Francis Mackin addressing the meeting in Kildallan Community Centre.

Landowners have nothing to fear from rewetted bogs, says expert

Landowners have nothing to fear from rewetting and restoring bogs, was the message relayed at a meeting held in a rural townland in West Cavan heard last week.

The well attended meeting held in Kildallan Community Centre last Thursday night was the first in a series of awareness meetings in the locality, organised by the West Cavan Bogs Association.

Hydrologist Francis Mackin was the main speaker in a panel, which also included ecologist Heather Bothwell, who is one of the key drivers behind highlighting the local bogs as a resource for biodiversity, and Belfast composer Ian Wilson, who is the project lead and intends to write a piece of music inspired by his research of these West Cavan habitats.

Francis Mackin of the consultancy company RPS Group is the ‘go to’ person when it comes to bog restoration across Ireland. Much of his talk focussed on the conditions necessary for spagnum moss - that ancient driver of healthy boglands - to grow, and the technical aspects of measuring water levels. Essentially the water level needs to reach certain thresholds and the rising gradient of the peat towards the centre of the bog must be very gradual to provide the exacting conditions required.

Considering both the location of the talk and the topic, in a lively Q&A session afterwards it was no surprise that farmers’ concerns were uppermost in people’s minds.

Asked by one gentleman asked if there is an incentive in the pipeline for farmers who own bogs to allow rewetting to occur, Francis said schemes are currently limited to those in designated sites, such as those in special areas of conservation. He did however give his personal opinion: “At the minute I don’t think there is anything in place for non-designated sites, but I would imagine that will change fairly quickly. There could be very significant targets in terms of restoring these areas of bogs and there’s EU Restoration law still under debate, and whatever comes out of that I think there will be significant targets that will have to be met - meeting those targets by rewetting grasslands where there are peat soils currently in use - that’s going to be really expensive, so it’s going to be much more cost effective targetting these smaller peatland areas that currently aren’t being used. But at the minute I don’t think there is any significant funding available, but I think it will come available in the next couple of years.”

Another gentleman asked if people with land surrounding bogs have anything to fear from “rewetting and raising the water level”.

Francis began by saying it was a valid question. “A lot of my job is about making sure that people in the surrounding areas aren’t affected. Probably the biggest part in designing a restoration is making sure that it is done in a way that doesn’t impact on the surrounding lands. One of the things we always do is carry out a drainage management plan. We look at the site, we look at where the restoration measures could go and then we look at the drains surrounding the site - between the bogs we want to restore and the adjacent agricultural land, making sure that those drains - or hydraulic break as we would call it are effective and up to standard. At this stage I’ve probably been involved in about 25,00ha of peatland restoration and there isn’t a single case that I know of where someone has been able to say there’s been an impact from flooding.”

“That’s very important,” the man from the audience emphasised.

Speaking after the event Francis explained that originally, Ireland had approximately 310,000ha of bogs.

“Turf cutting really only kicked off about 400 years ago,” said Francis. “Once all the woodlands were gone, they moved onto the bogs. Most of the raised bogs that we’ve lost have been taken out by hand extraction - so about 160,000ha from hand extraction,” he said before it became industrialised by Bord na Móna in the mid 20th Century and then the mechanised commercial operations began.

“We have about 50,000ha of what we call high bog - so bog that hasn’t physically been cut away in any shape or form - that’s about 16% [of the original 310K Ha]. But of that, only 0.5% of the original area is what we call peat forming - that’s active raised bog with a high water table with lots of spagnum moss, really good condition.”

Some Irish peatlands are too depleted to ever support an active raised bog, however Francis says these too should be appreciated.

“It’s still a significant carbon store, it’s still really important to biodiversity, it still contributes in terms of preventing flood risks down stream,” he explains.

West Cavan Bog Association are affiliated with the Community Wetlands Forum, and it was through them that they made contact with Francis. Having visited the few sites in West Cavan about their potential for restoration, he’s optimistic.

“Because there’s not many bogs designated in this particular part of the country, we’re at the extent othe range of where they occur, they’re actually really important bogs.

“A lot of the midlands bogs have suffered from drainage in the surrounding areas, whereas these bogs are a little more sheltered than that because they are in drumlins - so the ones in this particular area are in really good condition, and with very light touch restoration could support quite significant areas of active raised bog,” he said.

Francis discusses bogs with a quiet, measured authority that’s very pursuasive, yet he still conveys his passion for bogs.

“For me we have this really unique habitat that just doesn’t occur in other areas - Europe has lost pretty much all of its active raised bog - they’re spending millions to preserve single raised hectares, whereas we still have a really god resource and really good potential to restore.”

If proof were needed of the impact a restored bog can have it’s in the return to the Irish landscape of cranes - a majestic bird absent from Irish skies for centuries. The cranes are breeding on a site - undisclosed to protect the birds - where Bord na Mona are currently undertaking a phased restoration of bog.

“It is a direct consequence of that rewetting,” Francis insists. “The reason why rewetting is important for bringing cranes back is that they are really vulnerable to predators - things like foxes or even aerial predators coming in and predating on the chicks.

“Once you rewet it, you create this island where the cranes will go, and around them you have this safe zone where predators can’t get to them. So the rewetting of the bogs has allowed them to identify locations they think are suitable to breed - I think it’s two years now they have successfully bred, that’s a direct consequence.

The curlew is another bird which has suffered in Ireland - while we host a strong migrant curlew population over wintering in Ireland, our own native population has plummeted since the 1980s. Francis is hopeful that a National Parks and Wildlife bog restoration project in County Westmeath, on which Francis worked alongside Bord na Móna will have good news for curlew soon.

“We carried out some simple drain blocking on an area of high bog and the curlew has returned to that bog within three years of that restoration work taking place.”

The curlew appeared this summer - and Francis is “not 100% certain” if they successfully bred, but a pair has been spotted several times throughout the summer period.

“It’s a good sign, it could mean this time next year they could return and start breeding there, if they didn’t breed this year,” he says.

Turf cutters’ rights

Can he see a time when people who would have rights to cut bogs might say, let’s make a different use of this resource?

“People have to see something in it for them. Maybe initially a lot has been focussed on the financial incentive - let’s pay these landowners off, get in and do restoration,” he says. Francis suggests that another approach might be more effective - that if landowners visit a restored bog they will naturally be persuaded.

“I think once you see a restored bog it opens your eyes - it’s not this big scary thing of flooding land or completely changing the land use. You can do restoration and farm right up next to it if it is done properly, and you can get the spagnum coming back in really quickly if you get the hydrological conditions right. When people see that, they become a lot less afraid of it, but can also see this is actually worthwhile.”