The industrialization of an Irish landscape to meet UK energy needs

A landscape fossilized,

Its stone wall patterings

Repeated before our eyes

In the stone walls of Mayo
Before I turn to go

Extract from ‘Belderg’ by Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

© 2013 Colin Cafferty

Belderrig harbour – a small fishing community near Glinsk

 

I’m an unabashed map junkie, have been for years, which means I have the rare ability to be entranced for hours on end by contour line patterns, dendritic river systems, obscure topographical symbols, and various other cartographic delights. When visiting my home in County Mayo in the West of Ireland two years ago, I resolved to finally forsake my position as armchair explorer in favour of actively exploring uncharted territory. My interest was piqued when I made the discovery that a considerable chunk of North Mayo was hazy at best when viewed as a satellite image on Google Maps. It appeared as if an imaginary line had been drawn straight through Belderrig (also spelt ‘Belderg’) with all points directly west shrouded in an inexplicable fog. That was when I discovered a newfound interest in the local landscape.

Belderrig is a small coastal community in the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking region) where life revolves around a small harbour and the other bastions of rural Irish living – a pub, a shop, a church and a school. Back in the 1930s, the local schoolmaster, Patrick Caulfield, came across a large number of unusual stones in a regular formation and depth whilst cutting turf in a nearby bog. Years later, his son, the archaeologist Professor Seamus Caulfield, discovered evidence of an extensive Stone Age field system complete with dwellings and tombs several miles further to the east. This became known as ‘Céide Fields’ – the oldest known field system in the world with a history of more than five and a half thousand years. These ancient structures have been preserved in the bogland from a time that pre-dates the Pyramids of Egypt. Who knows what other cultural treasures lie hidden beneath the veneer of bog? But radical changes are gathering apace that could leave an indelible mark on this ancient landscape.

© Colin Cafferty 2012

Ancient farming landscape at Ceide Fields Visitors Centre in North Mayo

 

A journey of self-discovery

Last year, I embarked on a personal project to explore the visual impact of wind-farms on landscape in the UK through photography. I chose this topic not just because it happens to be a contentious one for many Britons but also because it was an issue I had to resolve in my own head once and for all. I travelled to East Anglia and Cumbria to document wind turbines, near to but outside of, sensitive landscapes such as the Norfolk Broads and the Lake District National Park. It’s a personal journey that has taken on an entirely new dimension since I decided to dig into my own metaphorical back yard in the West of Ireland. I resolved to take the plunge and confront my demons once and for all. I would find out whether a committed environmentalist and renewable energy enthusiast could simultaneously hide a closet NIMBY somewhere deep inside. Incidentally, I should point out that I’ve been living in London for the past nine years but you can see my point.

As so often is the case, energy and other natural resources are unfortunately mined in the most remote, unspoilt and sensitive of landscapes around the globe. With fewer people to object and largely out of sight of the media’s prying eyes, those few hardy (usually portrayed as stubborn) souls who make a stand are often left whispering in the wind. To my eyes, County Mayo is ‘frontier country’ on an Irish scale – similar to America’s Wild West in colonial times or Australia’s present day Outback. Most locals would probably laugh at me when I say this but I imagine they would also grudgingly accept that it has at least a modicum of truth.

Lying almost 300km to the west of Ireland’s capital is a landscape rich in gas, peat, wind, wave and biomass. The back-breaking work of harvesting peat by hand using the traditional slean or turf-spade (and by machine more recently) has been the mainstay of local communities to survive the long winter down through the centuries. In recent times, the discovery of the Corrib gas field just fifty miles offshore has attracted the energy giant Shell which is due to open its controversial gas processing facility and pipeline in 2014. But neither of these fossil fuel resources can hold a candle to the potential of renewable energy in the county. Mayo is recognized to have the best wind and wave resource of just about anywhere in Europe. The wind- and wave-battered Atlantic coast pounds the landscape for most of the year. And now planners on the County Council are pounding their fists on the boardroom table demanding a slice of the action, and all of the investment that goes along with it.

Paying lip service to landscape concerns

County Mayo was the first of the twenty six counties in the country to draft its own comprehensive Renewable Energy Strategy (RES). It has a forward-looking County Manager and an ambition to finally put Mayo on the map – to lift that veil of mist I mentioned before and put the wind to work, so to speak. The 88-page RES document includes a collection of interesting maps at the back (well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?), one of which zones the land into Tier 1 (preferred wind farm sites) and Tier 2 (locations open for consideration). A separate 222-page Strategic Environmental Assessment report attempts to explain the rationale behind zoning the land in this way from an environmental perspective. From a landscape perspective, the county is broken down into sixteen different landscape types and then grouped into six Landscape Protection Policy Areas. But landscape is just one of many competing measures, such as biodiversity, water and cultural heritage, which are used to assess five alternative scenarios for future renewable energy development.

