Long live the peat

Are peatlands really as useless as they seem?

As I was hiking the resplendent path of Wicklow’s Great Sugar Loaf, I stumbled upon a small bog. Hazel, a Geography student and friend of mine, attempted to spark an interesting discussion as to their value and their utility. I, not  knowing what to say, and in a wonted law-student-like manner, sought to find fault with her arguments: how could anything as visually unappealing and insignificant as a mere bog be seen as being of such importance to another? Deciding to pack away my prejudice for the sake of it however, I ultimately began to see value in what was being said: though seemingly joke-worthy, boglands contain one of the most intriguing stories science has to tell. Indeed, amongst the many wonders that the Emerald Isle harbours, its peatlands stand as one of the most intriguing, yet undiscussed. Fortunately for the reader, this article will seek to expound upon its biological virtues, and – summarily – why I think its nature warrants further attention. 

I extend my gratitude to Dr. John Connolly and Dr. Louis Gilet for their kind and informative contributions to this article, which we hope will serve as a stepping-stone for pertinent discussion.

Peatlands: But What Are They?

Peatlands, or bogs, are a type of wetland ecosystem wherein organic material, mostly plants, slowly accumulate to form layers of “peat.” The wetness of bogs leads to an absence of oxygen, a vital ingredient in the process of plant decomposition. With lower rates of decomposition and higher rates of deposition of organic matter, peat begins to accumulate, trapping carbon dioxide from being released back into the atmosphere. Of the numerous ecosystem services that peatlands provide, one of the most critical to our current climate crisis is their role as carbon sinks. Globally, peatlands store a third of total soil organic carbon, despite covering only 3% of the land surface. Per metre, peatlands store more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem, even more than tropical rainforests. Unfortunately, they remain amongst the most disparaged and misunderstood ecosystems.

Historical Context

Boglands are practically ubiquitous on the Island: they cover 21% of Ireland’s land-area. Scientists have categorised bogs into two different types: blanket and raised. Anthropogenic effects have made it so that both types of boglands manifested themselves at differing historical periods. Raised boglands  formed naturally in post-glacial Ireland via the depositing of reeds, sphagnum moss, and other organic materials into lakes. By around 2500 Y.B.P., most hitherto partially-affected lakes had in fact become overfilled with peat, whereupon they became what is colloquially referred to as “raised bogs.” During the Roman Warm Period (ca. 250 B.C. – 400 A.D.), unusually dry weather allowed the boglands to dry-up, and farmers began to use them for grazing in the summer.

It is through a similar, though anachronistic, fashion that  blanket bogs came  into existence. In Neolithic times, early agrarians began to clear uphill land on which they would subsequently build their farms. Consequently, the treeless soil became particularly vulnerable to leaching, thus leading to those same leached materials coalescing at sub-surface levels. This impeded proper-drainage, which in conjunction with a very wet climate caused these areas to become waterlogged, inducing peat formation. Effectively, blanket bogs formed a veil over archaic farmland, hiding remains of Neolithic ruins.

A comparative study of human attitudes vis-à-vis boglands effectively depicts a telling story of the way by which humanity has visualised its interaction with its environment throughout the years; once seen as worthy of protection for symbolical (or otherwise religious) reasons, they with time became a major source of economic exploitation, and are now again slowly becoming subject to protection. It is to these intriguing developments that we now turn.

Exploitation and Drainage In Tandem: A Cautionary Tale

The primary threat to peatlands is anthropogenic. In fact, the history of peat in Ireland is a deeply interwoven story about the interactions between humans and nature. As explained earlier, blanket bogs were actually formed inadvertently by anthropogenic actions – viz., Neolithic deforestation. By the 17th century, Irish bogs had begun to be drained for agricultural use. Between 1809 and 1814, the British government sent out Bog Commissioners to map out Irish bogs, in order to assess how these “unproductive wastelands” may be drained and brought into economic use. However, it wasn’t until after Irish Independence that a nationwide effort to develop peatlands was undertaken by the Turf Development Board and later Bord na Móna. Rather than making bogs agriculturally viable, the aim was to extract turf, which had historically been harvested by hand, in a mechanised process to be used as an alternative energy source. Thus began the exploitation and degradation of Irish peatlands on a historically unprecedented scale. 

Without the waterlogged conditions, the organic material in peat starts to decompose. The drainage and removal of peat has been a huge source of carbon emissions in Ireland over the past century. Informatively, Dr. John Connolly and Dr. Louis Gilet explain that this is why “it is now more important than ever to rewet as much as possible degraded peatlands and to preserve the few remaining relatively intact ones.”

Rewetting: For Peat’s Sake

Article 4(1) of the European Climate Law demands that net greenhouse gas emissions shall be reduced by at least 55% compared to 1990 levels by 2030. Such supranational objectives are usually seen as inconsequential, non-obedience thereto being nearly always trifling. One may simply look at the Paris Accords for an illustrative example. However, recent domestic initiatives appear very promising.

To contextualise, Walther et al. (2021) have recently observed that boglands contain almost 65% of total soil organic carbon in Ireland. This effectively means that – in furtherance of climate policies – the sequestration of carbon from peatlands can impede its rising to atmospheric levels, thus mitigating climate change. In furtherance of such, and as noted within section [11.2] of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications’ Climate Action Plan 2019, the Government has (though non-bindingly) devoted itself to the “better management of grasslands, tillage land[,] and non-agricultural wetlands.” However, though the policy was due to replace the empirically dysfunctional 2011 National Peatlands Strategy, recent news accounts have noted that hundreds of peatlands are nonetheless still being cut down – the 2022 count being of 330 plots. 

This must be seen, we further submit, in addition to E.U. regulations and directives legislated in furtherance of the European Green Deal. Notwithstanding the above-imparted vitriol, the recent recommendations put forth under the 2022 Nature Restoration Law encourage the restoration and rewetting of drained peatlands in order to mitigate both climate change and biodiversity loss. Importantly, Dr. Connolly and Dr. Gilet opine:

‘[i]n an intact or wet state the remaining carbon will not be emitted and being wet encourages the conditions needed to support vegetation (e.g., Sphagnum moss) which sequesters CO2 and leads to storage of carbon’.

Such protective measures mustn’t be limited to governmental policy-making, however, the average Trinity student is apt to help. We can contribute to informing public debate on the matter, extending to the promotion of peatlands’ value as climate stabilisers, habitats, and areas of cultural and recreational importance. You can help by getting involved with local organisations and participating in restoration and rewetting projects. The Community wetland forum is important for such (www.communitywetlandsforum.ie).  

I thus encourage you to put on your buataisí and save the boglands one at a time. Long live the peat!

Sébastien Laymond

Sébastien Laymond is the Editor of the 'SciTech' column for Trinity News, and is currently in his Junior Sophister Year reading law.