Tour of bog reveals fragile ecosystem

Patches of sitka spruce which intermittently line the road winding north from Ballyhaunis in the Ballaghadreen direction are evergreen clues to the recent decades of rural economics and policy making which encouraged the planting of peatlands with fast growing coniferous trees. The prevailing thought was timber harvesting offered a means to exploit otherwise idle, un-exploitable land.   

The slow unwinding of that policy is today being demonstrated eight kilometres northeast of Ballyhaunis where the forestry cover is broken by the relative openness and expanses around Gorthaganny. This is Carrowbehy-Cahir Bog, a 70-hectare concentration of largely un-touched peatland stretching between low drumlin hills in the headwaters of the River Suck.

Carrowbehy-Cahir (and nearby Derrinea bog) is a protected special area of conservation patrolled by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). Botanist George Smith, who spent many hours studying the site, believes Carrowbehy is “unique” among 53 raised or uncut bogs Ireland designated as special areas of conservation (SACs) between 1997 and 2002 by the Irish government under the EU’s Habitats Directive.

The abundance of active (as opposed to cutaway or harvested) raised bog is what makes the Carrowbehy-Cahir bog one of the five most intact examples of a raised bog in the country, said Smith. 80 percent of Irish peatlands are regarded as degraded, with only 17 percent in its natural form.

While the initial motivation for designating the bog was an EU directive to protect unique natural habitats in more recent years national policy makers have come to see bogs as an efficient sink for the country’s carbon emissions.

Peatland in its natural state absorbs and holds carbon far more efficiently than other soakers of emissions, like trees.

But bogs have to be left wet -undrained – for this to happen. Thus EUR5.4 million (75% of it from the EU) has been spent between 2016 and 2022 to restore active raised bogs by blocking drains with plastic dams, thus raising the water level in bogs like Carrowbehy-Cahir.

“Previously the bog was drying out, you could see the pines in outlying areas dying,” said Niall Cribbon, the officer at the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) charged with overseeing protected bogs from Longford to the coast of Mayo.

To Cribbon’s trained eye the sight of lichen – a symbiosis of algae and fungus found in some of the most barren landscapes on earth- is a sign of air quality and a healthy bog. “Heather by contrast is a sign of an unhealthy bog. Far better to see sphagnum moss, which in turns rots to create peat… Sphagnum holds water to rise. Squeeze it and you’ll see all the water in it.”

Other plants in the bog are feed for migratory birds including wintering geese who stop on Irish peatlands for refuge. Plants unique to Irish bogs include the bladderwort and long-leaved sundew, both perennial insectivorous plants that feed on insects trapped either by the plants’ tentacles.

Ireland is home to 50 percent of northern Europe’s intact peatlands but the bogs have shrunk fast in recent decades with mechanised turf extraction. The 2,630 hectares of raised bog intact in 1994 had shrunk to 1,639 hectares in 2012, a shrinkage which put Ireland in the crosshairs of Brussels officials seeking to halt habitat loss amid falling wildlife populations across the European Union.

The decade since has been a series of government-led plans and initiatives, some of them leading to skirmishes with turf cutters reluctant to sign onto cash compensation schemes paid to bog owners to cease harvesting peat. A further designation of 75 Natural Heritage Areas under Ireland’s Wildlife Acts means ministerial consent is required for cutting, drainage or planting of bogs.

Various programmes on the bogs are ultimately overseen by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, an often-underfunded agency tasked with protecting wildlife and habitats. The formation of a Peatlands Council in 2011 and a national Peatlands Strategy in 2015 were Irish actions to show Brussels action is being taken. The National Raised Bog Special Areas of Conservation Management Plan 2017-2022 was another, and within that Plan was a re-wetting scheme known as the ‘Living Bog’ programme. Carrowbehy-Cahir was rewetted in 2019.

The rewetting was preceded by a careful engagement with the local community through Gorthaganny Community Development Co, a voluntary body based in the Marian Hall in the village located on the Mayo-Roscommon border. The group embraced the prospect of having a nature reserve and tourist attraction to promote and thus became a willing local partner for various state agencies and programmes rewetting bogs in the past decade.

One of those programmes, a ‘Connecting Communities With Peatlands’ project, is administered by Irish Rural Link with funds from the National Just Transition Fund -money raised from carbon taxes.

