How going Dutch could save more Irish bogs
Squeezing Spaghnum: Leonie Tijsma (centre left, in yellow vest) guiding a walk on Lodge Bog, part of the Lullymore complex in Co Kildare. Photograph: Tadhg Ó Corcora
Joni Mitchell neatly summed up a paradox about conservation in a single line from one of her most memorable 1970s songs, Big Yellow Taxi: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.
Or rather, you don’t know you’ve got till it’s nearly gone. And then you have to spend a lot of time, effort and money trying to get it back. “Sustainable development” remains an aspiration in most places.
It so happened that, in the same decade Joni Mitchell was singing her warning, the Dutch suddenly realised they had exploited their once vast peatlands to vanishing point. They did a U-turn, and thought up a radical 50-year conservation and restoration plan that has cost €100 million so far.
To develop the plan, they needed to study peatlands that were still intact and they chose to research Irish bogs. Ironically, this was partly because the Netherlands was importing copious quantities of Irish peat moss for the country’s horticulture industry. If we had so much of the brown stuff, we must still have lots and lots of healthy bogs, right?
So a number of Dutch research students, among them Matthijs Schouten, came to Ireland. They realised rapidly that while Ireland still had a lot more intact bogs than did the Netherlands, they were heading rapidly down the same fatal slope, through overexploitation.
Schouten has not only made a major contribution to scientific research on Irish bogs since then; he also helped to establish the Dutch Foundation for the Conservation of Irish Bogs in 1983.
At the same time, reflecting growing awareness here of the biodiversity value of Irish bogs, the Irish Peatland Conservation Council (IPCC) was established.
By 1987, the Dutch foundation had raised the funds to purchase three Irish bogs. The first title deed was handed over by Prince Bernhard to an Irish minister of state, Noel Treacy, at a high-profile ceremony in the Netherlands. The discreet implication was that our government should really be doing this kind of thing itself.
Slowly, nudged along also by the EU, official attitudes here have indeed shifted significantly. But the most difficult conservation challenge is engaging public opinion positively with conservation issues.
With local people involved, everything is possible. With local people indifferent, or hostile, even the best policies are likely to face shipwreck, as the sad impasse in the turf-cutting controversy shows.
A steady stream of students has followed Schouten’s distinguished footprints, including Ineke Roëll and Marleen Jansen. They published a study of Lullymore Island, Co Kildare, in 2005.
Bog of Allen
Lullymore today is an “island” of agricultural land, cultural sites including monastic remains, cutover bog grassland, and remnant raised bog. It sits in the middle of the Bog of Allen, most of which has been industrially exploited by Bord na Móna for decades, and exploited for fuel by local residents for centuries before that.