A few sods of turf we saw scattered on roads in parts of West Cork and Co Kerry, in the past week, told a story: This year’s harvest from the bogs is being brought home early thanks to a splendid spell of weather that continued from May into June.
From our days in the bog long ago, not far from where the River Blackwater rises, we remember people vying to be first to draw home the turf. My late father always believed May was the best month to cut turf because, invariably, it provided the necessary wind and sunshine for drying.
However, crusted sods that might look dry could be wet in the centre, so that people in too much of a hurry to be first often came home with turf that had not dried properly.
For that reason, father always insisted in a cracking sods open to satisfy himself the turf was fully dry before it left the bog. He took his time and we were never first for that reason. Though turfcutting is banned in some bogs of conservation value, under EU laws, the Government has been playing for time against moves by the Brussels bureaucrats for more widespread bans.
It has been a vexed issue for well over a decade as the Government moves to conserve designated raised bogs, while some people in rural areas are still exercising generations-old ‘turbary’ rights which allow them cut turf. The tradition is, however, declining and, I suspect, a lot more turf is now cut in pubs than in the bogs.
The other night in a hostelry once frequented by old-style bogmen, from the Cork/Kerry border area, the skills of renowned sleansmen were wistfully recalled over pints. Those were the fellows who predated the machines used to cut turf today. Unlike many of the machines, they worked in a way that did minimum damage to the bog, slicing the sods neatly off the side of a turf bank.
Over the years, drainage, tree-planting, and other pressures have led to the bogland destruction, while today windfarm construction is also doing a lot of damage.
Nowadays, many people see bogs as wildlife refuges and areas that need to be saved, with environmental groups such as the Irish Peatland Conservation Council working to rescue them from extinction.
Heritage Minister Josepha Madigan has come up with a five-year conservation management plan, including plans to start restoration work at several bogs. There are also plans to relocate turfcutters to bogs not earmarked for salvation.
Time is running out as damage to boglands has resulted in there being less than 23% of the original blanket bog area left worth saving, says the council.