Raised bog raises the environmental game

The story of a bog, a community and a semi-State company offers timely lessons for all sides in the turf-cutting controversy

Rewetting: blocking part of the 60km of drains on Abbeyleix Bog, which allows the bog to re-form rapidly

Rewetting: blocking part of the 60km of drains on Abbeyleix Bog, which allows the bog to re-form rapidly

Sat, Apr 20, 2013, 06:00

Some conflicts, it is good to remember, do get resolved.

Early one morning in 2000, Bord na Móna workers tried to start cutting turf on Abbeyleix Bog, in Co Kildare. They were stopped by 50 angry local citizens – and the boom of a 25m crane.

We know today that Abbeyleix (Killamuck) Bog is a jewel among our few remaining raised bogs, which are recognised by the EU as among the most important in Europe. Sadly, that only means that it is a bit less degraded than most of them.

But even experts had given up on this bog at the time, and restoring its biodiversity was not the protesters’ main concern. Local turf-cutting rights were not an issue here either. Some protesters just did not want the dust, noise and traffic of industrial turf-cutting so close to home.

Others feared the ruin of a much-loved walk across the bog. Ironically, this trail follows an old railway track, whose deep limestone foundations still obstruct the free flow of water vital to a really healthy bog.

But there has been one happily paradoxical 21st-century consequence of this 19th-century damage: the limestone nourished a new ecosystem, generating today’s flourishing woodland and the wildflowers that spangle it in season.

All the protesters were aggrieved that the company had acted unilaterally. They also shared a civic pride in Abbeyleix’s architectural and environmental heritage.

Reflecting on this plurality of motives, the man who drove the crane on to the bog road that morning, Gary O’Keefe, says pragmatically, “Not everyone is that enamoured with nature for its own sake. That is not a terrible fact; it is just a fact.”

O’Keefe is now committed to restoring the bog’s biodiversity. But he is also a practical businessman, and insists that the project must also bring recreational, educational and, indeed, commercial benefits to the whole community.

Refined their proposals
So despite their radical direct action, these protesters were not stereotypical greens, much less ecowarriors. Having stalled turf extraction, the group then networked, negotiated and refined their proposals over eight years.

They benefitted from a big shift in Bord na Móna’s corporate culture. A new chief executive, Gabriel D’Arcy, announced a “new contract with nature”, which eventually led to the company’s highly regarded 2010 biodiversity action plan, developed by the company’s first staff ecologist, Catherine Farrell.

True, the company’s discovery of the ecovalue of our bogs was tragically overdue: it had already stripped so many of them bare, and brought our raised bogs in particular to the brink of extinction. But the shift has had welcome outcomes.

“I thought Abbeyleix Bog was worth saving,” Farrell says. “We all met up, found the money and just did it . . . It was the right time for the project.”

So company workers went back on to the bog, with everybody’s blessing, but to block drains, not to cut them. Active bog formation restarted remarkably rapidly after this simple “rewetting”. Sphagnum mosses, the basic building blocks of a bog, regenerated and spread.

In 2009 the company ceded the site to the community-based Abbeyleix Bog Project, which has an ambitious plan to fund and build a 1,800m boardwalk, both to encourage access to the bog and to protect it from the impact of that access.

Jim Ryan, a bog expert at the National Parks and Wildlife Service, has reported that the bog is of much higher biodiversity and hydrological quality than he originally thought and that it is still recovering fast. It faces threats, especially from alien plants, but they are containable.

Restoration paradox
The railway foundations continue to pose a restoration paradox. A purist would want to remove them to reintegrate one of our last functioning raised bogs. But success would be far from certain, a biodiverse woodland would be lost, and the community would be alienated. Much better, probably, to stick with the current plan.

The positive outcome here has encouraged Bord na Móna to restore a further 400 hectares of raised bog in Galway and Roscommon and to embark on a new five-year restoration programme, with an eye to both biodiversity benefits and carbon credits.

Is it too much to hope that the story of Abbeyleix Bog, where a community is restoring a bog rather than destroying it, might hold a lesson for all sides in the dialogue of the deaf that constitutes the ongoing turf-cutting disputes elsewhere?

For those families that cherish the great tradition of summer evenings bonding out on the bog, restoration and conservation offer as many opportunities as does slicing a bank with a slean. They could also be rewarded, where appropriate, with fuel from other sources.

This will never satisfy those who seek a quick buck from fragile ecosystems at the expense of our communities and landscapes. But it would separate the real men and women from the boyos on the bog.


Abbeyleix Bog is a site for the Bioblitz challenge on June 8th; abbeyleixbog.ie and bioblitz.biodiversityireland.ie