WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL AND WHY MUST WE STOP CUTTING IT?
The recent move by Eamon Ryan to ban the harvesting of peat in Ireland caused an uproar. Peat has been used for heating and cooking in Ireland for centuries. Turbary rights, which are part of Ireland’s intangible cultural heritage, have meant that people living in homesteads in rural areas have inherited a right to cut and remove turf from specific plots of peatland linked to these dwelling houses. In more recent times, peat has been used commercially in horticulture and former peatlands have been used for afforestation and in agriculture. But, when we look at peat extraction, and the damage it is doing to what is left of our wetlands, against the backdrop of climate change, biodiversity loss and carbon sequestration, it is inescapably evident that extraction practices cannot continue. The growing impact of smoky fuels on human health also cannot be ignored.
HISTORY OF PEAT CUTTING IN IRELAND
Peat harvested from local bogs has long been used for cooking and heating in Ireland, with evidence suggesting it may have been used as early as the seventh century. With the depletion of Ireland’s natural woodlands in the 1600s, peat became an important source of fuel for households. Throughout the 20th century, peat harvesting became a source of rural employment and the peat an alternative fuel for heating and electricity generation during disruptions to coal supply during the World Wars. The first industrial-scale harvesting of peat took place in 1825 at Mona Bog beside the Shannon, where it continued until the end of the 19th century. The modern Irish peat industry was established in the 1930s when the Turf Development Board was set up “to manage peat development, encourage self-sufficiency and generate rural employment”. Bord na Mona took over from the Turf Development Board after the war and provided the fuel for the first peat-fired power station in Portalington in 1950. Bord na Mona’s investment in peat briquette production and peat harvesting for electricity generation had a large impact on rural development at that time, particularly in the West and the Midlands. [Information and photo below from www.ireland2050.ie]
The oil crises of 1956 and of 1973 reinforced the need for the further development of peat-powered plants “to diversify the Irish electricity system and avoid the risk of blackouts and rationing” [www.ireland2050.ie]. On Friday, 18 December 2020, the ESB’s last peat burning power station in the country, Lough Ree, was taken down from the national grid after 62 years of being in operation. Although peat-fuelled power stations are no longer part of the national grid, there are many households who still turn to peat for heat, either as briquettes or privately harvested turf. The commercial horticultural peat sector has always been export focused. According to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, 10% of peat extracted in Ireland has historically been harvested for horticulture, with 90% of this being exported. The annual carbon emissions from harvested horticultural peat are approximately 603,900 tonnes, which equates to approximately 0.52% of projected total Irish emissions in 2020. [www.data.oireachtas.ie]
WETLANDS / PEATLANDS
Wetlands in Ireland include riverside marshes, turloughs, lakes fringes, and permanently wet ground, including wet meadows, callows and flood plains, as well as coastal and estuarine marsh and saltmarsh. Although often referred to as “wetlands and peatlands”, technically peatlands are a type of wetland that is especially common in Ireland due to our geographic location and high levels of rainfall. There are around 1.2 million hectares of peatland in Ireland of which 13% is blanket bog and 5% is raised bog. It is interesting to note that Ireland and the UK possess Europe’s largest areas of blanket bog. Around 21% of blanket bog is considered to be “active”, in that it is actively growing peat and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. By comparison, only 0.5% of the area of raised bog remains in this condition. Internationally, blanket bogs are rare, but raised bogs are more threatened in Ireland, having been drained and cut for turf, afforested and subjected to wildfires. Whereas bogs are fed by only rainwater, fens are peatland environments that are fed by groundwater. Fens can be base rich or base poor depending on the nutrients in the groundwater. Poor fens are fed by acidic, peaty waters and are characterised by plants such as rushes, and rich fens are fed by limey waters and are characterised by plants such as black bog rush and sedges. [www.communitywetlandsforum.ie]
WHY ARE THEY SO IMPORTANT?
