Restoring vast tracts of Irish bogs, including large commercial peatlands developed by Bord na Móna, will have a big impact in capturing carbon but also significantly improve water quality, according a report by the Water Forum (An Fóram Uisce).
“Ireland’s peatlands are of national and international importance and if managed better they could improve water quality, store carbon, reduce CO2 emissions and improve biodiversity,” concludes the report by the statutory body which advises the Government on enhancing water resources.
Ireland’s land area is comprised of 20 per cent peatland, while only 18 per cent of all peatlands are in a “near natural” or “healthy” state. Consequently, 82 per cent of peatlands are considered “degraded”, it says.
Peatlands consist of 95 per cent water, and degraded peatlands are drained to varying degrees for peat extraction, domestic peat cutting, agriculture or forestry. The impact on water is considerable, the report adds.
“Drainage of peatlands and removal of surface vegetation releases nutrients (phosphorous and nitrogen), ammonia, dissolved carbon, which gives the water a dark colour, and sediment into rivers and lakes and this reduces water quality and is a particular issue in drinking water source areas,” the forum says.
Peatlands ability to store carbon means it contains 75 per cent of the total soil carbon stock in the Republic. “Healthy peatlands help provide natural filtration processes to clean water and reduce the quantity of water entering rivers and lakes; they help regulate the global climate and mitigate climate change; they support unique flora and fauna; and provide multiple social and cultural services to society,” the report says.
In contrast, drained peatlands have reduced capacity to store carbon “as they are not growing, they release CO2 contributing to climate change and can no longer support plant and animal biodiversity. They are also at greater risk of fire”, the report says.
Better management through rewetting and restoration of peatlands – as being undertaken by Bord na Móna – can reverse these trends and restore the natural peatland functions, it finds.
“Rewetting is not flooding. But blocking drains can restore the water balance within the peatland so that plants can grow and re-establish to provide and improve animal habitats in the bog and downstream rivers,” the Water Forum says.
Industrial cutaway bogs, however, will need longer-term measures and more intensive restoration programmes to recover, it warns. In January, Bord na Móna confirmed it had ceased peat harvesting and its future was focussed on renewable energy, recycling, peatland restoration and provision of other low carbon goods and services.
Changing the function of bogs and peatlands from their economic use associated with peat harvesting, afforestation and agriculture to use for recreation, tourism and heritage values is best achieved through local community engagement, said Dr Tom Collins, chairman of the Water Forum.
Communities needed to be given the opportunity to lead the change in peatland transformation from being sites of labour and employment to sites of restoration, recreation and conservation, he said. “These shifts in values need to occur in order to support the development of sustainable peatlands that support ecosystem services for water, biodiversity and climate, and for local communities.”
Dr Collins added: “Generations of Irish children have written loving essays entitled A Day in the Bog. Now we are trying to ensure that future generations of our children can write the same essay with the same innocent trust that some things never change.”