In summary, the report concludes that, “County Mayo’s eastern landscapes (Policy Area 4) are the most robust in the County and are least sensitive to change. All other landscapes are highly sensitive to change.” Unfortunately in terms of wind resource, the east of the county has far less potential than the north and west and so you would imagine a clash is on the cards. Not so though. The SEA report concludes that Scenario 4 is the most environmentally sustainable of the five scenarios for renewable energy development although they admit that “there is the potential for conflict with environmental protection objectives in respect of……cultural heritage and landscape.” The report goes on to say that Scenario 4 is “the best as it would take into consideration all types of landscapes identified in the Landscape Appraisal for County Mayo”. This indicates to the reader that the County Council mustn’t view a distinction between their own landscape policy areas after all if their over-riding concern is to consider all landscape types and imply they somehow have equal status. And so it would appear that although the Council has come up with a comprehensive strategy and rigorous set of indicators and policy areas, it is not prepared to apply its own methodology to objectively assess landscape concerns. What we get is an illusion of compromise and tacit support for the industrial-scale development of a largely untouched rural landscape to suit the ends of the policy-makers.

Why does it matter that we protect our landscape?

The Irish sense of identity is intricately bound with our landscape, our language, our literature and our long history of struggle. Take any one of these away and we are all the less Irish for it. Having said that, I did a pretty good job of not just ignoring, but actively shunning the rural tranquility of my home county as I was growing up. But those days passed over as I matured and gained some renewed perspective from afar. We need to recognize that landscapes change and evolve; typically over centuries and millennia when it comes to natural processes, or days and years with the tools of human endeavour. Another pressing concern is the effect that man-made climate change is having on landscape – eroding coastlines due to sea-level rise, flooding agricultural land, and in the case of Mayo, triggering bogslides (similar to landslides but it is the bog that slips downhill).

© 2013 Colin Cafferty

A vast blanket bog landscape near Belderrig in County Mayo

 

The great Irish poet and Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, visited Belderrig and wrote the opening lines to this poem as a thank-you letter to Patrick Caulfield in 1975. This prehistoric landscape continues to inspire poets, writers and artists although it is largely unknown to the outside world. The reputation that Ireland enjoys abroad precedes itself and is at least partly based upon the romantic notion that many foreigners (especially Americans of Irish heritage) have of our landscape, culture and traditions. What if I were to say to you that it is exceedingly rare in today’s Ireland to come across a landscape that doesn’t carry a significant man-made footprint? White-washed houses are a particularly dominant feature dotting the rural countryside and drawing the eye in from afar. But out west, there still lies a handful of wide open landscapes that have remained unchanged for millennia – mostly because the land was too poor, too hilly, and too wet to graft a living from. We should protect these last remaining pockets of our natural heritage, not for romantic or sentimental reasons but because once they are lost to development, there’s very little chance of turning back the clock. Our resilience to the harsh elements, our stubbornness in the face of adversity, our pressing need to have the craic and tell tall stories in the local pub – all of these qualities and much more come from a sense of identity that is shaped by the very same elements that have moulded the landscape over millennia.

An all-or-nothing approach to development

If we accept that development of any type necessitates changes to the landscape and that there is also a pressing need to pursue our renewable energy ambitions, then it just become a question of what development in which landscape, and to what extent. Mayo is recognized as having one of the best wind and wave resources in all of Europe. Yet, it lies far from the population centres that can draw down this power. In fact, according to the developers of the Mayo Atlantic Renewable Energy Export (MAREX) project, Mayo has such an abundance of raw power that sufficient demand does not exist on the entire island of Ireland. Together with an undeveloped electricity grid, this has become the basis of a proposal to develop the single largest energy infrastructure project ever undertaken in Ireland.

Organic Power intends to develop a massive 2GW (2,000MW) of wind power in North Mayo by 2018 if it can secure planning permission. That means sinking 450 wind turbines into the boggy landscape, constructing a 1.5GW hydro energy storage hub and laying down a 500-kilometre HVDC cable across the country and under the Irish Sea to feed into the much larger UK market. This project can only succeed at scale – there are all kinds of price pressures that dictate it’s all or nothing approach. Landscape is only a consideration in terms of whether the project can meet the lenient policy set by the County Council that is  open to interpretation and whether it can appease An Bord Pleanala (the Irish planning board) who are already under significant pressure to wave through what has been termed a ‘strategic infrastructure project’ for the country.

