PhDs drive petition to Irish Government to save Irish peatland habitats

1 Apr 2011

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The Irish Peatland Conservation Council is campaigning the newly elected Irish Government to support the conservation of Irish-raised bogs, as it points to how Ireland is one of the last remaining refuges for peatland habitats which have been decimated across the globe due to exploitation.

Speaking to Siliconrepublic.com, Tadhg Ó Corcora, conservation officer at the Irish Peatland Conservation Council (IPCC), said it is closing in on 1,000 signatures via The Petition Site.

Looking at the array of signatures, they are not just from Ireland. The petition also include signatures from people living in Australia, Canada, Russia, the Republic of Korea, Oman, India and New Mexico, to name but a few.

"The petition will be delivered within the next two weeks to both the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government Phil Hogan TD, and the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht Affairs Jimmy Deenihan TD. The change of plan here is due to the fact that the National Parks and Wildlife Service, which is the body in charge of governing the Special Areas of Conservation (SACs)/National Heritage Areas (NHAs), has moved departments under the banner of heritage in the recent Government reshuffle," Ó Corcora said.

According to Ó Corcora, the IPCC is urging the Government to continue to work towards a ban on turf cutting on peatlands, which have been designated as SACs by the European Union.

"Ireland is traditionally viewed as one of the top countries in the world that supports peatland habitat, in particular that of raised bogs," he said.

Shane Regan, PhD research student, Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering at Trinity College Dublin, also points to how Ireland is one of the few countries in Europe, and indeed worldwide, where peatland habitat developed extensively.

"Much of this still remains, though the habitat has been damaged considerably in the last 30 years. Ireland’s low population since famine times meant that many bogs remained relatively isolated from human influence. Also, while the industrial revolution began across Europe and countries were extracting peat by machine, Ireland was still carrying out the process by hand. However, hand-cutting is no more and the turf is now almost wholly extracted by machinery," said Regan.

Ó Corcora said that in more recent times, Ireland has seen significant losses in peatland habitat.

"Peatlands originally covered 16pc or 1,346,882 hectares (ha) of the land surface of the island of Ireland. Due to exploitation, peatlands of conservation importance currently cover 269,267 ha in the Republic of Ireland and 27,000 ha in Northern Ireland. This equates to approximately 18pc of the island’s peatlands. A substantial portion of this, however, is blanket bog, which is not influenced in any way by the current cessation of the turf-cutting scheme."

Raised bog habit in Ireland – only 8pc is conservation-worthy right now

When raised bog is ‘active’ it is of high conservational importance, said Regan.

"Being active implies the bog is ‘growing’ due to an accumulation of vegetation matter that supports distinct botanical assemblages, particularly those of Sphagnum species, which requires the water table to be at or near the surface of the bog.

"The conditions required to maintain a healthy, or active, raised bog is severely compromised by peat cutting as the drainage induced by such activities lowers the water table, compacts the peat and increases the gradient of the bog. Most Sphagnum species will not grow in such conditions and without their presence the integrity of the bog, as an ecosystem, is vastly reduced," explained Regan

And in terms of raised bog habitat, Ó Corcora said out of an original area of 308,742 ha in the Republic, only 25,189 ha remains with an intact surface.

"This amounts to approximately 8pc of the habitat which remains in a conservation-worthy state.

"The cessation scheme was due to begin in 1999 when the then-Government declared a 10-year derogation on the scheme to allow time for compensation and negotiation with landowners to be properly discussed. In line with this derogation, the Department of Environment commissioned a study to assess the impact of domestic cutting on Ireland’s raised bogs. This report found that over 10 years the amount of active peat forming raised bog habitat decreased by 35pc. This is clearly unsustainable."

"We need to stop seeing our protected bogs as something we have to exploit and think instead about the need to pass these rare habitats on for generations to come," he said.

Regan said in 2010 a ban on turf cutting came into effect for 31 raised bog special areas of conservation, while next year a further 24 SACs while at the end of 2013 the same ban will come into effect for 75 national heritage areas.

Currently, this comes to less that 5pc of the area of peatland in Ireland where cutting can take place, said Ó Corcora.

"As part of the compensation package was the option to relocate to another site outside the SAC where turf cutting is permitted to continue," he said.

Added Regan: "This option has not been made available, or indeed is even feasible, to a lot of turf cutters, so it’s not as easy as switching from cutting on a bog designated as an SAC to one that isn’t. An adequate compensation package is key to preserving the SAC bogs and ‘trans-locating’ turf cutting is not so cut and dry. Essentially, it is a problem that needs to be solved by political will."

Raised bogs – location

Regan said raised bogs are mainly located in the midlands as, coupled with a high annual rainfall, geomorphologically the landscape is shallower compared to the mountainous terrain that defines much of the island’s coastal counties.

"The bulk of our raised bogs are found in the stretch from Kildare/Westmeath across Offaly/Longford/Roscommmon and as far as Mayo/Galway.

"The bogs developed in lake basins, formed after the retreat of the last glaciation, circa 10,000 years ago. Clay deposits at the base of the old lake basins prevented downward seepage of water, allowing vegetation to build up and decompose over time, in saturated conditions, eventually leading to the development of peat. The peat material becomes elevated above the surrounding topography, leading to the bogs being termed ‘raised bogs’. In pristine conditions the bog continues to grow at circa 1mm per annum," says Regan.

So what about the new Government and the issue of opening up the bogs for harvesting again?

"This was initially put forward as an election promise to win voters with Fianna Fáil and in particular the Green Party being blamed for imposing this ‘European’ law. It should be noted that the Habitats Directive was in fact signed into law in early 1997 by the previous Fine Gael/Labour coalition," said Ó Corcora.

"One cannot understand however why they would undo so much of the good work that has been done since then to conserve Ireland’s raised bogs. This is apart from the legal obligation that we have under both the Habitats Directive and the Wildlife Acts to protect sites which are designated for conservation," he added.

Finally, he says the removal of the scheme has the potential to set Ireland back years in terms of peatland conservation.

"It is ignoring all scientific evidence that it has funded over the last 20 years."

"The scheme will betray all conservation work done to date," added Regan. "The scientific integrity of active raised peat bogs, which are extremely rare worldwide, is beyond doubt. They are Ireland’s only true terrestrial ecosystem and to destroy them is robbing the Irish people and their future generations of the island’s natural heritage."

"That the scheme involves 30,000 hectares of raised bog habitat – how can this not be balanced with over 200,000 hectares remains from where peat can be harvested?" asked Ó Corcora.

Financial implications

And, crucially, there could be financial implications for the Irish taxpayer, said Regan.

"The EU takes this very seriously and it is not just a problem for environmentalists or an academic problem for those in the scientific community. If our raised bogs, and their dependent ecology such as Sphagnum and bird species, are considered to be in ‘bad status’ under the Habitats Directive, which they most certainly are, Ireland will be fined.

"The fine will be paid by the taxpayer and will potentially amount to millions, and not thousands, of euro. The importance of raised bog ecosystems and their values, aesthetic as well as scientific, has, sadly, been poorly communicated to the Irish people. However, they are our only true terrestrial ecosystems that have been lost, to their infinite regret, in other countries.

"Indeed, they are akin to a rainforest and to reinstate the destruction on those bogs considered most worthy of conservation is an environmental tragedy. Why Ireland does not treasure and promote its natural heritage is a mystery," Regan said.

Carmel was a long-time reporter with Siliconrepublic.com

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