Ireland is undertaking one of Europe’s largest environmental projects. But farmers fear its effects

Bord na Móna is attempting to rehabilitate 33,000 hectares of Midlands bog in one of the largest environmental projects being undertaken in Europe

It’s perhaps the biggest reverse-engineering project ever undertaken by the State. Bord na Móna, set up in 1946, spent the first 80 years of its existence draining the bogs to extract peat. It will spend the next two decades, perhaps more, rewetting them in an attempt to reverse the process it was set up to exploit.

The volte-face can’t come quick enough. About 75 per cent of the raised bogs here have already been destroyed by peat-cutting, afforestation and reclamation for agriculture. They once covered a significant swathe of the Midlands, about 310,000 hectares, stretching across Offaly, Westmeath, Longford, Laois, Roscommon, Tipperary and into parts of Galway and east Mayo.

Most of the remaining 46,000 hectares is dead or inactive, meaning it is incapable of supporting life. But even this diminishing piece of bog real estate accounts for most, if not all, of what’s left of Europe’s raised bogs.

Bord na Móna’s Peatlands Climate Action Scheme (PCAS), as the project is called, will attempt to rehabilitate 33,000 hectares, making it one of the largest environmental projects in Europe.


It involves more than just reblocking drains and allowing water previously drained away to stay on the site which the semi-State was obliged to do anyway. It means managing the water so that it stays at a level just below the vegetation line and what environmentalists describe as putting a “skin” back on the peat, which is essential for the original biodiversity to re-establish, a tricky process that needs constant monitoring.

The raised bog, different from the blanket bogs of Connemara and northwest Mayo made famous by artist Paul Henry, is one of nature’s subtler creations.

They developed over 10,000 years from shallow lakes left by retreating glaciers. The build-up of undecayed vegetation slowly thickens into peat to form a fen. As the overlayer of plants get further cut off from mineral rich groundwater, the surface gets colonised by mosses and other plants (those that can survive on mineral-poor rainwater), and the fen over time morphs into a raised bog.

Nothing defines the environment of the Midlands more than the bog and the specific plants and animals that thrive in this dank, acidic environment. Its partial destruction has coincided with a sharp decline in Ireland’s biodiversity.

Tristram Whyte of the Irish Peatland Conservation Council says Bord na Móna needs to be given a new mandate to manage biodiversity. “They were [originally] mandated to destroy biodiversity, now they’ve ended up with some of the most important habitats in Europe,” he says.

Restoring what’s left of these habitats has been given a new imperative by the climate crisis.

Peatlands naturally sequester carbon by absorbing it through plants and storing it in the ground (provided the water table is kept persistently high), making them a valuable tool in the State’s climate mitigation plans.

While Bord na Móna’s reverse out of peat harvesting has been widely welcomed, there are problems brewing with its rewetting project.

Farmers with lands on the fringes of the bogs that are being rewet are worried the process will damage, or even destroy, their lands and livelihoods. They’re not minded to take Bord na Móna’s assurances that the rewetting will be carefully ring-fenced and managed so as not to damage adjoining lands. They want the Government or Bord na Móna to indemnify them against possible damage.

They’ve sought a face-to-face meeting with Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan to relay their concerns but one has yet to take place.

“We think that there’s a great deal riding on this and, bluntly, we’re not sure that Minister Ryan understands what’s at stake,” Pat McCormack, president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA), says.

“What Bord na Móna and the NPWS [National Parks and Wildlife Service] do with their own land is their own business; but if what they are going to do results in thousands of acres of privately owned land around their sites becoming less productive and over time becoming useless for farming, then it becomes our matter and it becomes a very, very fundamental matter for the hundreds of farms around these sites all across the midlands,” he says.

Bord na Móna says it was on track to complete the rehabilitation of 13,750 hectares in 39 separate bogs through the first two years of the PCAS. “It should be noted that all the rewetting carried out under the PCAS is carried out on Bord na Móna lands with no requirement to enter adjoining lands,” it adds.

As set out in the original statement of intent, “hydrological risk assessment is undertaken for each bog unit which, among other things, assesses the potential impact of the various rehabilitation measures which are proposed on the local drainage network and the potential risk of causing additional flooding of adjoining lands,” it says.

“Bord na Móna’s intention is that, where any such additional flooding risks are identified, the proposed rehabilitation measures will be adjusted to minimise any such additional risks and such adjusted measures are identified in the hydrological assessment,” it says.

Farmers are also worried that Bord na Móna may at some point in the future start selling tracts of peatland as valuable carbon sinks to companies wanting to offset their emissions footprint. They cite the controversy surrounding Coillte’s deal to sell off land and forestry to UK investment firm Gresham as something that might be replicated on Bord na Móna land.

The stand-off is just one of many that the State must resolve as it transitions to a low-carbon economy.