Protecting the Peatlands of Ireland as Fuel Costs Skyrocket
LULLYMORE, Ireland — For centuries, the Irish have used peat from bogs to fuel the home fires. Stories of families coming together to bring home “the turf,” as peat is called in Ireland, evoke idyllic memories of a poorer, but simpler, life on the land. But now the Irish government, in the name of fighting climate change, conserving habitat and improving air quality, is moving to restrict the use of peat — and finding that it is not easy.
Ireland has more than half the European Union’s remaining area of a type of peatland known as raised bog, one of the world’s rarest habitats and, scientists say, the most effective land form on earth for sequestering carbon.
“The bogs are our Amazon rainforest. They are where most of our carbon is stored,” said Éanna Ní Lamhna, a botanist and author.
Yet despite domestic and European laws that now ban the cutting of turf on many bogs, Ireland has so far proven unable, or unwilling, to stop people who insist on exercising what they see as their traditional right to cut turf.
Last week, the European Commission warned Ireland that it must do more to protect peatlands, citing a discussion about regulations that began more than a decade ago. In a report, the commission said that Irish citizens were openly defying the laws that restrict cutting on protected bogs, and that even those laws were too lax and failed to meet European goals.
The Irish government now has two months to put teeth into the laws and say how it will enforce them, or face steep financial penalties in the European Court of Justice — a challenge that comes as European countries are struggling to keep heat affordable.
Meanwhile, on Oct. 31, new regulations designed to improve air quality will ban the sale of smoky fuels, including turf, a move that the government hopes will reduce public demand. But turf will remain freely available through informal channels, and rising fuel costs, due largely to the cutting of Russian gas supplies to Europe, have made peat even more attractive as a fuel source.
One in seven Irish families still rely, at least in part, on peat for heat. Luke Flanagan, an Irish member of the European Parliament, gathers his own turf from his family plot after a contractor cuts it with a machine. He says he can have a winter’s worth of turf cut for 500 euros: “I literally carry the bags on my back out of the bog.”
Although the trade is largely unregulated, turf cutting was widely reported to be at a high this summer as families and private contractors hurried to stockpile turf in advance of the October ban, which many had feared would be even stricter.
Michael Fitzmaurice, a member of Parliament and chairman of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, said that as global energy supplies tighten and prices soar, the use of peat is likely to increase this winter. Those who rely on turf for heating are often small farmers and poor or elderly people in rural areas. “With the war in Ukraine, fuel security has never been more important,” Mr. Fitzmaurice said. “This is not the time to be pushing people into fuel poverty.”
Peatlands, including bogs, cover less than 3 percent of the world’s surface, but they store twice as much carbon as all the world’s woodlands. “They sequester carbon five times as efficiently as forest,” said Matthijs Schouten, a Dutch ecologist who studies Ireland’s bogs. “So cutting bogs for fuel is not a very wise thing to do.”
The very word bog derives from the Irish bógach, or “soft place,” and 17 percent of Ireland’s 27,000-square-mile national territory was originally covered in peatland. The majority was drained for pasture and forestry or cut for fuel, leaving only a quarter in a state fit for conservation or restoration. This includes both raised bog, common in the flat Midlands, and the “blanket bogs” that form on uplands and shorelines. Ireland has less than half a percent of the earth’s land surface, but up to 2.6 percent of its blanket bog.
Manchán Magan, an Irish-language writer who made an acclaimed recent TV series about Ireland’s bog heritage, said turf was a relatively poor source of heat compared to wood or coal, and only became a major fuel in Ireland in the 18th century. By then, much of Ireland’s natural forest had been cut away and many poor tenant farmers, subsisting mainly on their own potato crops, did not have cash to buy other fuels.
Their landlords — keen to keep their tenants on the overcrowded land, paying exorbitant rent — gave them rights to cut peat from their otherwise worthless bogs. Some rural families still hold the inherited right to cut turf from a particular bog.
The culture of cutting turf is ingrained in older generations as an emblem of rural self-sufficiency. At Belderrig, County Mayo, in the far west of Ireland, Seamus Caulfield, a retired archaeology professor, showed how turf was traditionally cut. Using a traditional sleán, or right-angled spade, he cut long, heavy rectangles, or sods, of muddy turf from an open bank on his family’s blanket bog, throwing them up on the higher ground to be repeatedly turned, dried, and stacked until ready for burning.
“My son and myself are the few who still cut by hand around here,” Mr. Caulfield said, taking a break from the heavy labor.
In the 1930s, his father Patrick Caulfield, a schoolteacher, made an unusual discovery while cutting turf. Lines of stones he found under the bog turned out to be field walls, relics of a previously unknown, sophisticated Neolithic farming culture, older than Egypt’s pyramids. The walls were submerged in the bog when the climate cooled 5,000 years ago. Known as the Céide Fields, the area is now a major historic site.
Faced with the threat of European Union penalties for failing to adequately protect its bogs, the Irish government says it “strongly contends” that the E.U. has not fully considered the investment and resources that it is putting into bog conservation, which it says have already greatly reduced the amount of turf cut since 2011.
With financial backing from the European Union, Ireland is also seeking to rehabilitate and protect thousands of acres of raised bogs. A number of them have been “rewetted” and turned into visitor attractions and nature reserves. Once widely viewed as little more than dreary wasteland, bogs are now recognized as vital havens for biodiversity. They also serve as natural water filters and flood controls, soaking up rain and releasing it slowly in times of drought.
At Lullymore in County Kildare, the Irish Peatland Conservation Council has been restoring the historic Lodge Bog, damming the drains that had dried it for cutting. The bog, which first started to grow 10,000 years ago, is home to more than 150 different kinds of plants and 186 types of birds, mammals and insects — mountain hares, foxes, butterflies, skylarks and roughly 47 species of spiders.
The council’s education officer, Paula Farrell, stood on a wooden walkway built over the bog’s surface and pointed out the signs of a healthy, living peatland — bright tufts of yellow bog asphodel, the purple flowers of cross-leaved heath, tufts of white bog cotton. “Drained peat dries out and leaks carbon, but once we rewet it, we can take live moss from donor sites and replant bare patches of bog with it,” Ms. Farrell said. “Once it takes hold, the bog will start to grow again.”