Turf Wars

peat bricks

Turf cut from peat bogs has been a fuel source in Ireland for over a thousand years.(Photo credit: Elzbieta Sekowska/Shutterstock)

Turf wars are raging across the country of Ireland. But these aren’t your typical battles over who controls which block of a city neighborhood. Instead, these are literally disagreements over turf, or to be more specific, turbary, or the ancient right to cut turf.

The cutting of turf from peat bogs for use as a fuel is a way of life that has existed for as long as there have been people in Ireland. Although it is back-breaking work when done in the traditional manner, the harvesting of turf was often a time for families to come together to help one another and to socialize. Now, with rising fuel prices, families in many parts of Ireland where there are few trees depend upon peat turf to heat their homes. Traditionally, turf was cut by hand, using a turf spade, or slane. However, in the 1950s, turf cutting was mechanized and the peat bogs have significantly diminished in size. Today, only 15% of Central Ireland’s raised peatlands remain. This habitat degradation has led to a decline in plants and wildlife populations in these areas. A brick-sized block of turf will burn for about an hour. Nature will take around 100 years to replace it.

Peat bogs form slowly over time as ecological succession takes place in flooded hollows of the land. When the reeds and sedges in the hollows die, the water keeps oxygen from reaching decomposers, so the vegetation does not rot away completely. Eventually, these partially decomposed plants build up to form fen peat. Sphagnum moss is one of the few things that can grow and thrive in this nutrient-poor, acidic environment. Mats of the moss begin to replace the fen peat and gradually transform the fen into a peat bog. After thousands of  years of growth, the accumulated peat rises above the surrounding land, in some areas by as much as 10 m (30 feet), soaking up water like a sponge. Because of this ability to absorb massive amounts of water, peat bogs not only help to prevent flooding, they filter the water that passes through them, purifying it for homes and businesses.

The lack of oxygen and the acidity of the water in the bogs can preserve buried items for thousands of years, providing scientists with information about the past. Pollen grains show what kinds of plants grew in different periods, providing a glimpse of how the climate has changed. Trees that are preserved well enough to be used for firewood and for building are often found, along with antlers from the extinct Irish elk (also called the giant Irish deer). Gold ornaments, amber beads, and lost caches of butter that were stored in pots within the bog are also among the treasures yielded by the peat wetlands. Mummified human bodies, such as the Old Croghan Bog Man, discovered in 2003, provide a different kind of fuel, sparking both scientific and media attention around the world.

Living sometime between 362-175 BCE, Old Croghan Man was identified by researchers as likely to have been a ritual sacrifice, tortured and murdered in his early 20s. His discovery actually initiated a police murder investigation before the body was dated at more than 2000 years old.

So, why are the people of Ireland at war over the peat bogs? Some rural families have had turbary rights on a bog for hundreds of years. They are fighting hard to retain their rights because of the traditions associated with it and because their livelihoods depend upon it. Environmentalists are fighting to preserve the natural heritage of the bogs, which are some of the last remaining bogs in Europe, because not only do they provide habitat for a wide variety of living things, purify water, and reduce floods, but they are estimated by researchers to contain twice the amount of carbon as the forests of the world. When the turf is cut, dried, and burned as fuel, that carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to global climate change.

As with other ecological controversies in many places across the globe, the battle for the Irish peat bogs has two sides to it. The Irish Peatland Conservation Council (IPCC) has launched a campaign to provide information to the public and raise awareness of the importance of the bogs. Although 53 bogs have been designated by the government to be protected, enforcement of the law has not been consistent. The European Union has threatened to impose economic sanctions of €26,000 ($35,000) per day if the country does not protect the bogs. Accordingly, the Irish government has recently doubled the amount of compensation offered to turf cutters if they switch to cutting turf in areas that are not protected. To be paid out over a 15 year period, the compensation offered by the Irish government amounts to €23,000 (about $31,000). Even though switching to non-protected areas would mean little or no loss of income or fuel, turf cutters and bog owners generally remain adamant that they will not lose rights their families have had for generations.

More to Explore
Rural Irish Defy EU Restrictions on Turf-Cutting
Irish Turf
Irish Peatland Conservation Council (IPCC)
Energy Use of Peat


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