Not all landscapes are equal

Whilst the MAREX project continues to gather pace, a far more modest 23MW wind farm proposed by Killala Community Wind Farm Ltd less than 20 miles to the east of Belderrig has been unable to get off the ground for years due to visual impact concerns. This is in spite of the fact that the development would be owned by the local community and that it is located in the least sensitive landscape to development (Policy Area 4 – Landscape Appraisal of County Mayo).

MAREX is not the only wind farm mega-project in Ireland proposed to export wind energy to the UK. Element Power has an even more ambitious £8 billion ‘Greenwire’ proposal to develop 700 wind turbines and generate 3GW of electricity in The Bog of Allen – far removed from the west coast. Bord na Mona, the semi-state body responsible for the mechanized harvesting of peat, has left behind a wide-scale legacy of cutaway bog in the Midlands. Milled, harrowed, ridged and harvested by specialized machinery, the peat is then transported on specially constructed narrow-gauge railways for burning at one of only three remaining peat power stations – Edenderry, Lough Ree and West Offaly. This landscape may share a common resource with that of North Mayo but therein end any similarities. The Bog of Allen is largely an industrial landscape that has been, and continues to be, stripped of peat on a large scale. It has long been sacrificed in the name of development.

The wind may not blow as frequently or as strongly in the Midlands compared to the West but this is a landscape that is far better suited to large-scale development in terms of environmental impact and visual amenity. However, that is not to say that there isn’t room for any wind farm development in North Mayo. Bord na Mona and ESB (the semi-state power utility) received planning permission for a 112-turbine wind farm (originally 180 turbines) back in 2003 on cutaway bog at Oweninny, next to the former Bellacorrick peat-burning power station. In fact, Ireland’s first wind farm was constructed on the same bogland in 1992 and its twenty one turbines are turning in the wind to this day. The Oweninny development is more appropriate for the county than the MAREX project on several fronts. This area is cutaway bog, a scarred landscape as such, similar to but much smaller in scope than the Midlands. Wind turbines already exist in the vicinity and although the proposed development is sizeable, it’s still only a quarter of the MAREX project in terms of turbine numbers. And last but not least, this power is for Irish consumers, Ireland’s energy security and contributes to Ireland’s climate change targets.

Industrialization of a landscape

If the Organic Power project were to proceed alongside this development, the rural landscape of North Mayo would need to somehow absorb almost 600 wind turbines. This would represent the most significant industrialization of a rural landscape in Ireland due to the cumulative impact of such a massive undertaking. It would also be  the single largest onshore wind farm project anywhere in the world. North Mayo is home to one of the last significant tracts of blanket bog found anywhere in Europe. If we are to scale up our renewable energy ambitions by planting an equivalent number of wind turbines in the country, then we should do so on flat land already ‘strip-mined’ such as that found on the Bog of Allen. But there is a larger, more fundamental question here. Should the UK outsource it’s renewable energy needs to another country just because a Conservative government has no desire to rile its voter base in rural England? And where do carbon emissions and climate change targets fit in with all of this? It should be remembered that any power exported to the UK will not go towards Ireland’s 2020 targets to source 40% of electricity from renewable sources under the EU 2009 Renewable Energy Directive.

Admittedly, the wind does not blow quite as strongly or as predictably in the Midlands compared to in Mayo. But that does not mean it is any less appropriate to develop. Let’s take it as a given that we cannot scale up renewable energy sufficiently unless it makes sound economic sense. Conventional accounting does not take into account the true value of land – only it’s development potential. If we were to price ecosystem services such as storing carbon, flood control, providing habitat and then add in the value of landscape in terms of tourism, recreation, health, education, history, culture, and spiritual needs, we would come up with a far different end figure. Suddenly it would become very expensive indeed to build a 450-turbine wind farm on the boglands of North Mayo.

Maps cannot chart the soul of a landscape

Back to those unusual stones that Patrick Caulfield found all those years ago at Belderrig barely one and a half miles from Glinsk mountaintop – location for the proposed MAREX hydro energy storage facility. Evidence for prehistoric tillage in the region was uncovered in the form of the first plough-marks – the earliest proven use of a plough anywhere in Europe. Or as Heaney far more eloquently put it –

To lift the lid of the peat

And find this pupil dreaming

Of neolithic wheat!
© 2013 Colin Cafferty

Rugged coastline near Glinsk on an unusually calm July day

 

A second wave of occupation occurred in the Bronze Age in order to mine the rich vein of copper ore in the cliff face one mile to the north-west. This would be right next to the proposed reservoir and pumped hydro storage at Glinsk. The land around here hasn’t changed much in all those intervening years. What other buried treasures potentially lie beneath the ancient peat?