That fund paid for a seminar in Gorthaganny hall on a warm day in late May, followed by a walk nearby in the bog. Butterflies zipped silently through pockets of sally rods and gorse as pupils from Gorthaganny School made their way down a bog lane recently covered with a coating of broken limestone. It’s here that tributaries of three major rivers –the Shannon, Moy and Corrib – have their origins.

After walking less than a kilometre, at the bottom of the lane the dams are visible, large pieces of black plastic blocking the flow of water so that the peat remains moist. Mating damsel flies rush by and frogs dart through the greenery. “There’s an entire ecosystem here,” said Niall Cribbon of the NPWS, leading the walk. “But it’s very fragile.”

Locals appreciate the uniqueness of the bog but also feel they’ve not been delivered promises made in 2019. Chair of Gorthaganny Community Development Co, Seamus Crawley, wants to see a timber walkway built across the bog that will connect the bog walk with the community centre and with Errit Lake, a popular amenity.

The frustration of the Gorthaganny group is barely disguised in a pamphlet handed out at the May 25 event. It details the group’s engagement with the bog project, facilitating meetings with local farmers, and the non-appearance to date of a one-kilometre board walk promised since 2019 when Gorthaganny Community Development Co was approached by the Living Bog team with the plans for rewetting -and promise of a boardwalk.

Now, however, “disappointment has set in as the boardwalk development has been stalled,” warns the pamphlet. “Currently, GCDC faces a challenge in accessing stakeholders in the Living Bog Project and maintaining the commitment of the committee volunteers to support the project.”

The local community development group was instrumental in engaging local farmers to cooperate with the re-wetting. One of them, farmer Ray Flanagan in Cahir, remains supportive of the project, with several of his fields designated within the conservation zoning that protects the bog. “I planned to plant that land but then I saw what was coming, that was designated as a special area of conservation. That’s thirty years ago. I don’t graze it, I just left it. The drains were all closed in then in 2019.”

Peatlands make up 20 percent of the Irish landmass but 77 percent of that total is in private ownership.

Peatlands make up 20 percent of the Irish landmass but 77 percent of that total is in private ownership of farmers like Flanagan who joined other locals and conservationist on the May 25th walk the land and while he’s supported the project he thinks farmers should be able to claim continued payments to reflect the fact that their land is reduced in cash value by being designated as part of a protected area.

Beyond the social and economic benefits the bog’s designation as a nature park may bring to the area the original reason for its protection is the wildlife that have lived in and left this sprawling habitat. Among the walking party on May 25th were staff from a curlew conservation project run by NPWS and Birdwatch Ireland in the bog and surrounding farmlands.

A member of the project, Louis O’Sullivan spends several months in late spring and early summer following curlews in these lands. “Dawn chorus on the bog is amazing,” said O’Sullivan who listens daily to birds like the willow warbler, the wren and the sedge warbler. There’s also the chirp of the skylark and the trush, adding to the sound of the bog on a summer’s day. “Listen and you’ll hear them,” he said, putting an index finger to his lips.

Far rarer is the lonely cry of the curlew. Afforestation and a drier bog were big reasons for the collapse of the solitary curlew, explained O’Sullivan, who tells of days on the bog surveying curlews and where possible trying to keep chicks alive.

The demise of the iconic curlew has pressed government into an expensive, last-ditch tracking and monitoring effort involving dozens of seasonal workers in places where the bird is still to be found, in much diminished numbers.

There were 5000 pairs in 1990, then 150 in 2022. An electric fence has helped keep foxes at bay but eggs and chicklets have been taken by predators while parent birds forage food, O’Sullivan explains. Afterall, an adult curlew can cover over a kilometre a day on its large, webbed feet.

Other bird species have largely disappeared from the bog. Wearing a cloth hat, Paddy Waldron, a short, elderly man from Ballinlough explained how as a kid he watched his father beat the bogs for grouse so that shooters had targets to fire upon. “There used to be thousands of grouse here,” you’d come down at dawn and go home with a bag full of grouse. That’s 80 years ago now.”

Gone with the curlew and the gorse is the turf cutter. Local man Seamus Crawley points to the tracks of raised beds – also known as “lazy beds” where desperate, hungry locals sought to grow potatoes in the depths of the 1845 famine. Turf from this bog also warmed the inhabitants of the big house near Errit Lake, explained Cawley, a reference to an 18th century hunting lodge built by an Anglo-Irish landlord.  

