Our Bogs – The ‘Gold’ of the Future

MEG Member, Liam Murtagh who as a youth cut turf by hand for winter fuel, now reflects on the changing view of bogs and their role in maintaining biodiversity and combating climate change.

bog 1 bog 2

Pictured above left and third from right (in picture on right) is Nuala Madigan of the Irish Peatland Conservation Council. Nuala recently presented a demonstration on composting and peat-free gardening to members of Castleblayney Tidy Towns and Castleblayney Community Gardens Group at the Community Gardens Polytunnel in Drumillard.  The event was organised by Niall O Connor, Environment Awareness Officer, Monaghan Co Council as as part of the Local Agenda 21 Programme. 

What image do bogs conjure up for you?  Perhaps a swampy place to be avoided or a place where many people in the past went to cut and save turf for winter fuel. Another image might be that of an expansive brown plain as in the case of Bord na Móna bogs in the Midlands. An image that has a more recent history is the bog as a place of fun where the sport of ‘bog snorkelling’ is enjoyed. A more idyllic image of a bog is of a place that is soft underfoot and teeming with wildlife – bees, heather, bog cotton, sundews and mosses, with skylarks singing in the sky above.

As well as their immense value for biodiversity it is now clear that bogs are becoming highly valued in the global effort to slow down climate change. It has been found that bogs worldwide store twice the amount of carbon as the world’s forests. The difference between peat and actual gold or indeed the ‘black gold’ otherwise known as oil is that the high value of peat bogs will be realised by leaving them intact as ‘carbon sinks’ rather than extracting the resource from the ground.  This strategy should help Ireland meet international commitments in combatting climate change and in protecting biodiversity.

Originally we had 1.2 million hectares (almost 3 million acres) of bog in Ireland. Only about 20 per cent remains intact, largely as a result of domestic or commercial turf / peat harvesting and drainage for agricultural purposes. The blanket bogs are the ones you tend to find in hilly areas – a good example of this habitat that has survived in Co Monaghan is Eshbrack Bog which lies between Scotstown and Sliabh Beagh. Raised bogs, the ones you find on lowland plains are now rare in Co Monaghan but Carnquill Bog near Tydavnet is one of the few raised bogs left in the county. It’s a relatively small area of bog unlike the large expanses of bog in some of the midland counties.

It was in one of those midland bogs which lies near Abbeyshrule in Co Longford where, quite a few years ago, my neighbours and I cut turf by hand by using a spade-like implement known as a ‘slean’. The biodiversity and wider ecological value of the bog so close to Abbeyshrule was one of the village’s assets that was highlighted last year in its winning of  the top award in National Tidy Towns Competition and also a gold medal in European Entente Floral competition.

Bogs are not generally regarded as a renewable source of energy, as extraction rates usually exceed their growth of 1mm per year or 1 metre per 1000 years.  When peat is harvested these days it is generally done mechanically. Significant quantities of peat are now being exported for horticultural purposes. One way of reducing the use of peat is by home composting or buying bagged peat-free or peat-reduced compost.  Using bulk municipal compost like that produced by NW Recycling in Keady may be another option.

The carbon holding capacity of bogs can be significantly reduced not just by turf cutting but also by conifer plantations and sometimes by the excavation and drainage of virgin bog for the sites of wind turbines.  However cutaway bogs can and will be used successfully for wind turbines. Cutaway bogs have also been transformed into new lakeland habitats that really enhance biodiversity as is the case in Lough Boora Parklands in Co Offaly. Government efforts to implement the EU Habitats Directive which protects biodiversity – and so avoid possible fines of €25,000 per day – have met with some resistance. Some of the turf cutters who have been instructed  to cease cutting on the 53  Special Areas of Conservation SACs  are not willing to accept the compensation being offered or be moved to alternative sites being provided. To ensure that the EU Habitats Directive and carbon accounting objectives are achieved in consultation with the various stakeholders the Government set up a Peatlands Council in 2011 to fulfil this role. Balancing short term gain from with the long term loss to humanity as a result of the over extraction of peat is a real challenge.

Conserving a representative sample of our bogs is the aim of another group, the Irish Peatlands Conservation Council. It is a non- governmental organisation based at the Bog of Allen Centre in Co Kildare. The visitors centre is worth a visit and events  on the theme ‘A Day in the Bog’  take place there on 27th & 28th July. See www.ipcc.ie. Other bog or peat related visitor attractions include the Peatlands Park near Dungannon, the Corlea Trackway Visitors Centre, Co Longford and Lough Boora Parklands, Co Offaly.

July is an ideal month to visit a local bog to experience its beauty at first hand.  If you pick a fine day and take your time as well taking simple precautions I’m sure you will really enjoy the experience.