Ireland’s most renowned field botanist, Robert Lloyd Praeger, wrote lyrically about the landscape and the western hills whose ‘mantle of peat-covered heath’ stretched unbroken mile after mile. He also said it would continue to be the case in future centuries.
Alas, that was in 1937 when he published his classic book,, after five years of walking in all sorts of terrain countrywide. Were Praeger to return, he would find the picture had totally changed, with the bogs largely cut away and destroyed and replaced by pastures and forestry.
The destruction continues apace and the Irish Peatland Conservation Council (IPCC) is again ringing alarm bells. The IPCC is conducting an independent review of peatlands to inform a Peatlands and Climate Change Action Plan 2021-2030, due to be released later this year.
In this first review in 10 years, the IPCC is examining the quality of more than 1,000 peatlands of conservation importance and is ‘shocked’ with the findings. Peatlands have deteriorated substantially since the last review and are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and disrupted weather patterns.
“This is a cause of great concern and needs to be urgently tackled,” says Paula Farrell, the IPCC’s campaign officer.
Blanket bogs are being fragmented by forest plantations, turf cutting and poorly sited wind farms.
Raised bogs are disappearing through turf cutting for domestic use and for the production of horticultural peat.
The IPCC carried out extensive research into threats to all 1,182 peatland sites listed in its database and is stunned by the results, according to Ms Farrell. Turf cutting has impacted 33% of sites and 36% have been damaged by drainage, while less than 10% have had any restoration works.
Centuries of human use of peatlands have caused over 70% habitat loss and are continuing to degrade sites that should be protected for their plants and wildlife, water regulation and carbon storage, says Ms Farrell.
One of the basic ways of restoring the bogs is by blocking drains, thereby beginning the slow process of allowing peat to form. Bog advocates point out that the benefits of cheap restoration are huge in terms of how we adapt to climate change.
The IPCC Action Plan is seeking complete designation and monitoring of sites, more funding for restoration, and the proper enforcement of planning law across all types of peatland use. “We really need to work together to restore our peatlands before it is too late. They are important carbon sinks and home to rare and wonderful species,” says Ms Farrell.
Bogs have been forming for 10,000 years and, in the words of Praeger, can teach us about our plant history and reveal secrets of same which have lain buried for millennia beneath the peat.