I believe in the need to scale up renewable energy more than ever – in part as a force to protect sensitive landscapes by helping to reduce carbon emissions and the resulting physical impacts of man-made climate change. I am as committed as ever to the siting of wind farms in the most appropriate landscapes. But we must not relent to the pressure to push wind farms into ever more remote and sensitive landscapes so that they too are branded by the Hand of Man. By implication, wind farms and human settlement will somehow need to co-exist in greater harmony. Local communities can be engaged and a respectful distance for noise and shadow flicker can be achieved.

I don’t get the chance to visit North Mayo as much as I’d like these days. It’s not quite in my back yard anymore but I still feel a strong tug westward as I sit typing in London. I’m still a committed renewable energy enthusiast and environmentalist. Whether I’m a NIMBY or not, I’ll let you be the judge of that.

The landscape of North Mayo remains as mysterious as it ever was to me. Buried treasures under the ancient peat. A bleak, boggy, beautiful wilderness. Perhaps it was never meant to be mapped out in detail or spied on from afar by some satellite orbiting the earth? It can only be known by taking a lungful of sharp salty Atlantic air, feeling the spring of heather and the squelch of bog underfoot, and above all, gazing upon the clouds scuttling across the vastness of an untouched landscape lost in time.

Colin Cafferty is a documentary photographer and blogger on sustainability, energy and environmental issues who is currently based in London. He grew up in North Mayo and regularly visits the area. This story is part of a series that explore energy and landscape in the resource rich county of Mayo. Next article to feature – an in-depth interview with Organic Power.

Can poetry inspire us to protect Ireland’s bogland?

Seamus Heaney, has joined the ranks of Irish literary greats, as he was finally laid to rest on this September day near the place of his birth in County Derry, Northern Ireland. Perhaps to join his Bog Queen preserved for eternity in both peat and words –

“I lay waiting / between turf-face and demesne wall, / between heathery levels / and glass-toothed stone” (Taken from ‘The Bog Queen’).

The former Nobel Laureate is returning to the very land that he so powerfully portrayed through his poetry. It is certainly not difficult for an Irishman to identify with Heaney’s treatment of the bog as a means to make sense of events unfolding around him, and as a prompt for a subtle yet powerful form of social commentary. Ireland’s bogland has long been exploited for turf as a fuel to warm homes through the long winter. Its rich and evocative imagery has also been employed in the service of one of the greatest poets of modern times. Indeed the very sound of ‘the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat’ has a power that transports the reader to a boggy land. Now that same peat is fuelling the resentment of rural folk who never gained in the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years of prosperity, and yet are still expected to shoulder the burden of austerity.

Ballycroy National Park, County Mayo © 2013 Colin Cafferty

A bank of turf cut by traditional methods

 

So why is the protection of Ireland’s bogland so important?

An estimated 16% of the surface area of Ireland is under peat. The Irish Peatland Conservation Council (IPCC) estimates that only 8% of our raised bogs have any remaining conservation value. The industrialization of peat extraction (not to be confused with more sustainable cutting methods) from the 1950’s by Bord na Mona laid waste to large swathes of bogland that are clearly visible in satellite images, such as those shown on Google Maps. Many bogs are so badly damaged that continued turf-cutting on a small-scale is no longer an issue. However this makes the few remaining areas that are relatively intact all the more valuable.

Ireland has a significant proportion of the few surviving remnants of raised bog within Europe. 139 raised bogs have been designated for protection in 53 Special Areas of Conservation  (SACs) under the EU Habitats Directive and 75 Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs) under the Wildlife Act of 2000. Although the turf-cutters are being offered alternative sites or monetary compensation, the EU Directive still serves to stoke consternation amongst otherwise fuel-impoverished households. The currently protected sites represent only 20% of the original raised bog in the country. “In Mayo, there’s been almost 100% compliance and generally on the ground people are happy to either take compensation or go with the option for relocation”, Sue Callaghan, District Conservation Officer in Mayo for the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) noted in a recent interview with Climate Change Cafe. But this is certainly not the case in other parts of the country such as Galway and Roscommon. And the vast majority of bog in my home county of Mayo is blanket bog meaning that this land is currently not protected in the same way. The small island of Ireland possesses a staggering 8% of the world’s blanket bog and is the most important country in Europe for this type of habitat. This underlines the need to protect not only our intact raised bogs but also the blanket bogs along Ireland’s Atlantic coast.

