As I’m continuing my research on peatlands and their restoration, I had an opportunity to have a conversation with Niall O’Brolchain. He is a researcher from NUI, also involved with the policy development of paludiculture in Europe.

We have already unpacked the concept of paludiculture in a previous article. This practice is the use of wetlands for agricultural and farming purposes. But why should Ireland use these environments through paludiculture?

“Peatlands are the most effective when it comes to storage of carbon. They cover only 3% of the world, but they store about a third of all soil carbon. These environments are four times more efficient than tropical rainforests. From a carbon point of view, draining peatlands is worse than cutting down trees”, says Niall.

Ireland’s golden mines are bogs in the battle to reach the net-zero goal by 2050 (or, even better, by 2030). “When we look at emissions, sectors like transport cannot meet the net-zero goal. It will always emit something. The only way to reach this goal is for the land-use sector to sequester carbon” points out Niall. He then continues: “Ireland is lucky! Here peatlands represent almost 1/5 of the land area, and we should use them as valuable carbon sinks”.

Rewetting only 7% of agricultural land will save up to 32% of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland. This practice doesn’t imply a loss of economical value when we introduce paludiculture. Niall has worked restlessly with a team of people from all over Europe to get paludiculture on the new CAP. “This can really advantage farmers. In the past, bogs weren’t considered eligible land for the CAP, but now we’re talking about turning these lands into something which is” Niall tells me. Adding paludiculture in the CAP was not an easy game, but now it mentions this practice. That can only bring new opportunities for Ireland through grant schemes and fundings.

In Ireland, peatlands were seen as “wastelands” for many centuries. It seemed handier to dry them out to gain peat and useful land. Niall then points out: “Wetlands are not suitable as normal agricultural land. It is expensive to drain them and to keep them in that state because of the circumstances they develop in”. The wisest way to win back these areas, without losing an income, is through paludiculture.

“If you start working on a bog that is badly degraded, you turn an unproductive and losing-carbon area into a productive sink. All of this while improving biodiversity, soil richness and saving carbon – says Niall. – But it is important to remember that this practice is not advised on a fully functional and preserved natural peatland. This is because you may increase its economical value, but you end up losing its ecological value. So, paludiculture is a way to restore bogs, not a means to exploit them as money-making machines”.

This publication is from the Central Statistics Office (CSO). It gives preliminary information on the spatial extent and condition of peatlands and heathlands in 2018. Statistics on the restoration and rehabilitation of peatlands are also provided.

At this point of the conversation, I’m curious. Could people negatively perceive paludiculture for any other reason? Someone thinks that a consequence of rewetting peatlands through paludiculture is flooding. “In fact, the opposite is the truth. If done in the right way, peatlands behave like a sponge, retaining water. In this way, they are protecting the area from floods…instead of creating them” adds Niall.

Our discussion then landed on the topic of the horticultural industry. This sector is in a great crisis because of the shortage of peat to use as a growing media. Sphagnum farming could really be a helpful long-term solution.

“To conclude this conversation, I would say to the West of Ireland and to Counties like Leitrim: there’s value in our peatlands and in paludiculture. If we get our act together, we have an opportunity to do something good and benefit from it financially”, finishes Niall.

Written by Silvia Contin