They are very specialised habitats: Wetlands are well-known for their specialised flora, including the different species of sphagnum moss, which are the building block of peatlands. Another specialist bog plant is the insect-eating sundew which sustains itself in the low-nutrient environment by capturing tiny insects in sticky drops of water suspended from hairs on its leaves (Drúchtín móna or Round-leaved Sundew pictured below left, photo by Fearghal Duffy). Wetlands are vital habitats for breeding wildfowl such as Lapwing, Curlew, Snipe, and Great-crested Grebe and for wintering birds such as Golden Plover and Whooper Swans. The elusive Water Rail can sometimes be seen (or heard), and only very recently, the very rare Spotted Crake has been found breeding in Irish wetlands. Wetlands are also important for amphibians such as the Crested Newt and Common Frog, and many species of insects such, as dragonflies and butterflies.
They hold water, purify it and capture sediment: Wetlands provide a very important regulating service by storing water and moderating the rate at which it recharges groundwater or flows downstream. This stabilises water supply and reduces the risk of flooding or erosion. Water can carry pollutants, which add to weed or algal growth. Many wetland plants are able to take up these pollutants, and some even take up poisonous substances such as pesticides. Wetlands capture sediment too. Modern agricultural methods can result in considerable soil erosion. If not captured by wetland vegetation, this sediment will be deposited in slower sections of streams and rivers.
It sequesters and stores Carbon: Peatlands play a significant role in combating climate change. The living moss absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it grows, mitigating the impact from human burning of fossil fuels. Sphagnum moss (below right, photo by Fearghal Duffy) sequesters carbon very gradually at a rate of around 0.5 tonnes per hectare per year, but this carbon dioxide is stored as carbon in the form of peat, accumulating to depths of up to eight metres. As a result, peatlands are a huge store of carbon. When peat is burned, the carbon is released as carbon dioxide. Further CO2 is released as the bare peat is exposed and the bog dries out. Degraded peatlands contribute to approximately 10% of the national annual greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland.
THE PROPOSED BAN ON PEAT
Earlier this month it was reported that Minister for the Environment, Eamon Ryan, wants to ban the sale of turf under new solid fuel regulations – these regulations are due to take effect in September 2022. When asked about it, Minister Ryan cited health concerns saying: “They [the new regulations] are required, as each year, some 1,300 [actually 1,400] people die prematurely in Ireland due to air pollution from solid fuel burning. Research undertaken by the Environmental Protection Agency also demonstrates that the contribution of peat to air pollution levels is significant”. He went on to say that “turf cutting by citizens for use in their own homes is a traditional activity across many peatlands, and while measures are required to reduce the emissions associated with burning peat, these traditions will be respected”. On Monday, after a coalition meeting to discuss the Draft Smoky Fuels Regulation, it was revealed that the ban may be changed to focus on commercial peat extraction with retailers as the target, and that it will not affect small rural communities, with “typically under 500 people”, who would be exempt. [www.independent.ie]. At the time of writing discussions were ongoing.
HEALTH IMPACTS OF BURNING PEAT
“When you sit in front of an open fire, you’re exposed to similar levels of toxic fumes found in traffic blackspots at rush hour.” [Dr Tim Collins, CEO, The Irish Heart Foundation]. A survey was carried out on behalf of the Irish Heart Foundation and the Asthma Society of Ireland in January 2021. According to the survey, just over 1/10 respondents were aware of the health dangers of burning smoky fuel at home. Burning smoky fuel at home results in the release of microscopic pollutants known as PM2.5 into the air and these are responsible for an estimated 92% of 1,400 air pollution deaths in Ireland.
Evidence shows that PM2.5 particles can be 40 times smaller than a grain of sand and enter the bloodstream after being emitted from smoky fuels. This can trigger asthma, skin and autoimmune diseases and inflammatory bowel diseases, as well as causing infertility, miscarriage, sight loss and dementia. Heart disease and stroke account for up to 80% of deaths from air-pollution, but fatalities are also caused by lung cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease and COPD.
“While most fatalities occur among older people, there is growing evidence worldwide of severe impact on children’s health. We have known for some time that children’s hearts, brains, hormone systems and immunity can all be harmed by air pollution. Now research is beginning to point towards the effects of PM2.5 on growth, intelligence, and the development of the brain and coordination,” Dr Collins added. (www.irishheart.ie)
It was a series of crises that made peat a central player in heating/electricity generation; we are now facing a new crisis that is asking us to re-evaluate how we use peat – the next chapter in the story of our relationship with Ireland’s wetlands. A chapter that doesn’t compromise our health, impact the health of the environment or release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.