The NPWS website describes the loss of Ireland’s bogs as “an irreplaceable loss to global biodiversity”. Apart from providing unique habitat to many species of native flora and fauna, bogland also contributes a range of valuable ecosystem services that are taken for granted by most of us. Excess CO2 from the atmosphere is removed and locked within the peat in the ground which helps to combat manmade climate change. Bogland also provides clean water and reduces flooding due to  its capacity to absorb, hold and slowly release water. From the point of view of the turf-cutter, the bog is a vital source of fuel for heating and cooking in many rural households through the long winter months.

Turf wars – what’s it all about?

Ostensibly, the ‘turf-war’ is a case of standing up for the right to harvest the land as your father and forefathers have done before you.  Heaney draws upon the land as central to understanding the nation as a whole, and in particular its people. He pays homage to his father and to the tradition of harvesting the turf in the poem ‘Digging’

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods / Over his shoulder, going down and down / For the good turf. Digging.

But the ban on turf-cutting in certain parts of rural Ireland has become a means to vent anger and frustration at a far wider sense of marginalization and betrayal. It is a rallying point for any number of people disenfranchised and distrustful of big government and who do not feel fairly consulted or adequately represented. Memories of the struggle for the land lasts long in the minds of rural Irish communities. This goes back to the late 19th Century (and long before), when the Irish Land League was formed in Castlebar, County Mayo by Charles Steward Parnell and Michael Davitt amongst others.  The Land League campaigned for an end to landlordism and the unfair eviction of tenants by rallying around the Three ‘F’s (Fair Rent, Fixity of Tenure and Free Sale). As recently as one week ago, the Irish Independent reported the cutting of turf on a protected site in County Kerry in defiance of the ban (Turf protestors take another cut at EU ban). It’s also worth pointing out that the stance taken by the Irish media has largely been sympathetic to their cause.

Groups such as ‘Support the Turf-cutters’ and the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association are unsurprisingly using social media as a means to galvanize support. Their success relies upon making this a highly emotive issue, of creating a sense of injustice and outrage that forces people to take sides. Even Heaney struggles with a sense of indignation and a need to speak out against clannish or sectarian behaviour albeit in a different context –

Who would connive /
in civilized outrage
/ yet understand the exact /
and tribal, intimate revenge (Taken from ‘Punishment’)

All the resentment against the excesses of corrupt politicians, bankers and developers is perfectly understandable and largely justified but should not be rolled into an issue that has very little to do with these same forces. A more balanced, calm and rational approach will serve everyone’s interests far better in the long run. Heaney used the bogland and the ancient bog bodies preserved in its peat as way of promoting peace and understanding amongst the religious strife permeating Northern Ireland. He describes the unearthing of a bog man as a gentle act –

Those dark juices working / Him to a saint’s kept body / Trove of the turf-cutters’ / Honeycombed workings (Taken from ‘The Tollund Man’)

Let us, the turf-cutters and people of Ireland take note. It is a privilege and not a right to mine the land for our own sustenance.

Is there not a case to protect our landscape?

Although Heaney’s bogland poems did not employ words primarily in the service of protecting and conserving natural landscape, his rhyme and reason has undoubtedly influenced the political landscape of Northern Ireland. Heaney seeks inspiration from the bog to cut through the many layers of history and complexity that underline the so-called ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, which he grew up around. He describes savagery in the death, rediscovery and redemption of an ancient people preserved for millennia in the water-logged bogland –

The plait of my hair / a slimy birth-cord / of bog, had been cut / and I rose from the dark (Taken from ‘The Bog Queen’)

He excavates the truth from the deep peat –

Every layer they strip /
Seems camped on before (Taken from ‘Bogland’)

to expose both violence,

The chin is a visor / raised above the vent / of his slashed throat (Taken from ‘The Grauballe Man’)

and an undeniable anguish,

As if he had been poured 
in tar, he lies 
on a pillow of turf 
and seems to weep 

the black river of himself (Taken from ‘The Grauballe Man’).

The great poet mines the land for words, harvesting it for symbols that can be used to construct a narrative around the Troubles in his native country.