Presented in the 1940s as a new source of prosperity locally, the planting of coniferous forests on bogs has become problematic in modern day understanding of peatland ecosystems. Bird watchers and conservationists want the law changed so that compulsory re-planting of clear-felled forests is no longer required on peatlands.

For the curlew watcher Louis O’Sullivan recent decades of afforestation on bogs have brought new predators like jackdaws and minks into curlew habitats. Other predators like badgers and foxes can likewise cross a dry or drained bog much more easily. Rewetting, he hopes, will make the bog more impenetrable.

Removing the coniferous plantations would allow the bog to be rewetted while also removing cover for predators like the mink which preys on curlews and other birds on the bog. But this will require the cooperation of various vested interests, not least Coillte, the forestry firm which is also the largest owner of bog in the country.

A third of Coillte’s 440,000 hectares of forestry is planted on peatlands. Whereas Bord na Mona owns five percent of the country’s peatlands the biggest owner is Coillte which controls 15 percent of peatlands – a legacy of the 1950s when planting bogs with spruce was seen as a common sensical path to rural prosperity.

The climate science suggest peat in its natural, wet form traps four times more carbon than trees, whereas dried out bog is a net emitter of carbon.  Peatlands dried out by forestry and farming are net emitters of carbon: 1.3 million tons a year while pastureland reclaimed from bog emits three million tons.

Wetlands or bogs once seen as low value by farmers and drained for pastureland are now viewed as a way for the country to improve on a woeful performance in cutting emissions. The unintended consequences of Ireland losing 80 percent of wetlands in the past hundred years are however contested by agricultural representative bodies who foresee other consequences in re-wetting the bogs.

While presented as a national issue by the Irish Farmer’s Association (IFA) – it has warned of “thousands of acres becoming unproductive” – the rewetting of bogs is largely confined to midlands regions where bogs owned by state company Bord na Mona is concentrated. There, wetter bogs will degrade adjacent pastures which will drop in value or be subsumed into compulsory re-wetting programmes, the arguments go. 

In western counties the closure of bogs like Carrowbehy-Cahir to turf cutting was a more consequential issue, making the political careers of Roscommon politicians Luke Flanagan and Michael Fitzmaurice in particular. The ban remains in place, with some transgressions.

Yet the heat has gone out of the issue and a decade of conservation and rehabilitation works has taught state agencies like NPWS how to work with communities. “The least confrontational approach is usually the more effect,” said the NPWS’ Cribbon. “In any case for health and safety reasons we are not allowed to confront violators of the cutting ban.”

“Giving the bog owners every opportunity to come into government-funded compensation scheme works 90 percent of the time,” said Cribbon. “But much depends on the quality of the turf. Those with poorer quality turf are much quicker to take up the offer of a payment or to swap bogs.”

Cribbon notes local politicians have backed away from the turf cutting issue. There are too few votes in it now. The champion of the cause, Michael Fitzmaurice has in fact been “very reasonable” and cooperative in working with the NPWS, explained Cribbon.

There is evidence of passive resistance. Plenty of locals follow a Facebook group ‘Barroughter and Clonmoylan Bogs Action Group’ which calls on its 32,000 online followers to “Cut your turf and save your private bog.” Messages on the page, which is named for two bogs in Galway, condemning government policy on bogs are often directed at Minister Eamon Ryan. The page recently posted photos from 2012 of turf cutters being seized by NPWS officers in county Roscommon. Photos of individuals saving turf and photos of tractors and trailers hauling turf feature several times a day on the group’s Facebook page but requests for comment for this article went unanswered.

A low-key, community centred approach works best for Cribbon who shares some oblique criticism for national political leaders who regulate the peat industry. Minister for climate change Eamon Ryan saying there’s going to be a ban on turf “only drove people out to cut more,” acknowledges Cribbon.

The continued goodwill of local communities should however not be taken for granted. In its pamphlet the Gorthaganny Community Development Co sets out its vision, and its demands: “We want to become the go-to venue or focal point to showcase the importance of raised bogs: for school tours, tourists, day-trippers, third-level students and more…we need support facilities that will encourage inward investment in our area through eco-tourism and other activities.”

The article appeared in the Western People on July 11, 2023.

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