Bord na Móna's 'contract with nature' is convincing

 

ANOTHER LIFE: AS THE sedges begin to wither, some stretches of the Connacht moors have the richness of medieval velvets: russets, madders, smoky reds. Later on, when the moor grass dies, bright lion-mane ochres will sweep across the bogs. And up in north Mayo a great area of cutaway peatland is slashed with black and glittering silver: these, too, can be colours to enjoy.

The bogs of Oweninny, around Bangor, are set in one of Ireland’s loneliest landscapes, a rolling world of wind and huge Atlantic skies. This is Bord na Móna’s westernmost territory, mined for half a century to feed the Bellacorick power station and help keep local people at home.

Peat production ceased there in 2003; the power station closed and Ireland’s first wind farm, of 21 turbines, proclaimed the new partnership of Bord na Móna and ESB. As they wait to build a further 180 turbines, the drains have been blocked across 6,500 hectares of flanking cutaway. New filaments of sphagnum moss are webbing a watery maze, flashing in the sun.

There’s one less-than-obvious reason for restoring this great reach of Atlantic blanket bog. Under its licence from the Environmental Protection Authority, Bord na Móna is bound to stabilise its former production area – at Oweninny, especially, so peat silt does not flow into neighbouring salmon rivers.

But the company’s national commitment to “a new contract with nature” (to quote the chief executive, Gabriel D’Arcy) has taken on convincing shape, even though most of its active peatlands – some 52,000 hectares – have another decade or more of production. The appointment in 2001 of a company ecologist, Dr Catherine Farrell, was a milestone. Her first Biodiversity Action Plan will be launched next month at a seminar in Tullamore, Co Offaly, at the heart of Bord na Móna’s cutaway country.

The future of the midland cutaway as a natural, home-grown “wilderness” has been debated for years, ever since it became obvious that neither grassland, vegetable growing nor forestry had much commercial future there. The most successful treatment has been the Lough Boora Parklands, where large areas around newly created lakes have been left to recolonisation by nature, with an eager growth of birch, Scots pine and orchids, and the resurgence of butterflies and nesting birds.

This prompted a keen community lobby group, backed by county councils, to urge immediate planning for an eventual, far larger, North Midlands Peatland Park. Created from cutaway bogs in Longford and Roscommon, a walker’s paradise would stretch 40km from north to south along both banks of the Shannon. The prospect was documented in a handsome booklet, A Long-Lived Wilderness, by the UCD ecologist John Feehan in 2007.

This gets no reference in the new biodiversity plan. But a spreading mosaic of lakes and natural woodland is clearly the option for much of the midland peatfields. Natural revegetation is counted on to stabilise the cutaway, in fulfilment of condition 10 of the EPA licences, and many areas will revert to wetlands as pumps are turned off at the end of peat harvesting.

Every hectare of the Bord na Móna bogs is being ecologically assessed and mapped (the subject of next month’s seminar). More than 25 different plant communities have been found already on the cutaway, and as many again on the fringes of the bogs, where trackways and river banks offer corridors for wildlife. A wider range of birds have found new homes, from grey partridge and breeding waders to the whooper swans of winter. There’s even hope of bringing back the bittern to boom among new reed beds being planted in bogs beside the Shannon.

The company has already handed ownership of valuable conservation areas, such as Pollardstown Fen and Clara Bog, to the National Parks and Wildlife Service and is leasing smaller bits of cutaway to local communities for amenity or biodiversity projects. But a changing world brings other priorities. Quite apart from Bord na Móna’s own energy ambitions, several big wind-farm projects have been proposed for cutaway sites. And the role of peatland as a carbon sink raises questions about restoring bogs rather than cutting them away to the gravel.

Only where a depth of acid peat remains is there any prospect of new sphagnum growth like that at Oweninny in Mayo. Research there suggests it is already soaking up carbon from the air. The company seems open to a wider programme of rewetting but this, apparently, could also release methane, an even worse greenhouse gas than CO2 and an issue yet to be resolved.

I learned the last from peering into a panel of grey text on a block of dark green, for the biodiversity plan is one of those smart designer’s jobs, with beautiful photographs, that can forget their first purpose is to be read.

Eye on nature

I was privileged to watch a white-tailed eagle as it rose from a tree on the edge of Pollardstown Fen and flew across the fen, where a heron took chase. Then the brave crows from the Grangemore rookery took up the gauntlet and mobbed the eagle as he made his way high in the sky towards the mountains. He had a white tag on his left wing that indicated he was a Kerry eagle. In recession there are other forms of riches.

John Colleran, Grangemore Stud, Co Kildare

On two occasions recently I watched a female sparrowhawk feed on wood pigeons on our lawn. On one occasion she spent 45 minutes plucking and eating it.

Martin Crotty, Blackrock, Co Louth

There are still thriving populations of autumn crocuses in the Nore Valley. (Another Life, October 9th)

Dearbhala Ledwidge, heritage officer, Kilkenny

Is it wise to feed swans and gulls with bread? What would be better for them?

Margaret Thornton, Limerick

White bread should not be fed to swans. Brown bread, while no substitute for their normal diet of vegetation and small invertebrates, will do them little damage in the long term.


Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or viney@anu.ie. Please include a postal address