Ireland’s peat is helping to fight climate chaos

Ending Ireland’s traditional turf-cutting can antagonise people. Image: By Amos from Tel Aviv, Israel, via Wikimedia Commons

A winning natural way to absorb greenhouse gases, Ireland’s peat is one route for the country to tackle the climate crisis.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

− From ‘Digging’, by Seamus Heaney

COUNTY MAYO, IRELAND, 2 February, 2021 − Ireland’s peat is offering the country a novel way to back the global effort to save the planet from overheating dangerously. It is helping to lock up the carbon emissions which are feeding the steady rise in the Earth’s temperature.

For generations its farmers have cut turf from the bog lands for fuel, and now their laborious, back-breaking work, seen as an integral part of Irish rural life, immortalised in songs, paintings – and picture postcard images − is earning them plaudits for protecting the atmosphere.

Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s most famous modern-day poet and winner of the Nobel prize in literature in 1995, wrote of turf-cutting rituals and the wild beauty of bog lands. In many rural areas the turf fire is still the centrepiece of home life. As part of the battle against climate chaos, though, old habits stretching back for centuries are having to change.

Carrownagappul is a 325-hectare area of bog land near the village of Mountbellew, in County Galway in the west of Ireland. Locals say the turf – also called peat – cut from the bog land is the best in Ireland.

Altogether, 100 families have what are called turbary rights to Carrownagappul, part of an old and complex system allowing certain people to cut and carry away turf from the area.

“There is no better, quicker or cheaper way for Ireland to reduce its carbon footprint than restoring peat lands”

Areas of peat or turf – formed by an accumulation of decayed vegetation – act as a vital carbon sink, soaking up and storing vast amounts of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

Peat lands around the world have been drained and destroyed at a great rate over the years: as a result large amounts of greenhouse gases have been released into the atmosphere. Drought and rising temperatures have caused fires in many regions, drying out peat deposits. Nearly 20% of Ireland’s land is bog land, storing an estimated one billion tonnes of carbon.

Under a programme called The Living Bog – backed up with €5.4 million (£4.7m) of funds from the European Union – Ireland is now seeking to restore dozens of its bogs and make them able, once again, to store large amounts of carbon.

At Carrownagappul drains have been blocked to raise water levels and so re-wet the bog land: this encourages the growth of sphagnum moss, one of the main constituents of peat.

Ronan Casey is a spokesman for The Living Bog project. In an interview with the Irish Times Casey says it’s hard to overstate the importance of restoring Ireland’s peat lands as the country battles against climate chaos.

Paid to stop

“There is no better, quicker or cheaper way for Ireland to reduce its carbon footprint than restoring peat lands”, Casey tells the newspaper. “Peat lands are Ireland’s biggest carbon store; one-fifth of our soil is peat soil.

“Locking CO2 in is just as good as trying to plant trees somewhere else. They (peat bogs) store far more carbon dioxide than forests. A 15cm-thick peat layer contains more carbon per hectare than a tropical forest.”

Many of those who once cut turf at Carrownagappul have been given cash payments to stop their activities. The aim is to turn the area into a centre for tourism with an educational facility explaining the history and ecological importance of the bog.

A board walk is being built across the bog. Peat land is rich in flora and fauna. Casey refers to Ireland’s peat lands as the country’s coral reef.

As part of a scheme to encourage the local community to participate in the restoration work at Carrownagappul, a series of lectures and talks at schools is being arranged.

Not so green

At one stage the Irish government promoted the use of turf in order to achieve greater energy self-sufficiency. In the 1960s 40% of the country’s electricity was generated by turf-fired power plants. Most of these plants – chronically inefficient and heavily subsidised – are now being phased out: the government says all will be shut down by 2030 or sooner.

Work to restore peat lands is going on in several parts of the country. Bord na Mona, the semi-state company that once specialised in developing the country’s peat resources and running turf-powered power plants, has diversified into renewable energy projects and recycling; it is now spending €126 million restoring 80,000 hectares of bog.

But there has been resistance to bringing an end to the old turf-cutting ways, with people in some areas insisting on their ancient rights and saying that turf is still an important heating fuel, particularly in rural areas. The government is accused of being half-hearted about fighting climate change by allowing turf cutting to continue in some regions.

Despite its green and pastoral image, per head of population Ireland is one of the main emitters of climate-changing greenhouse gases in Europe, due in large part to activities in the agricultural sector.

The burping and flatulence of the country’s seven million-strong cattle herd results in the emission of large amounts of methane gas. Fertilisers add to the country’s emissions. − Climate News Network