Ireland's Peatlands

Ireland has internationally important peatlands but they are under serious threat

"Bogs," writes John Feehan, "are places of enchantment. This is due in large measure to the immense natural diversity of the peatland landscape, but also to its unique atmosphere. The bogs are great, open expanses with distant horizons. You feel drawn to them as though they awakened an echo deep within us of the open savannah landscapes in which our human kind had its origins several million years ago."

Peatlands in Ireland include raised and blanket bogs, fens, as well as wet and dry heath. As well as being beautiful and characteristic of the Irish landscape, bogs and other peatlands are harsh, wet, nutrient-poor environments, hosting unusual assemblages of habitats and species specially adapted to these conditions. We have a high proportion of Europe's remaining peatlands and we therefore have a special international responsibility for their conservation. Unfortunately, peatland areas are under serious threat in Ireland at present.

A recent map shows that peat soils comprise some 20.6% of Ireland's national land area. In geographical terms alone, therefore, impacts on peatland habitats represent one of Ireland's biggest environmental issues. This has long been the case. As far back as 1987 the Union of Professional and Technical Civil Servants commented that “The need to safeguard as many midland (raised) bogs as possible before they are lost forever to peat extraction is the most urgent issue in Irish nature conservation.”

Drivers of peatland biodiversity loss include habitat change and exploitation (e.g. through drainage and peat extraction), invasive alien species, nutrient pollution and climate change. In addition to their biodiversity value, peatlands are also very important carbon sinks, and act as a buffer - like large sponges - helping to protect us from flooding. When bogs are drained and harvested, they cannot perform these functions effectively. Indeed, drained and degraded bogs go from being carbon sinks to very large carbon sources. It has been estimated that the annual emissions from Ireland's degraded peatlands are roughly equal to Ireland's annual transport emissions from cars. The only way to reverse this trend is to block drains and restore our peatlands. This will have benefits in terms of nature conservation, climate change and flood prevention and alleviation.

Turf cutting (peat extraction) for domestic fuel in protected areas

BOGLAND, a major report commissioned by the EPA and presented by UCD in 2011 states (at p.106), “It is important to point out that turbary rights are incompatible with the management, restoration and future conservation of any important sites worthy of conservation as they directly and indirectly affect negatively the whole ecosystem (not only where the peat is cut).” This has certainly proven the case on Ireland's raised and blanket bogs of conservation importance.

The government is trying to preserve as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs; EU protected areas) and Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs; nationally protected areas) less than 5% of the bogs available for turf cutting (2% if we focus just on the raised bogs). Turf cutters on affected bogs have been offered financial compensation to cease cutting or relocation to continue cutting elsewhere, plus an annual delivery of 15 tonnes of turf pending relocation. Yet a minority wish to continue cutting where they are, regardless of the environmental impacts.

It is important to highlight that the vast majority of turf cutting is in fact, today, excavation by contractors using heavy machinery. As a 2006 report noted (at p.37), hand cutting is "not likely to be a significant activity on any designated raised bogs now or in the future", and as an old-timer hand-cutter commented recently, "The machines are ruining the bog...".

Ireland's 4th National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity, published in 2010, stated that "It is estimated that there has been a 99% loss of the original area of actively growing raised bog in Ireland, and one-third of the remaining 1% has been lost in the last 10 years." The situation in respect of blanket bogs is also very worrying: in a 2007 report, the National Parks & Wildlife Service wrote "It has been estimated that approximately 45% of [Ireland’s] blanket bog habitat has been lost or severely damaged by peat extraction (Foss, 1998). Most of this cutting has been carried out by private individuals for domestic consumption."

The government is presently seeking to establish a network of SAC and NHA raised bogs on which turf cutting will cease, and which the government aims ultimately to restore by way of drain blocking and rewetting. If this can be achieved, it will be a major nature conservation achievement, particularly given the historical damage and the starting point.

The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has published the following documents and is inviting submissions from all stakeholders, interested parties and the general public:

  • The Draft National Peatlands Strategy sets out a cross-governmental approach to managing peatlands including compliance with EU environmental law, climate change, forestry, flood control, energy, nature conservation, planning and agriculture. The strategy also sets out proposals for the development of a new regulatory regime for turf contractors.

  • The Draft National Raised Bog Special Area of Conservation (SAC) Management Plan provides for the future restoration and management of the 53 raised bog SACs and how the needs of turf-cutters are to be addressed. A Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Environmental Report and Natura Impact Statement have also been prepared to identify and mitigate potential adverse environmental impacts associated with implementation of the Plan.

  • The Review of the Raised Bog Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs).

Written submissions or observations with respect to the documents can be made to the Department by 18th April 2014. For further information, and to find out how to submit comments, visit www.npws.ie; www.ahg.gov.ie or www.raisedbogconservation.com.

An Taisce fears that climate change considerations have not been properly factored into these plans - more below.

Industrial extraction from undesignated bogs

The issue on bogs of conservation importance - SACs and NHAs - is turf cutting for domestic use. Industrial operators such as Bord na Móna no longer cut on such designated areas. These operators have nevertheless caused, and continue to cause, huge damage to Ireland's undesignated bogs and to the environment more generally.

The vast majority of industrial peat operations are unregulated, in the sense that they do not have planning permission, do not hold Integrated Pollution Control (IPC) licences, and have not been subject to impact assessment. Only Bord na Móna has IPC licences, but its operations do not generally have planning permission, and they have not been subject to impact assessment. We are working hard to have industrial sites brought within the regulatory net, but progress is painstaking.

While the Draft National Peatlands Stategy covers designated and undesignated bogs, An Taisce believes the draft strategy does not reflect scientific advice and is not evidence-based.

The draft treats science - and the scientific consensus on the future prospects for humanity without action on climate change – as capable of being bargained away, traded against, or ‘balanced’ against other factors. Such a view is the stuff of fantasy.

Bogs are a vital store of carbon and burning turf releases far more climate-altering gases than coal. Of all fuels, turf is the worst in terms of negatively affecting the climate.

The BOGLAND report for the EPA set out ten leading recommendations, advising government that “the continued carbon emissions from peat burning are contrary to the national interest”.

Recommendations included the restoration of protected peatlands to stop carbon loss, and the management of non-designated peatlands (also to stop carbon loss), a review of the peat industry, and the creation of a National Peatland Park. Its recommendations also cover peatland management as well as reviewing the horticultural peat sector.

The report found government policies “at odds with … international and national government policies and conventions, specifically those addressing climate change, biodiversity protection and environmental sustainability”.

Published in October 2013, the summary of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report stresses how we must decarbonise energy, and protect, enhance and restore carbon stores.

In other words, in trying to accommodate vested interests, the Draft National Peatlands Strategy is inconsistent with both international and domestic scientific advice on carbon management.

The Draft Strategy continues the wholesale policy failures of the past by not addressing the carbon emission impact of continuing peat extraction for electricity generation, domestic fuel and horticulture.

Mary Robinson, having reviewed the science, has noted that we need to massively reduce carbon emissions and take urgent steps to avert further carbon loss. Protecting bogs plays an important part in protecting the climate. Speaking in advance of the release of the IPPC’s recent summary Report, Mrs Robinson said:

"There is a global limit on safe level of emissions. That means that major fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground. That has huge implications for economic and social development."

The issue now is the timing and sequencing of planned exit strategies for peat, coal, oil and gas, and the relevant amounts to be left in the ground.