Our relationship with bogs is ever-changing. In the Bronze Age, bogs were held as sacred. As a merging of water, earth and sky, bogs were where the veil between this world and the ‘otherworld’ was considered to be at its thinnest. This wetness that characterises peat bogs is why plant matter in living, active bogs accumulates as peat.
The conditions are so wet and stagnant that there is no oxygen, and normal decay processes don’t work. This is the same reason that 10,000-year-old tree stumps and the sacrificed bodies of kings from more than 2,000 years ago are so well preserved in peat bogs.
Specialist plants have adapted to the permanently wet, slightly acidic and low nutrient environment. Sundews are plants that catch insects on sticky little tentacles, digesting them and absorbing their nutrients. Butterwort is another insectivorous plant of Irish peat bogs. It has sticky leaves to catch midges on. Plants eating animals is not the normal order of things, but on a peat bog, the unique conditions have resulted in the evolution of many rare and unusual species. Each has earned its place in these unique habitats.
Since colonial clearances eliminated most of woodlands, people turned to peat bogs for fuel. Turf cutting during the summer months became part of our culture. Then in the 1950s, industrial-scale peat mining began to gobble up the midlands' raised bogs in earnest, bringing jobs where they were much needed. Vast tracts of bog have since been drained, harvested and burnt for electricity. Now, less than 50,000 ha of the original 310,000 ha of raised bog in Ireland remains relatively intact.
I have spoken before in this column about the role of peat bogs in climate change mitigation and biodiversity and the many communities across the country proactively engaged in peatland restoration. But this week, in light of recent news, the focus is on legal protection for peat bogs.
In 1992 the Habitats Directive brought in measures to protect biodiversity across the EU. The backbone of the Directive has been the establishment of the ‘Natura 2000’ network of protected areas, made up of both Special Protection Areas (SPAs) under the Birds Directive and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) under the Habitats Directive. Each protected area has been scientifically selected as a representative sample of habitats and species that are endangered across the EU. Without the Nature 2000 Network, the biodiversity crisis we are now dealing with would be even worse than it is.
In Ireland, as across the EU, the best remaining examples of dozens of habitat types are included in the Natura 2000 network, including several different types of peatland habitat. Cutover peatlands, already industrially harvested, where peatland flora and fauna no longer exist, have rightly not been included in the network. There are 53 raised bogs designated as SACs — a small fraction of all peatlands here.
Activities that damage rare species and habitats in those sites are illegal. These laws have been in place for more than 20 years, and do not apply to the majority of peatlands, only to the sample of bogs that are included in the network. This means that turf cutting has been illegal on these bogs for more than 20 years. Despite this, there is still turf cutting, with heavy machinery, for commercial purposes, in protected areas.
In 2005 a European Court action against Ireland over peatland conservation was dropped, a settlement that was agreed on the basis of the State promising to implement a range of habitat protection measures. Then in 2011, on foot of evidence that drainage and turf cutting was still ongoing within the protected areas network, Ireland was formally warned about pending legal proceedings for ‘wilful neglect’ of duties to protect peat bogs. The State was requested to take urgent and concerted action to protect those bogs within the Natura 2000 network.
As a response, the Peatlands Council was established in 2011 with the stated objective of finding agreement between turf cutters, the state and other stakeholders. Battle lines had been drawn. I attended several early meetings, and despite high levels of tension and hostility, some progress was eventually made. Compensation packages were agreed for the cessation of turf cutting in protected areas and alternative (non-protected) locations were provided for many of those who wished to continue extracting turf. Much of the turf cutting stopped and restoration has since begun on some of the protected bogs.
However last week, with the news that legal action against Ireland is once again pending, it seems we are stuck in a time warp. The issues being debated for the past 20 years are same as those being debated today, and turf continues to be illegally extracted from protected areas.
The latest warning from the European Commission comes on foot of decades of failures here to implement pan-European conservation laws, decades of failure to protect and restore the rarest of priority habitats. This political hot potato has been considered too hot to handle by successive governments. Instead, the State managed to buy more time by setting up the Peatland Council, developing a National Peatland Strategy and promising to protect an additional tranche of National Heritage Areas (NHAs).
The latest controversy is over the fact that the European Commission is challenging Ireland's continued failure to abide by democratically established conservation laws, whereas there are contractors and others who wish to keep on actively cutting turf on these protected bogs, even though such activity is directly at odds with the need to safeguard and restore even just a small sample of these fragile ecosystems.
The real news story here is that, as a country, we are still failing to value and protect such a valuable resource, after being given so much leeway by the European Courts for decades. The scandal is that even in the throes of a biodiversity crisis, we cannot agree on practical actions to effectively implement our collective responsibilities for conservation.
In a bog, where nothing breaks down, time has a way of standing still. Our relationship with peat bogs, however, is always changing, and a breakthrough is now long overdue. The Citizens' Assembly on Climate Change called for extensive peatland restoration, the courts are pushing too. In the future, the young people of today will not thank us for failing to leave even the smallest sample of intact raised bogs for posterity.