Picture this; tattered looking country folk slogging in the marshy fields on a bleak summers day. Lifting what appears to be black sods and tossing them into stacks or loading onto fragile wooden carts. One of the few authentic scenes from movies depicting a typical Irish scene that almost remain true today. Every summer country folk complain relentlessly about the dreaded choir of ‘the bog’, the ‘coal mines’ of Irish farmers who cut what is known as Turf.
Turf is nothing more than dried peat cut into brick shapes and burnt much like wood or any other fossil fuel. Farmers for centuries burnt turf in homes for warmth and cooking, which is where that peaty smell (Similar to a Scotts whiskey) in old cottages come from. The railway industry attempted to use turf as an alternative to coal to power steam engines, during the World Wars but proved to be less efficient. Peat was the primary fossil fuel in Irish power stations until they were modified to utilise biomass or replaced altogether with alternatives like gas. Only 3 peat stations remain in operation in Ireland, two of which are set to close at the end of 2020.
By the end of 2020 only one peat power station will remain in Ireland
In recent years the old sod has become threatened from authorities who have banned turf cutting on some designated sites, leading to significant backlash from farmers over the loss of this historic right. The reasons for the ban come from the EU’s Habitats Directive. Adopted in the ’90s, the Irish government are legally obliged to implant conservational actions for the protection of natural habitats, wild fauna, flora and promote biodiversity.
Ireland has failed to meet its requirements and has been fined on numerous occasions since the early ’00s. But in the last couple of years, bans have been placed on certain designated bogs in an attempt to conserve. Farmers have been compensated for their loss of the right to cut which the Farming Independent has reported, cost the state just over €29 Million as of 2019.
Despite the compensation, conservationists groups have lodged complaints around illegal turf cutting on several protected sites. Some activates have resulted in clashes with Garda and a grown fear overall of an outright ban on turf cutting nationwide. Many farmers have taken to protest in front of Dail and other locations.
Ireland has failed to meet its requirements and has been fined on numerous occasions
It is not just about protecting endangered wildlife and habitats unique to the bog-lands, It is also about carbon emissions. Bogs are significant carbon sinks and in the fight against climate change, turf cutting is an easy target to curb and even reduce carbon levels.
Bogs are particularly efficient at storing carbon with Irish Peatlands storing an estimated 1085 megatonnes. The Irish Times reported that peatlands which make up only 3% of the earth surface can store twice as much carbon as all standing forests. So by cutting and burning turf or draining peatlands, this upsets the natural balance and the carbon stored while also destroying a unique biodiversity.
So what exactly is a bog?
‘The bog’ is regions of land that is composed of peat which is a build-up, layer after layer of rotten plant deposits, formed from a repeated cycle between growth, death and decay of trees and other plant life over thousands of years. There are two main types of bog in Ireland; ‘Blanket’ & ‘Raised’ Bog
Blanket bog arises where high rain created waterlogged regions, causing the ground to become soggy and marshy. Creating the perfect conditions for this layered effect of peat over time. Raised bog develops from lakes. Over time silt and peat build up on the surface, either filling the lake entirely or forming a thick layer above the lake, where the lake rests beneath the newly formed surface of the earth.
The visuals below demonstrate that better
How turf is made
Farmers extracted this soggy peat and spread it out to dry. When hardened they form sods of turf which can be burnt much like timber. Traditionally extraction was achieved using a hand tool known as a slane, More recently this has been replaced by machinery.
A digger would extract the peat from deep below the crust and place it in a “hopper” (a compressor of sorts) which would squeeze out the soggy material into rows of sods.
Once the sods were dry enough to lift they would be stacked in small groups (known as “footings”)
After several weeks they would either be footed again into larger stacks or transported from the bog and placed in storage until ready to burn
Check out the video below for scenes from an active turf cutting bog.