Blocking drains to capture carbon

Can ordinary people do anything practical to slow down climate change? On Girley Bog, near Kells in Co Meath, you can get very wet finding out

 

Little is more miserable, weatherwise, than a really wet Irish summer Sunday. On a drive from Dublin to Kells recently the horizontal rain hammering on the windscreen makes it hard, at noon, to see cars 10m away – or to feel much optimism about the Keep It in the Bog climate-action event that I’m driving to. Who’s going to turn out to help rewet a peatland that has already been drenched by several hours’ downpour, and spend hours getting sodden in the process?

The answer turns out to be 40 people, all of whom share a vision of the future of a bog and of its links to our common future.

I should have had more faith in the organiser, Alannah Ní Cheallaigh. She is the An Taisce intern whose innovative front-door message to general-election canvassers went viral on Facebook.

“I don’t know whether you’ll want to blame me or thank me later,” she says ruefully as we gather, many of us already drenched, on the bus opposite the Headfort Arms Hotel. “But this is an action to bring together people who want to do something practical about climate change, and for local people who want to know more about what we are up to when we talk about climate action.”

The place she has chosen for this exercise is the nearby Girley Bog, which featured on this page in February, along with its remarkable young local naturalist, Tim Sullivan. He is on the bus, having done a biodiversity survey of the small site we’re going to work on with his classmates from St Brigid’s National School in Cortown the previous week.

Characteristically, he had found something unusual, something most of us would have missed altogether. He had seen four lesser redpolls, small brownish finches, “chasing each other around, landing in the heather and gorse on the high bog”.

He says that this behaviour means they are probably breeding nearby. But he was surprised to see woodland birds on such open terrain. He thinks it has something to do with the birch trees that have spread on to the bog as it has dried out.

Why, though, is the bog drying out? And why should anyone want to reverse that process, especially when the change is creating new habitats and bringing in new species?

In a quick seminar – half of it on the bus and half out on the bog, in a biting wind – Ní Cheallaigh and Tadgh O Corcora of the Irish Peatland Conservation Council, which is partnering An Taisce in this action, explains some of the essentials.

Bogs dry out largely because turf cutters cut ditches into them, draining them to facilitate peat extraction. But for bogs to continue producing peat, whose main ingredient is decayed spaghnum mosses, they must be very wet.

“An active bog is 98 per cent water and 2 per cent vegetative matter,” O Corcora tells us. So to conserve the unique communities of plants and animals characteristic of bogs we need to rewet them. And this is done very simply, although laboriously, by blocking the drains.

The Irish Peatland Conservation Council, which owns part of Girley Bog, is committed to restoring the biodiversity of raised bogs, one of the most threatened ecosystems in Europe.

But the action day, which is being supported by the Patagonia sportswear company, is driven by a broader concern, one that affects all of us.

“Healthy bogs store carbon dioxide, and they store most when the water table is high,” Ní Cheallaigh says. “If we rewet the bog it traps more carbon, reducing the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and mitigating climate change.”

Ní Cheallaigh agrees that it’s not always this simple. The greenhouse-gas equation of rewetted bogs is complex: in some cases wetter bogs release methane, a potent generator of climate change. So there are swings and roundabouts in this process, as in so many environmental equations. Recent Irish research in this area, however, strongly suggests that rewetting generally has a positive outcome.

“We need to watch the carbon-methane balance,” Ní Cheallaigh says, “but people feel so helpless about climate change that it’s important to offer them something practical to do about it. Given the way the EU common agricultural policy works, farmers around here have little choice but to produce beef, and they get blamed for adding to greenhouse-gas emissions. But blame and guilt don’t motivate people to act. I hope that the local people coming out on the bog today will see that we can all make a difference.”

After just a couple of hours’ hard work in five teams, the initial difference is surprisingly obvious. O Corcora teaches us to block the drains by making dams, hammering interlocking plastic panels a couple of metres down, across the flow and into the bank on either side. An absorbent sandwich is created by driving in a second dam, half a metre away, and stuffing the gap with peat dug nearby. Water builds up quickly behind each dam, seeping slowly outwards into the surrounding bog, which can hold it for years.

O Corcora also shows us where an old dam is coming apart. The rapid flow through a narrow crack gives an idea of how much water the bog loses every moment through the still extensive drain network.

That visible spate of water speaks eloquently of the dynamism of natural systems, and of the invisible leakage of carbon-dioxide from dried-out parts of the bog. A new dam at this point plugs this particular gap. Small actions can indeed make a big difference. But we need to do a lot of them.

Keep It in the Bog: One family’s day out

But this is hardly the sort of idyllic summer day that Hickey recalls so fondly. Twelve-year-old Grace, nine-year-old Alicia and five-year-old Torin seem mystified by this excursion. They stick it out, stomping down the peat in the sandwich dams perhaps with more vigour than delight. Are they enjoying it all? A pause. “Sort of.” Would they come again? Another pause. “Maybe.”

They are standing on a carpet of exquisite bog asphodels, but the tiny flowers are hard to see in rain. The production of a hand lens evokes some wonder, allowing the exotic shape and vivid colours to spring into focus. Within minutes they are excited to find a sedge for themselves, discovering its even tinier flowers.

Over welcome tea and scones at Causey Farm, the adults enthuse about the experience. John McDonnell, of Shalvanstown organic farm in Slane, describes it as opportunity to “connect the dots” about climate, nature and our own actions. “Preaching scares people away,” he says. “We need to think about education and entertainment instead.”

“This is what I was hoping to achieve,” says Alannah Ní Cheallaigh, the An Taisce intern, “that taking part would leave people feeling they can have a strong hand in tackling these issues and feel empowered to be part of climate action.

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