Bogged down: Bleak outlook for the west’s blanket peatlands

The list of causes of damage is long, making it hard to know where to start

Wind-blown sheep. Illustration: Michael Viney

Wind-blown sheep. Illustration: Michael Viney

 

Looking out at blackface ewes caught in the squalls, tails to the wind, hailstones sequinned on their fleeces, it has been hard to grudge them their share of the western landscape. How fair would it be to call the high, bare slopes of the hills “sheepwrecked”?

This was a coinage from George Monbiot, radical columnist on ecological issues for the Guardian newspaper. It headed a chapter in Feral, his book that urged “rewilding” of the upland ecosystems.

Monbiot lived until recently at Machynlleth in Wales, below Cambrian mountains “grazed to destruction” and the source of both the Severn and Wye rivers. After previous Welsh floods, he dared to put the blame on the hill sheep. His comments on Countryfile raised a storm.

This came to mind as I watched, appalled, the latest flooding of western UK. Both these islands share “extreme events” of unconscionable rainfall. An avalanche of soil unfurling on one Welsh hillside was so like the one that still scars the mountain round the corner in Killary harbour, opposite Leenane. Other Irish landslides have been far more damaging, and the Geological Survey has even mapped more potential sites.

It has been three decades since I had to describe the severe overgrazing of western hills caused by the EU’s headage subsidies on unsustainable peatland. A great deal has changed since then, in reduction of sheep numbers, environmental grant schemes and enlightened local initiatives.

The fabric of the hills has been slow to repair, as Nardus and Molinia grasses hold their grasp. Whole communities of mosses and liverworts have gone. Heather creeps back on the drier ground. but rarely to the height or luxuriance that once soaked up the rain and sheltered coveys of red grouse. For that, one has to visit, say, the protected slopes of Connemara National Park.

Profound change

A different but equally profound change is the current exodus from hill farming. The toll of ageing aside, this is blamed on falling incomes. A study for the Irish Uplands Forum has found these well below the average industrial wage and almost wholly composed of basic EU farm payments.

The bulk of sheep, however, are still held on the western seaboard and on uplands in the south and east. More than 800,000 head are mountain ewes. As ageing farmers drop out, their land is often annexed into neighbouring “ranches”.

A concern expressed by Teagasc researchers is that “vast tracts of commonage will become . . . completely abandoned” because their condition is seen as agriculturally worthless. Neither the EU nor Teagasc can bear the thought of uplands smothered ungrazably with unmanaged heather, gorse, willow scrub or trees – all vegetation that might be expected to hold back the rain.

For many ecological enthusiasts, leaving “vast tracts” of Irish hills to nature, or restoring them with native trees, would be ideal. New woodlands of Scots pine, birch and sessile oak flourish in their dreams.

Before the postglacial climate change, many centuries ago, brought its own relentless rains, Scots pine was the dominant tree of the uplands, but there’s no chance of its unaided regeneration. One man in Co Wicklow carries a bunch of pine seedlings on his hill walks and plants them where he can, protected inside little barricades of rocks.

Enduring fantasy

Some of the growing legion of hillwalkers might, perhaps, be moved to read The Man Who Planted Trees, Jean Giono’s enduring fantasy, and carry a pocketful of sprouted acorns of the native sessile oak. Prodded deep into any likely crevice of mineral soil, who knows? Until, I fear, the first snip from a passing sheep. Meanwhile, treeless blanket peat has absorbent values of its own, soaking up both water and atmospheric carbon.

In his book Feral, Monbiot was irked to find the EU opposing upland tree planting on the grounds that it would release too much carbon from the soil.

One of many objectives in a new “Wild Atlantic Nature” project, backed by the EU Life programme, is “removal of encroaching trees and shrubs” from blanket peatland in protected areas along the Wild Atlantic Way. These, no doubt, would include rhododendron and the lodgepole pines self-sown from ageing Coillte forestry.

“Restoring” the bogs in 24 SACs along the Wild Atlantic Way faces a pessimistic description from the National Parks and Wildlife Service and a lack of any national conservation plan for blanket bogs, even in protected areas.

The project lists the causes of damage: “Centuries of peat cutting, reclamation, burning, drainage and invasive species. In more recent decades afforestation, over- or under-grazing, recreation and infrastructural developments . . . ”

Add in “low levels of public appreciation” of how peatland matters to climate change, or why communities should feel a caring ownership for the local bog, and you might wonder where to start.

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