Sunday 9 October 2011

Irish peatlands: the last stand against climate change

ANOTHER LIFE: IN THE AUTUMN the nation starts thinking again, or so we must hope. September produced, at last, a draft towards a national strategy for managing the landscape. This week, a separate report has urged the drafting of a national peatland strategy for the fifth of our landscape in which the whole planet can claim a stake.

In Bogland, a four-year Government-funded project for the Environmental Protection Agency, a team of more than 30 scientists have faced an issue as tangled and tough as the top scraw of heathery bog. Their 150-page report, A Protocol for Sustainable Peatland Management in Ireland with Dr Florence Renou-Wilson of University College Dublin as lead author, offers much original research and strong direction.

At the start of the report, the bogs are “the last great area of wilderness” in Ireland. But soon they are also the “deeply humanised landscape” in which culture, tradition, rural aggro and even the current cost of heating oil all play active (and lately quite turbulent ) parts.

The aggro is all about invasive cutting of bogs protected for their special ecosystems, plants and even microbes – biodiversity, in a word. But the main concern of the Bogland team is something else altogether. “There is no public awareness,” the report concludes flatly, “of the contribution of peat extraction to climate change.” As the bogs’ dead mosses are stacked without decay in deep, anaerobic layers, peat becomes the planet’s most efficient sink for carbon extracted from the atmosphere. The bogs of the State, among the last in Europe, still hold three-quarters of the nation’s soil organic carbon at a time when, as a greenhouse gas, man-made carbon dioxide is causing climate change.

The key to peat’s imprisonment of carbon is the high water table of the bogs; the raised bogs, in particular, are huge bubbles of water. Once cut or damaged, they start releasing carbon dioxide. Today, only the last near-intact Atlantic blanket bogs of western Ireland are soaking up carbon. Across the rest of the island, a “vast and eclectic range” of bogs shredded and degraded by machinery, or even by the thousand cuts of the sléan, are leaking carbon dioxide faster than the last uncut bogs can soak it up.

These carbon dynamics are key to Bogland’s earnest wish to stop the cutting of turf on the least mangled stretches of peatland and restore their activity by “paludiculture”: making the land usable by blocking drains and carrying out general rewetting to encourage the growth of sphagnum moss. All protected bogs should be treated as ace cards, their protection enforced, and their number and range widely extended. Paludiculture and fresh ponds can even stop further carbon leakage from the great tracts of Bord na Móna’s cutaway bogs in the midlands. Bogland found wide public support for creating a national peatlands park on the cutaway. Here too, it suggests, a scatter of tall turbines could use the midlands’ weaker winds profitably.

Both wind farms and paludiculture on industrial cutaway should be encouraged by tax reliefs, and the asset value of peatland conservation gained “via linkage with the European Carbon Trading Scheme”. This might also help atone for the Government’s subsidy of three peat-burning power stations, an activity “contrary to the national interest”, according to Bogland.

Where does this leave the cutting of turf for household use, carried out widely by contractors’ machines and impinging, very often, on habitat-protected bogs? Its total reach is unknown, but stopping it, apparently, might save some 500,000 tonnes of carbon a year. Bogland itself asked the question: “To what extent do global values such as carbon stores override local needs such as turf-cutting?” Its social research with focus groups in Longford and Roscommon found local people quite unaware of the whole peat/carbon issue: a substantial challenge for public education. What did come across was the deep cultural attachment to turf-cutting: “The right to cut is worth more to its owners than the peat itself.”

Domestic turf-cutting is widely accepted as a public good, even as most people approve of peatland protection. But, says the report, “whatever the innocence of their intentions, turbary owners have been responsible for the destruction of many peatlands’ ecological functions and for transformng such ecosystems from carbon sinks to emitters of greenhouse gases. For the rest of society, this should be seen as a significant cost.”

Embattled turbary owners may welcome Bogland’s findings that compensation tied merely to the value of lost peat is unrealistic (a conclusion from substantial research) but resist its preference for the State buying out the turbary rights. The thought that they might gain an income “from a marketable value placed on ‘carbon loss avoidance’ ” could seem, at this point, too conjectural.

Nonetheless, as this report is digested, and new constraints on peat extraction find their way into a national peatland strategy, some sharing with Europe of the costs of bog protection may seem a compelling notion.

You can download the Boglands report at

Irish Times

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