Restoring bogs is more complex than just removing trees

State-owned forestry body views stalled Connemara project as a pilot site for an ambitious plan to restore 30,000 hectares of bog along the west by 2050

In 1936, in a piece published in the literary magazine Ireland To-Day, Irish republican Bulmer Hobson proposed how the Gaeltacht in the west could become prosperous: the State should plant fast-growing conifers to supply commercial timber and turn the area into a “great national Forest”.

Hobson had a kindred spirit in Seán MacBride, founder of Clann na Poblachta, who ran in the 1948 general election with a pledge to rapidly increase the rate of afforestation. At that time, about 2,400 hectares were planted annually. As minister for external affairs in the coalition government, MacBride introduced a policy of planting 10,000 hectares a year for 40 years, funded by the minister for finance, Fine Gael’s Gerard Sweetman, with a promise of much-needed jobs and industry in rural areas.

Nearly half of the plantations were on land west of the Shannon. Because this included large tracts of watery, acidic blanket bog – not ideal for trees – the dream of turning the west into a forest could have quickly descended into a nightmare. And so, in 1951, the State bought new tractors and heavy ploughs, which allowed foresters to drain the water from the land and go deeper into bogland and higher up the hills than previously possible.

During that period, a 343-hectare stretch of bogland in the townlands of Derryclare and Cloonnacarton in the Inagh valley in Connemara was planted with non-native Sitka spruce and lodgepole pine trees, but not before the hills were ploughed up, the water was drained, raised furrows were created and rock phosphate was spread. It was a radical reshaping of the landscape.


It has been a catastrophic failure. The strong winds, ever more ferocious with climate change, have blown trees over; those still standing don’t grow well and are worth little as timber. Excessive phosphorus and acidification have polluted the waterways and are toxic to aquatic life, including Atlantic salmon and freshwater pearl mussel.

If that isn’t tragic enough, the site is seeping carbon. Blanket bogs are like giant sponges, soaking up carbon dioxide over thousands of years. But if the bogs are disturbed and drained for conifers, vast holes are poked in the sponge. This Connemara plantation continuously emits up to 1,200 tonnes of carbon annually.

The solution to this ecological disaster is blindingly obvious: get rid of the trees and re-wet the land. Coillte, which owns the Connemara site, came to this same conclusion and last year applied to Galway County Council for permission to remove the trees over 10 years. Their plan, outlined in hundreds of pages of ecological reports, is to block up the drains and restore the bog on 80 per cent of the land, and plant native trees on the rest.

Peatlands are top of the league in storing carbon, cleaning and purifying water, restoring nature and mitigating flooding. Coillte’s proposal aligns with national and European policies to cut emissions and support biodiversity. However, like nearly all plantations in the west of Ireland, this site is surrounded by legally protected areas of high nature value.

Removing trees at this scale with conventional harvesting methods – using large machines and building roads and bridges – can litter the area with nutrient pollution and sediment (in France, helicopters are used as an alternative). In legally protected habitats, the law is clear: if the proposed works cause adverse effects on the integrity of protected sites, the applicant must find tried and tested ways – beyond reasonable scientific doubt – to avoid doing so.

The United Nations estimates that Ireland’s degraded peatlands emit 21.6 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent every year, and we are far behind other European countries when it comes to restoring bogs

Galway County Council took a year to assess Coillte’s proposal and last month published its decision: permission refused. The planners criticised Coillte’s reports for lacking detail and having too many gaps. The council may still be haunted by the ghost of the 2003 Derrybrien wind farm disaster when a catastrophic landslide on a blanket bog in southeast Galway caused untold damage. The case went to the European Court of Justice, which ruled that an environmental-impact assessment should have been undertaken before the development. In total, it cost the public €17 million in fines.

Council members opened a letter of objection to Coillte’s proposal and saw that it was signed by Peter Sweetman (interestingly, the son of the late Fine Gael minister Gerard Sweetman). The environmental activist has a strong track record in spotting proposals that break environmental law. In a characteristically succinct submission, he called Coillte’s proposed mitigation measures vague. Sweetman has won three cases in the European Court of Justice.

Time isn’t on our side. The United Nations estimates that Ireland’s degraded peatlands emit 21.6 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent every year, and we are far behind other European countries when it comes to restoring bogs. Scotland leads the way: by 2025 it will be restoring 3,000 hectares of bog a year.

The refusal is a significant blow to Coillte’s not-for-profit arm, Coillte Nature, which views the Connemara project as a pilot site for an ambitious plan to restore 30,000 hectares of bog along the west by 2050. Coillte is well-positioned and well-funded to deliver large-scale restoration projects but will surely have to return to the drawing board to get this across the line.

Coillte Nature’s intentions with this project are commendable, so it is undoubtedly frustrating. But the law is there to protect the remaining rare species and slivers of pristine habitats that we have left. We need a higher level of ecological expertise and experience, along with a greater willingness from government departments and agencies to collectively drive these initiatives at a catchment scale, while being guided by the best science. We’ve failed nature before; we cannot do so again.

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