish citizens continued to drain and extract peat. Complicating matters, the government lacks the authority to de-designate these protected sites to re-protect them, with many having already been significantly degraded.  

Recognizing that reshuffling the conservation network is hindered by legal constraints, the IPCC initiated the ‘Save the Bog’ campaign, advocating for the purchase of boglands as the most effective means of conservation. 

Progress in restoring boglands and safeguarding their habitats has been slow.

While this initiative has seen successful conservation on bogs such as Ketts Lough, where the Marsh Fritillary butterfly and a small population of Greenland White Fronted Geese can be seen, and Girley bog, where the skylark still sings, governmental challenges persist, indicating a need for further action. 

Unraveling Governmental Challenges

Unraveling the complexities of these challenges, particularly in light of the EU Nature Restoration Law, is crucial. This law, aimed at ecological restoration, has ignited discussions about the impact of conservation practices on the longstanding economic value and cultural significance of these lands. As Ireland strives for ecomodernity — an equilibrium between ecological protection and economic prosperity — the delicate balance between heritage preservation and sustainable progress becomes even more intricate. 

In this evolving landscape, REVOLVE delved into the nuances with member of the Dail, the Irish Parliament, TD Denis Naughten, a long-standing member of the Irish government, to understand how the nation is navigating this complex balance and addressing the debates between conservation and economic interests.  

Unfortunately, debates around the Nature Restoration Law were scarce amongst parliamentarians in Ireland, with Naughten highlighting this as a failure of the yellow card system, introduced under the Nice Treaty. According to Naughten, debates on this matter never met a conclusion, and with the law now adopted as of February 2024, the window for submitting concerns is firmly closed. 

The concerns Naughten speaks of extend to the impact of the law on agricultural land situated on previously drained peatland sites. Presently, the Nature Restoration Law proposes a mandate to rewet 30% of drained peatlands under agricultural use by 2030, with the goal of reaching 50% by 2050.  

Drain on Cranalagh More Bog, Longford, Ireland. Photo: Carolanne O’Brien

While Naughten acknowledges that Ireland has “enough public peatlands for restoration through the Just Transition process,” the challenge lies in incentivizing farmers to voluntarily participate in the rewetting process. Agricultural rewetting, under this watered-down law, remains voluntary, emphasizing the need to strike a delicate balance that allows agricultural activities to continue while effectively reducing emissions – an evident speed bump on the road to ecomodernity.  

However, rather than seeing this solely as an obstacle, it’s imperative to view it as a call to action. As rewetting initiatives on public land gain momentum, the rising water table is already encroaching on adjacent agricultural properties, rendering them less usable, even without directly touching them. This emphasizes the pressing need to expedite efforts and implement measures promptly to address the unfolding challenges, safeguarding both environmental and agricultural interests. 

Navigating the Impact of Peatland Restoration on Agricultural Lands

The urgency of addressing the impact of peatland restoration became even more apparent during discussions with dairy farmers Séan and Joe Glennon in the midlands of Ireland. Their farm is situated near Cranalagh More Bog, located in County Longford, which is visibly damaged from years of peat cutting, mostly to obtain peat for horticultural soils. As we walked this section of bogland with Joe, towering mounds of peat still awaited collection, serving as haunting reminders of the extensive excavation and habitat destruction that occurred in this area. 

Nevertheless, a section of this land known as Ardagullion Bog, located in the northern part, underwent rewetting for restorative purposes in 2018 and 2019. This process has yielded promising results, with red-listed birds of conservation concern (BoCCI) such as the Meadow Pipit, Snipe, and Redshank returning to the area.  

However, it has also raised the water table on their land, and combined with a year of increased rainfall, their fields have become unfit for cattle to graze on. Joe expressed the impact, saying, “This year was unbelievable. We only had June, and then we were having to put the cattle inside with the amount of rainfall, everywhere was soggy and soaking. Those fields that we had there were quite dry, quite fertile. Now, we can’t even drive a tractor in there.” 

As we walked the lands, this change was unmistakable. 

Mound of excavated peat, Longford, Ireland. Photo: Carolanne O’Brien

Despite the challenges to their agricultural processes, Séan and Joe, along with many others in the community, support the work being put into restoring these lands. They also noted a lack of governmental consultation with residents, which may have better prepared local farmers to adjust to the impact of wetter fields on their livestock and farming processes. They openly speak of the climate changing in front of their eyes and the need for better government support and better planning required to face a new future.  

Exploring Adaptation Pathways for Irish Peatlands 

Adaptation is key and while it appears slow in Ireland, progress is being made in other areas across Europe into how restoring drained agricultural peatlands could provide economic benefits. Efforts like the EU-funded projects MarginUp! and NBSOIL are already pioneering sustainable soil management practices, particularly in restoring drained peatlands, with a focus on economic viability and ecological integrity, through paludiculture – the practice of farming on wet and rewetted lands

One individual contributing to this movement is Shahsharif Mohammadshafi Shaikh, a mechanical engineer and researcher with ATB, actively involved in MarginUp!’s German-use case. His work as part of the project revolves around processing biomass sourced from crops such as reeds, canary grass, and cattail, naturally growing on restored peatlands into new products. 

Shahsharif and ATB’s methods of processing and extruding such crops have already led to the production of various new products, including greening pellets, animal bedding, biofertilizers, biofuel, and substitute materials such as paper, cardboard, and materials for 3D printing. However, considerations for energy efficiency and profitability remain paramount among the numerous factors to be weighed.  

Cranalagh More Bog, Longford, Ireland. Photo: Carolanne O’Brien

“Profit is actually one of the main concerns,” Shahsharif explains.“Farmers listen to what will give them money and so we have to work in that sense as well.” Over the next 12 months, Shahsharif plans to enhance efficiency while exploring the potential for producing additional products from crops considered ‘useless’ on restored peatland sites. 

Replicating these efforts elsewhere is of course complex and requires thorough scientific study and understanding of various factors, including climate, crop characteristics, and processing parameters. 

Nonetheless, with careful consideration and prior research, projects like MarginUp! offer hope for the widespread adoption of sustainable agricultural practices, contributing positively to environmental conservation and socio-economic development. It serves as a model that Ireland could adapt to progress toward an ecomodern society.  

This all-flips Heaney’s “Bogland” on its head, transforming the eerie landscape of Irish boglands into a hopeful vision. “Our unfenced country” is a blank canvas, and our boglands are no longer “crusting” but yearning for revival and worthy of inclusion within the hymns of nature. 

Carolanne O’Brien
Communication & Engagement Officer with Teagasc Signpost Programme

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