As a photographer, I try to use another form of art to convey the beauty of the landscape through visual imagery in the face of increasing pressures to exploit the land. Heaney doesn’t preoccupy himself with any such nostalgia for the land in his bogland poems although there are moments when his respect clearly shines through –

The ground itself is kind, black butter / Melting and opening underfoot / Missing its last definition / By millions of years (Taken from ‘Bogland’)

And his words can be poignant when he chooses –

We have no prairies / To slice a big sun at evening /
Everywhere the eye concedes to /
Encrouching horizon / Is wooed into the Cyclops’ eye/
Of a tarn. (Taken from ‘Bogland’)

As I read these words, I imagine a wide bogscape, framed by mountains and lake but also surrounded by manmade elements that trespass on the wild landscape, imposing themselves.

A need to focus on the real debate

Ireland signed up to the EU Habitats Directive in 1999 but managed to get a 10-year deferral as a special case, meaning that the legislation only became law between 2009 and 2013 (depending on the bogs’ location). The turf-cutters were told that they would be offered alternative sites or equivalent compensation in exchange for giving up the right to cut on protected bog. This sounds like a reasonable offer but the government minister at the time (Sile de Valera) did not consult the people affected and this has understandably bred anger and resentment to this day. The turf-cutters feel victimized, whether justified or not. They read about corrupt property developers and greedy bankers who are escaping justice and all the while the ordinary man on the street is being punished by increasing taxes, property and water rates, and unemployment. And so the kernel of the whole debate has moved a long way from its core objective, which is to protect the rich cultural, environmental and natural heritage that Ireland enjoys.

Furthermore, there has been a failure of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), who monitor and enforce the EU Directive and Wildlife Act, to live up to their roles and responsibilities. The IPCC commented that “they [NPWS] have shown very little leadership in the peatland areas affected which has given the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association lots of space to scaremonger the individual turf cutters involved.” This was confirmed by Ms. Callaghan who admitted that, “certainly there should be more communication by NPWS with people on the ground and that was a mistake that was made in the past. I think that’s recognized by everybody. And unfortunately with NPWS, there’s lack of staff resources, lack of so many resources that hasn’t made it possible”. I also got a sense of defeatism and powerlessness when asking how she would explain to a landowner that we need to protect certain bogland. “It’s a difficult one and I wouldn’t even hesitate or wouldn’t contemplate trying to persuade somebody whose land is designated…”, came the unexpected reply.

The present day government is mindful of the huge sacrifices it has imposed on the Irish people in these times of austerity and doesn’t want to fan the flames any further by tackling a highly emotive issue that is being portrayed by a few as some kind of ‘Last Stand at the Alamo’. The entire debate has to be reframed so that a small minority of turf-cutters cannot hijack the wider issue by portraying this as simply a struggle for land rights. There is a pressing need to untwine cultural heritage from natural heritage, to understand that both can co-exist. For its part, the Irish government needs to consider a more generous compensation scheme for turf-cutters and a far more inclusive approach that is less authoritarian and more mindful of rural communities. It needs to show respect for their concerns about threats to loss of tradition and livelihood, not by standing back and failing to enforce its own legal duties but by making a strong case for the moral obligation to respect the natural heritage that we have inherited. The law should be enforced not because the EU told us that we have to do this. We should be compelled out of a sense of responsibility to the land that our forefathers fought to reclaim in British colonial times.

Final thoughts

We are not only turf-cutters and farmers and landowners; we are an Irish people who are defined by a common language, history and tradition. But I feel that our sense of Irishness goes far beyond this. Our very identity is tied up in the land, in the wild landscape along the Atlantic Coast and the patchwork of emerald fields and rust-coloured peatlands found the length and breath of the country. We are the land and the land is us. If we lose the distinctive character of the Irish landscape, its habitats and native species, then we lose ourselves to misdirected anger; we forsake our sense of respect for the land, and for ourselves.

Heaney was no turf-cutter and neither am I. And yet the rich descriptive language of his bogland poems have immortalized this very Irish landscape. His words use the bogland as a metaphor to make sense of the troubles and strife in our land. Who of us truly desires to destroy our natural heritage and landscape, and in the process lose the sense of ourselves? Instead, let us continue to draw upon the bog for inspiration to convey our sense of who we are and our struggle to exist in peace and harmony with our neighbours.

Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it (Last words taken from ‘Bogland’).

Useful links

http://www.npws.ie/peatlandsturf-cutting/

http://www.npws.ie/publications/euconservationstatus/NPWS_2007_Conservation_Status_Report.pdf

http://iwt.ie/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/turf-cutting-explained.pdf