Communities raise bog standards in Abbeyleix
Local groups that cherish our wetlands get a presidential welcome for their projects
Our Amazon: ecologist and Abbeyleix Bog Project volunteer Fiona McGowan guides President Michael D Higgins along the bog boardwalk built by the group. Pic Credit Alf Harvey. Photograph: Alf Harvey
We live at a moment when the president of another country mangles the English language in the early hours of almost every morning, and has displayed ignorant contempt for citizens, scientists and religious leaders who say we need to care better for our planetary home.
So it was particularly uplifting to hear our own President, Michael D. Higgins, speak with eloquence, and intimate personal knowledge, of the vital social and ecological importance of one our most degraded and contested natural habitats, our wetlands.
The occasion was the launch of the Community Wetlands Forum’s first strategic plan, which appropriately took place in a hotel adjacent to Abbeyleix Bog, one of our great and ongoing success stories of local environmental engagement.
They hold a youthful vibrancy, ever evolving and adapting, yet they are places of serenity
Our wetlands, the President reminded us, are not some kind of pristine wilderness, though they retain great aesthetic and ecological importance.
“Wetlands have been moulded by humans,” he said, “and have been harnessed for many purposes. [They] weave a mosaic of beauty across the Irish landscape. They sit at the base of mountains in the west and they blanket our uplands. They flow around the undulating soil of the midlands and along our rivers and shores . . . they hold a youthful vibrancy, ever evolving and adapting, yet they are places of serenity.”
Serenity, however, is not a word many of us would associate with the bitter controversy about the management of our wetlands, especially our bogs, that has raged in rural Ireland for the last two decades. This dates back to the EU Habitats Directive, signed into law by none other than Higgins himself, as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht in 1997. This led to banning of turf-cutting on some of our few surviving semi-intact raised bogs, designated for conservation under the Directive.
Poor consultation with stakeholders prior to the ban, and poor communication many times since then, opened the door to the incendiary exploitation of the issue by populist politicians.
The President did not refer directly to this controversy, but there were reminders of it throughout his speech, and of the wider problems from across the world that our depressing turf wars echo. He spoke of the “deluded fantasy that we can hack away at the very ecosystems on which we depend without disastrous repercussions”.
We can no longer tolerate the type of thinking that sees short-term individual profit trump longer term community wealth
He quoted Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical, Laudato Si, approvingly, and added: “we can no longer tolerate the type of thinking that sees short-term individual profit trump longer term community wealth.”
Characteristically outspoken, the President was critical of the leniency with which illegal turf-cutting has been treated by the State, and described those responsible for recent fires on uplands bogs as “shameful”.
He said that “it is somewhat dispiriting to note that . . . fires have become a regular feature of the agricultural calendar, without, perhaps, adequate dissuasive consequences for those who are flagrantly breaking the law”. Some people present read these comments as implicitly critical of the Heritage Amendment Bill (2016), which extends the burning season on our uplands, and is currently before the Oireachtas and is opposed by many environmental groups.
Communities affected by legislation
He recognised, however, that “meaningful supports” as well as “effective deterrents” are needed for communities affected by environmental legislation, if appreciation of our wetlands is to grow.
Seamus Boland, CEO of Irish Rural Link, which has sponsored the Community Wetlands Forum, told The Irish Times that the group was born out of the turf-cutting dispute to be just such a “meaningful support”. The Link represents disadvantaged and marginalised rural areas, and campaigns for their sustainable development.
Boland was once a turf-cutter himself, and chair of the tenants’ committee on the iconic Clara Bog. He was not best pleased when he got an abrupt notice to “cease and desist, all the usual crack, back in 1998”.
“A lot of us felt the Directive put the cart before the horse,” he says. “But if you grow a community interest in a wetland before implementing change in its management, that alters the whole process for the better”.
“What distinguishes the wetlands forum from other environmental groups is that it is community-led. Environmental purists mightn’t like that, but it works. We should never again have a situation where communities are backed into opposing something that is really for the good of the whole country, like bog conservation.”
The forum was initially formed by the Link in 2013 by bringing together ad-hoc wetland community groups that already existed. “They are brilliantly motivated,” says Boland.
The forum is certainly well placed now to communicate a better understanding of the large range of values that healthy restored wetlands offer to the people who live near them. These values range from the pleasure of participating in the recovery of a degraded landscape, and of recreation in a restored system, to health benefits and the major contribution that wetlands can make to mitigating climate change through carbon sequestration.
Kate Flood of Girley Bog Meitheal, who co-ordinated the forum’s strategic plan, acknowledged that engaging local communities in wetlands can be initially very challenging. But she added that “the potential for growth is great, and this is especially important at a moment when trust in political systems is weak.” And once that engagement takes place, she said, “social resilience will begin to mirror ecological resilience.”
This attractive scenario might sound too good to be true, but the experience of the Abbeyleix Bog Project, which predates the forum and is now a leading member, bears it out.
We looked at the remarkable history of this project in some detail on these pages four years ago, but the short version is this:
In 2000, Bord na Móna began draining the bog in preparation for extracting turf on a bog beside this Laois heritage town. A group of citizens got together to oppose turf extraction, for a wide variety of reasons. After nine years of tough stand-offs and negotiations, the company espoused a new and more environmentally friendly policy. It supported the local community in the restoration of a bog that some ecologists had said was beyond repair.
The drains that were destroying its biodiversity – living bogs need to stay wet – were blocked. The community built a boardwalk, which facilitates access and minimises damage, with voluntary labour. Excellent signage was put up, summarising the cultural and natural history of the area.
Today, its rich combination of regenerating peat bog and wet woodland is a resource for ecological and climate studies, an open-air laboratory for schools, and a resource for recreational activities ranging from yoga to botany and birding, through astronomy to leisurely weekend strolls.
Present in droves
The President stressed that he was making his comments “above all to young people”, who were present in droves at the event, where he was introduced by two Abbeyleix teenagers, Caoimhe O’Keefe and Ruth Bergin.
O’Keefe and Bergin, of Heywood Community School, had entered the Young Scientist Exhibition in 2014 with project studying the contribution that a very small carnivorous plant, the round-leaved sundew, makes to bog ecology. They found that the sundew significantly reduces midges, a service for which all who work or walk on a bog should be very grateful.
What attracted them to the bog in the first place?
“I was brought into it on a school walk when I was six,” says Bergin, “and even then we learned so much it was terrific. It’s an amazing world on our doorstep. I walk my dog there, and love taking photos of bog cotton, and sphagnum moss and, of course, sundew.”
O’Keefe has lived beside the bog all her life, “and it goes back as far as any of my memories. We don’t have beaches around here, and the bog is our Amazon, a fairy world to get involved in. It renews our lease on life, and it’s very important to protect it.”
The Community Wetlands Forum: Inspire, Enjoy, Manage, Protect
“Inspiring communities to enjoy, manage and protect their wetlands for present and future generations.”
That’s the motto of the Strategic Plan 2017-2020 launched by the Community Wetlands Forum at the Abbeyleix event.
It’s a very detailed plan, both in terms of its existing eight member groups, and of expanding partnerships with state agencies, NGOs and businesses, and membership in future. Given that more than 11,500 wetlands have been mapped in Ireland, there is plenty of room for expansion in the latter department.
The current eight members are scattered across the midlands. They are: Abbeyleix Bog Project; Cabragh Wetlands Trust; Clara Bog SAC; Drummin Bog Project; Girley Bog Meitheal; Ounamoun Nature Reserve; Scohaboy Bog; Wetlands Heritage Ireland (Corlea Bog).
The plan and other information is at www.communitywetlandsforum.ie/