July 13, 2024

On Ireland’s wet and windy Achill Island, local sheep farmer Stephen Gavin (64) has been harvesting peat from the wetlands near his home since April. The unmistakable smell of the swamp’s sweet earthiness hangs in the air as Gavin cuts rectangular sodden turf from the wetland that sways beneath his feet. Gavin started cutting peat – the Irish term for the carbon-rich earth taken from bogs – with his parents when he was 12 years old. Stacked, piled and dried outside when the weather is warm, the sod will fuel his home’s fire for the next year, just as they did for generations before him.

Many houses in the west of Ireland are over 100 years old and cannot be updated with modern heating technology without extensive refurbishment, leaving locals like Gavin to rely solely on the fuel product in their backyards. “I can’t place any of them [heating systems] in my house,” Gavin said. “We will have to tear up all the floors, and the whole house will be totally destroyed.”

a field covered with rectangular blocks of dirt
a field in which rectangular blocks of earth are stacked in small piles

When turf is cut, the harvested turf is first spread out to dry as the weather warms. Then the turf is “footed”, a process in which sod is piled up in small towers so that the wind can blow through it and dry it out. Courtesy of Stephen Gavin.

For more than a thousand years, peat has been one of the few reliable sources of fuel in Ireland, a country with no natural sources of oil and limited natural gas. Turfing has therefore become a tenet of Irish culture – but it is increasingly being challenged. In 2022, the Irish government banned the commercial sale of turf, but still allows those who have historically enjoyed mowing rights, such as Gavin, to cut for their personal use. The EU has designated Irish peat bogs as “priority” conservation areas under its Habitats Directive, meaning that Ireland must protect these natural habitats from harmful activities, such as peat cutting, which could further degrade damaged bogs. Although Ireland has funded large-scale bog restoration campaigns, the E.U recently announced that it will take Ireland to its Court of Justice for insufficient action to protect endangered bogs.

Marshes, also known as peatlands, are the largest carbon storage in Ireland and the most efficient carbon sinks on earth. (Ireland accounts for less than 1 percent of peatlands worldwide, but is home to 8 percent of one type Rare bog.) Peatlands absorb and store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests combined.

When peat is cut from these sites, carbon is released, and the land dries out, reducing the marsh’s natural wet environment. Every acre of drained marsh exemptions almost one ton of carbon annually – the equivalent to drive a car more than 9,000 miles. And that doesn’t include emissions from burning peat, which releases more than double the carbon dioxide as burning natural gas. As a result, marsh restoration is crucial to achieving Europe’s net-zero carbon goals by 2050, protecting biodiversity and providing a habitat for endangered species such as the curlew, an Irish shorebird whose haunting call has inspired home-grown artists such as the poet WB Yeats.

“There are no bogs in Ireland that have not been affected by the exploitation of mowing,” said Tristram Whyte. a conservation officer with The Irish Peatland Conservation Council, a national organization that campaigns to protect Irish bogs. According to s climate action plan by the group, only 25 percent of Irish bogs remain intact due to their overexploitation.

Turf cutting is one reason why. Like his ancestors before him, Gavin has so-called turbary rights to cut peat from the bog. But turf is also cut on public land that contains protected wetlands. These protected areas fall under the EU Habitats Directive and are designated as Special Areas of Conservation due to their uniqueness and rarity. The EU first filed a complaint over bog degradation in Ireland more than a decade ago. Although the Irish government has boosted conservation efforts resulting in tangible reductions in grass cutting in response, progress has been “insufficient”, the European Commission said. As a result, the European Commission referred Ireland to its Court of Justice in March.

A close-up of a cross section showing cut marks in the earth
A close-up of a freshly cut bog in County Mayo, Ireland.
NUTAN / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The turf battle has pitted conservationists against those who argue that Ireland has already made significant progress in protecting bogs and bullied by the EU.

“The Habitats Directive requires member states to protect their most precious natural habitats, but where does the Irish citizen fit in, and the rights of a citizen to live and provide heat and food for their family?” Sean Canney, an Irish independent politician and former foreign minister, said on his website. “Sure, human life is more precious than a swamp.”

The Irish government has tried to work with farmers to protect these areas. In 2022 it has a $1.6 billion fund and enrolled Gavin with 20,000 other farmers to investigate the effects of turf cutting and invasive species on wetlands in protected areas. “They pay us to join the scheme as long as we improve the common,” Gavin said, referring to public land. Under this scheme, farmers can receive up to approximately $11,200 per year, depending on their efforts. The farmers are paid relative to the improvements they make to the land by reducing turf cutting, preventing overgrazing and managing invasive species on protected lands.

Two young boys throw dried peat moss into a bowl near a field
Small family groups work to collect dried Irish peat, cut from the Bog of Allen in Carragh, west of Dublin, on July 19, 2022. Paul Faith / AFP via Getty Images

The level of water in the marsh soil stops plant decomposition, causing dead plant material to accumulate. This means wetlands need water to capture carbon. Restoration efforts include rewetting the marshes—blocking drainage sites to raise the water table throughout the marsh—and applying peat-forming moss with the goal of converting carbon-emitting marshes back to carbon sinks. The Irish National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, or TCCA, work together to rewet and restore bogs while meeting the farmer’s peat needs. The TCCA was set up in 1998 by and for turf cutters to oppose government-led sanctions that left people without heat in their homes.

Michael Fitzmaurice, the TCCA’s chairman, said that only 12 of the 62 areas protected by the EU directive are being cut for peat, with up to 14,000 hectares of bog rewetted so far. “We sit down together to make sure there is a line between true [the farmers] must work and where it must be saved so that the land is not affected,” he said.

If taken too far, the EU’s threats will turn farmers away from recovery deals, it said Fitzmauricewho grew up on his bog in the west of Ireland before becoming an advocate for preserving grass cutting practices.

“You can’t go from zero to hero overnight,” he said. “It’s very hard to tell someone who has an annual income of €13,000 [approximately $14,000 USD] to stop cutting turf when they see a 747 flying overhead.”

Times are changing on Achill Island. It is too wet and hot for Gavin to graze his cattle outside or plant potatoes earlier in the year, the result of climate change. Where the curlew’s call once rang out, the swamps now remain silent, and the classic scent of peat burning on the island is reduced to a faint smell. He worries about the future of turf cutting. Only one farmer on the island cuts his swamp by hand instead of machines, a symbol of the tradition’s loss. Pressure from the EU to stop cutting grass completely does not bode well either.

“The older people, they’re not good at protesting,” Gavin said. “I’m afraid that in the next ten years, lawn mowing will be a thing of the past.”

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