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Dublin: 8 °C Friday 25 April, 2014

Column: Burning our bogs is like setting fire to our future

There is an economic and social value in preserving our bogs. We need to forget our romantic ideas turf fires and preserve our heritage, writes Kieran McNally.

Part of the Bog of Allen in County Offaly
Part of the Bog of Allen in County Offaly
Image: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

BECAUSE OF PREVIOUS mismanagement, 80 per cent of our bogs are now lost forever. Burning the remainder is like setting fire to our future.

Let’s remind ourselves of the economic and social value use these bogs.

First, because of their unique beauty, they attract tourists and generate revenue for the local rural economies, which desperately need it. In the case of places such as the Bog of Allen Nature Centre, which attracts thousands of visitors, they directly provide jobs.  This can be copied elsewhere.

We still have some left, Europe’s have been destroyed

Second, they are reservoirs of knowledge waiting to be tapped.  Indeed, because many European bogs have been destroyed, these areas are growing in scientific importance and value. They provide space for our scientists to conduct the kind of fundamental research we know can lead to job creation and income generation.

The list is not short. Our bogs play a role in water storage and flood management. Our bogs act as environmentally critical carbon sinks. Our bogs contain valuable archaeological records of who we the Irish people are. They are free leisure centres for our population, whose obesity – if not controlled – will cost us billions. They are used for fishing and animal grazing. They are outdoor universities for our children.

Unique flora and fauna

Finally, they act as habitats for unique and endangered species. Kildare’s Lodge bog by itself is home to some 186 different birds, animals and insects. The rapidly declining curlew population seeks refuge here. But bogs provide habitat for more than just native birds. Rare migrant birds from other countries are also find sanctuary.

And let’s not focus on just the rare plants and birds: we are running out of habitat space for many ordinary species full stop – both at home and internationally. When you destroy peat land, it typically doesn’t come back folks.

We do have a road map. For years, the Irish Peatland Conservation Council has been quietly defending our interests by trying to buy endangered bogs. For years they’ve provided free resources for teachers, installed boardwalks, seating, and initiated conservation and restoration research projects. They’ve encouraged cranberry picking, revived interest in heather honey and promoted stargazing (there are no lights in the peat black night). This year they’ve brought additional tourists to the bogs through gathering events: pond dipping, hawking displays, peat snorkeling anyone?

Turf cutters

Turf cutters are already getting paid for the privilege of not wrecking our economic assets. They are already being offered land swaps. They have been getting free turf. Now they want to claim the last 2 per cent of Irish Bogs. Clearly these turf cutters don’t even deserve to be offered land swaps. Like bankers and people who dump rubbish in the bogs they have nothing to offer the Irish people but self-interest.

This is not a rural v urban issue. Indeed most of the people fighting to protect bogs and their contents are rural citizens. Part of Fenor bog in Waterford was donated by local families. Birdwatch Ireland has branches in almost every county in Ireland. Nor is this a matter of European law. Ireland began protecting its habitats long before the EU was ever invented. In fact, many Irish bogs were designated as special areas of conservation before some of these ‘protesters’ were even born. This is about the wishes of the Irish people.

And there is no moral highground here. Ireland’s gardeners – many of whom are urban – also need to stop the destructive and unsustainable use of peat moss in their gardens. There are many substitutes.

As for the  romantic turf fires that we’ve all enjoyed: it’s time we grew up as a people. We are stupidly setting fire to our past, present and future. It’s time we exited the relationship. It’s time we looked after our real self-interests and find a new love. Let’s protect more bogs – not just the ones we have.

Kieran McNally is an Irish historian specialising in the history of medicine. He also has an interest in the environment. He can be contacted via Twitter @McNallyk

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