Editor’s note: In spring semester 2016, the first Loras science course was taught in Ireland via the Ireland Study Abroad program. In this three-part column, Dr. Tom Davis will remark on the issues that they experienced while abroad as part of his class. This is the second part in this series.
Another Irish environmental issue we learned about was bogs and turf cutting. Most Americans, even those with direct Irish ancestry, are not aware of the role of peat, or turf as they call it, in the daily life of most rural and some urban Irish people. Before arrival, we were told to find the smell of burning peat and enjoy it. It is the true scent of the Irish countryside. First, we needed to know the definition of a bog and where to find them.
There are two types of bogs in Ireland: raised bogs and blanket bogs. Together they covered over 17 percent of the Irish landscape. To many people they may appear as wasteland, but bogs are quite biologically active. They are wetlands dominated by a specific type of moss called Sphagnum moss, which has a unique characteristic. As it absorbs nutrients from the surrounding soil and water, it secretes hydrogen ions (H+) into the water, making the immediate area acidic. This reaction acts like a defense mechanism by preventing many other plants and animals from growing and living in the acid environment. It grows slowly, but while its new growth covers the surface of a bog, the old dead moss accumulates as peat and slowly gets thicker and thicker over time – thus raising the level of the bog, hence its name.
This decaying plant material only degrades partially due to the low oxygen content in the bog. The peat keeps much of its organic material intact and is the reason why many ancient Irish animals, like the extinct Giant Irish Elk, and human artifacts, like bog bodies, have been preserved so well in the bogs of Ireland. Distinct layers in the bog form combinations of types of pollen, ash from fires, and dust from drought give glimpses of past environmental conditions.
Bogs are also very important storage sites of carbon. As more peat is harvested, more carbon is released back into the atmosphere as CO2 and methane, contributing to climate change. This peat can be harvested in both types of bogs. Humans have sliced out pieces of turf, let it dry and used it for fuel to heat their homes and cook their tea and meals for many centuries. It is estimated that in 2016, over 70 percent of rural Irish people still cut turf from a local bog, stack it in turf sheds and use it for fuel and heat. But, as you can imagine, this constant harvesting of peat – not only by hand, but by massive industrial-scale machines – has resulted in bogs, especially raised bogs, becoming endangered and the unique flora and fauna found there severely threatened.
A typical Irish raised bog, like Abbeyleix Bog in south-central Ireland, hosts many species of insects and plants. These include unique carnivorous Venus Fly Traps, pitcher plants and sun dews. These bogs are home to various species of birds, mammals and amphibians as well.
Our class visited Abbeyleix Bog with local bog expert Chris Uys in February. We walked out onto the Sphagnum mat, noticing its bouncy, spongy, dark brown accumulation of moss and peat. Chris picked up a handful of bright green surface moss and squeezed it. Water ran out for several seconds, illustrating that it can hold 20 times its mass in water. In a class discussion later, we made the connection between bog degradation and the serious flooding problems seen in Ireland before we arrived in December 2015. Saving and restoring more bogs could play a large role in reducing the severity of Irish floods in the future.
This bog was an example of a local community getting together to prevent industrial peat harvesting here. It’s now being preserved and reclaimed. This is being done by filling in and damming drainage ditches that were cut in many bogs to dry them out for cattle and sheep grazing, among other agricultural uses. Though a time-consuming process, the rehydration of bog areas can allow the Sphagnum moss to grow back, restart the slow peat accumulation process, and start to bring in the other acid-tolerant species of insects, amphibians and plants.
However, the environmental education of Irish people concerning the threatened status of bogs has only recently begun. More and more school groups have begun visiting bogs and learning about their inhabitants only in the past 10 years. The European Union has recognized over 50 raised bog sites in Ireland as rare and important examples of a natural community needing protection. Bord na Mona, a semi-state company whose main role had been the harvesting and distribution of peat and turf to consumers via briquettes and compressed peat “logs,” has published a new sustainability plan that will essentially shut down all peat harvesting on its land by 2025. The company is pushing this sustainability plan throughout the country via environmental education and public meetings. Though much of the turf harvesting on public land has slowed dramatically, many rural Irish folks still rely on their local peat bog for heat and cooking fuel.
The Loras students and I then asked: What fuel will be used to replace the turf after it is phased out? We did not get many good answers. Several people, even some experts with whom we talked, had no idea where their energy for heat and cooking will come from. We discussed the possible sources. Electricity from wind mills that were going up constantly all over the Irish countryside? Wood chips from the cyclical cutting of pine trees that had been planted countrywide specifically for harvest every 40 years? Natural gas from a vast yet untapped underground field under the ocean off the west coast? Imported, discarded palm oil nut casings from Malaysia and Central America? Each example had its pros and cons; each method has large potential. But as several people who discussed this issue with us said, it boils down to money. How would this little island country (about the size of Wisconsin) of just over 4.7 million people generate funding for infrastructure and re-education of its people to deliver and use new energy sources for its people? When our study and discussion time was up for this topic, we concluded that the next eight to nine years will have some very interesting, life-changing decisions ahead for Irish people, their bogs and their use of turf. The smoke from the peat fires seems to be clouding the issue.