What is peat?
Peat, or turf, as it is often referred to in Ireland, is a type of soil that contains a high amount of dead organic matter, mainly plants that have accumulated over thousands of years. It takes approximately a staggering 10 years for 1cm of peat to form! Through analysis of the soil, the types of plants that grew, died and accumulated to form a piece of peat can be discovered. Dead plants in peatlands are different to other ecosystems as they do not fully decompose. Micro-organisms such as bacteria and fungi are prevented from rapidly decomposing the dead plants as the waterlogged conditions reduce the amount of oxygen in the soil.
Conservation of peatlands
The conservation of peatlands is important for a number of reasons including biodiversity, archaeology, carbon and water storage and also because of their landscape value. Peatlands are sensitive habitats that are easily affected by both natural and human factors. No single initiative by any one organisation can hope to achieve the long-term conservation of peatlands.
In Northern Ireland a number of measures including government policy, legislation, protected sites and education are currently utilised as part of a strategy for the protection and conservation of peatlands.
Peatland is the only habitat for which Government has produced a policy statement in Northern Ireland
No laws have been introduced which are specifically designed to protect peatlands but all legislation that protects landscapes, habitats, species and certain archaeological sites also assists in the conservation of peatlands
Some peatland sites are designated and legally protected as a result of European, national and local legislation
The Northern Ireland Biodiversity Strategy seeks to contribute to global biodiversity by conserving and enhancing the biological diversity of all habitats, including peatlands, across Northern Ireland
The majority of peatlands in Northern Ireland are in private ownership and their conservation is dependant on the adoption of good management practices by their owners
Education and public awareness is an essential element of peatland conservation
Community action and grant aid
Local communities are playing an increasingly important role in the conservation of peatlands. Peatland conservation projects can apply to NIEA for grant-aid
Peat cutting is the extraction, removal of organic peat soils. This can be carried out for milling (horticultural use, usually on a commercial basis and consequently requiring planning permission) or for fuel. Peat extracted for fuel can take place for both commercial and domestic purposes.
Types of bog present in Northern Ireland
There are currently two types of bog present in Northern Ireland:
Lowland raised bog - Lowland raised bogs are peatlands, which develop primarily in lowland areas such as valleys and river plains. Peat depths are variable, but can exceed 12 metres.
Blanket bog – These are peatlands which can cloak entire landscapes, even developing on slopes of up to 30o. Peat depths are variable but tend to not be as deep as that associated with lowland raised bogs.
The impact of peat cutting on peatlands
The scale of the impact depends on the method used and frequency of cutting but the general impacts are:
- direct loss of peat
- direct loss of biodiversity i.e. plant and species present
- changes to the physical condition of peatland such as compression (from mechanical cutting) as well as significant changes to vegetation composition with the following consequences
- adverse impact on hydrology resulting in localised flooding, and national impacts from the loss of an important carbon store
- adverse impact on landscape and visual value of the area with potential adverse impacts on the local tourism economy
- potential adverse impact on archaeological sites