Finland and Ireland seem to be far away from each other, both from a geographical and cultural point of view. Nevertheless, if there is something that they have in common, it is a boundless natural landscape and people that love it without thinking it twice. This love comprehends peatlands, peculiar environments that can be found in both countries and that were considered for many years as mere “wastelands”.

Bogs can provide a lot of services. Moreover, the burning of peat for energy is more polluting than burning coal. This is why Finnish people are campaigning against the intensive use of peatlands, through their Irti turpeesta campaign. Irti turpeesta can be loosely translated to “Hands off peat!”. This campaign is a citizen’s initiative aimed at collecting enough signatures so that it can be submitted to parliament this year.

To help them, I’ve (virtually) met Nuala, from Irish Peatland Conservation Council (IPCC), to better understand how peatlands management has changed and is changing in Ireland.

Hi Nuala, thanks for this interview! I would like to start by asking you to introduce yourself and IPCC.

Hello! My name is Nuala Madigan and I joined IPCC in 2006 as Environmental Educational Officer. I have recently taken over as Chief Executive Officer of this charity. 

IPCC was created in 1982 and formally established in 1986 by a group of volunteers. They wanted to start a conversation around peatlands and their development. It is now located in County Kildare, in the Bog of Allen Nature Centre. The aims revolve around conservation, management, and restoration of bogs, along with policy and advocacy to raise awareness around these wonderful habitats. We also focus on species monitoring and research.

Peatlands are a common habitat in Ireland. How did the discussion about their conservation start and who started it? 

The discussion started thanks to a Dutch influence. During the 70s, The Netherlands was the first country in Europe to commercially develop all their peatlands. But, as soon as a large part of them were developed, the Government purchased the remaining 8000 hectares that had the potential for restoration and conservation. Peatlands were still a mysterious ecosystem that had never been studied. For this reason, they started looking towards Ireland. This Country had not gone through an industrial revolution similar to other European Countries. Ireland’s bogs at the time were considered to be not as developed.

The Netherlands and Ireland started an exchange program to let Dutch students research peatlands. One of these students, in the late 70s, was really surprised by the growing intensification of peat harvesting in this country. He created a foundation for Irish bogs. It fundraised for 3 years between 1982 and 1986 to buy three peatland sites.

Bog conservation was then reinforced by the Habitat Directive (1992) through the Natura 2000 Network, but the Irish Government delayed these regulations for about ten years. What happened?

Ireland’s development is due to bogs and the use of peat to generate energy. When the Habitat Directive was put in place, it was difficult for the Government to ask people not to cut, because of the tight connection between families and peatlands. Domestic turf cutting dates back over 400 years. Bogs were a resource for people when there was nothing else. Throughout the 20th century, when you bought a house, you received the rights to cut turf in a peatland area local to your home.

Peatlands are a part of our folklore. The transition cannot be done in a matter of days. However, today we know so much more about peatlands from their values as carbon stores, habitats that regulate water and a home for unique and sadly today threatened species highlighting why this transition is important.

So, we must differentiate between domestic turf cutting and the private or state turf cutting?

Not really. Whether a person is a private turf cutter or a company involved in the industrial development of peatlands, both have the same outcome. Peatlands are not renewable and peat cutting will eventually cease due to the resource being no longer available. Our work with IPCC is to ensure that before this happens a representative sample of peatlands must be conserved for the next generation to discover for themselves Ireland’s landscape, wildlife, and cultural history. Steps have been taken with a financial package being available to those on Special Areas of Conservation to cease cutting and conserve these sites. In 2020 in the peat industry much cutting was ceased for legal reasons in relation to licensing.

A screenshot of Nuala and I from the meeting
A photo from the meeting

Do you think that this change of direction has or will have a great impact on the economy? 

As I was saying, it is an ongoing process, so we are not able to see the results yet. Certainly, many people are and will be affected. Working on bogs means having particular skills and the workers may find the transition to new positions challenging. Nevertheless, in 2020 108 million euros were made available to rehabilitate 80 peatland sites. This will support employees in the peat industry in the coming years. 

What is the public opinion around peatlands and their conservation and restoration?

You need to remember that we only started studying peatlands in the last 20 years. Before that, bogs were known just for their importance as energy sources. IPCC campaigned in the 90s to get these environments recognized in the national curriculum. Now students can learn about their importance and the different services they provide us. There is still a portion of the population that does not understand their values. We still have a lot of work to do, but attitudes are certainly changing. Bogs have always provided us with something, and now we need to give something back to them.

Now, I have just one question left. Is there any advice that you would give to Finland and the Irti turpeesta campaign?

Peatlands are non-renewable sources of energy and the day will come when there is no peat left to continue burning. At this time, jobs will be lost and an alternative source of energy will be needed. Our generation can push this problem down to the next generation or tackle it today. Ireland is Like Finland: a country who saw the value in what is beneath the peat. But times are changing. Ireland is entering into a transition phase from peat extraction to peat rehabilitation and those workers who once extracted peat are now employed to rehabilitate peatlands through rewetting. These sites are also being explored for alternative economic values including renewable energy, recreation and potential paludiculture.

The Irish Peatland Conservation Council recommends opening up a discussion between Government, Community and Campaigners exploring the relationship between peatlands, climate and people in Finland. If you do nothing, not only will your peatlands be lost, but also your local jobs and the economic value to the local community: then everyone has lost.

Changes in habits and culture are not easy to achieve and require awareness-raising and education. Through international networks and partnerships, such as GEAI has with EKOenergy, our experiences can be shared and we can learn from them. Ireland’s extensive boglands have a value that is immeasurably greater than viewed as a source of (inefficient and unsustainable) solid fuel! In both Ireland and Finland, the unique ecosystem that is our boglands can be conserved and celebrated.

Article written by Silvia Contin