As a young boy, I remember the Irish bogs so well. My father converted an old canal barge into a semi liveable houseboat and my family spent a number of summers travelling up and down the Grand Canal through the Irish midlands as we watched countless shoals of perch, bream and rudd swim ahead of us and watched as bright blue kingfishers tried to get away from the boat by flying in front of it until they realised that they had to let us pass. The pristine water of the Grand Canal, originating in Pollardstown fen near Robertstown had once been used to make Guinness in Dublin. These journeys through the midlands allowed me to see the work of Bord na Mona, the Irish Peat Board at first hand in a way that few others did in those days as there were very few roads through our midland bogs.
We marvelled at the lifting rail bridges over the old canal, I remember the great excitement of finding a bee orchid beside one of them as we waited for a lifting bridge to open. The extensive light rail system operated by Bord na Mona allowed industrially excavated peat to be transported to power stations at far-flung places like Lanesborough and Shannonbridge along the river Shannon. I remember seeing an old peat briquette factory by the side of the canal, at Ticknevin I think. What Bord na Mona did as part of a fledgling Irish state in the middle of the twentieth century was quite remarkable. They provided innovative industry in areas which might otherwise have been left behind in dire poverty. They developed machinery to excavate peat on a scale not previously imagined. Initially, the peat burning power stations were a significant part of the Irish electricity grid. However, the environmental cost was not understood or considered.
Thousands of years of hard work by our natural peatlands as carbon was taken from the atmosphere and stored in our bogs went up in smoke in decades for some horribly inefficient electricity generation, which has ended up being heavily subsidised. Millions of tonnes of carbon sent up into the sky partly to power our washing machines, our ovens, our kettles and our toasters. Innovative perhaps, but only if we completely ignore the environmental costs and the mind-blowing unsustainability of such a venture. While the power stations are being closed and other peatland exploitation activities are slowly coming to an end, degraded and drained peatlands in Ireland are still emitting millions of tonnes of Carbon each year and this includes marginal land which has also been drained for farming. In fact, about 20 tonnes of carbon is emitted into the atmosphere every minute from degraded peatlands in Ireland, equivalent to the weight of four African bull elephants from what should be the most efficient ecological carbon store on the planet.
What we know now, we didn’t know then. Now we have to turn things around and live our lives in a more sustainable way. There is no reason why we can’t again be inventive and innovative based on today’s knowledge, by rewetting and restoring our peatlands in a way that provides an income to local people. In terms of farmland, wetland farming (paludiculture) is one option. Carbon farming is another. We can end emissions and move back to carbon sequestration as we develop new methods of payment for capturing carbon and providing other ecosystems services as well.
One fifth of Ireland is peatland. It should be seen for what it is, a hugely valuable, oft beautiful resource. It can help us to reach net-zero carbon if we simply learn to value it for what it is.
Niall Ó Brolcháin