The Bogs of Connemara

Blanket bogs are found wherever there is high rainfall, which is typically in western Ireland and also in mountainous areas. They are called blanket bogs because of their appearance – from a distance they appear homogeneous and they hug the topography like a blanket. With almost 1 million hectares of Ireland covered by blanket bog, it is far more common than the smaller-scale raised bogs. Contrary to popular belief, blanket bogs are essentially a man-made feature, if inadvertent and aided somewhat by the climate. The graphic below is a cross-section of a hypothetical mountainside in Ireland showing how it evolved into a blanket bog.

Around 7000BC, not long after the Ice Age ended, one of the many hollows left by glacial morraine has been filled with water to form a small lake. The surrounding landscape was wooded with hazel and pine trees. Stone-age (Mesolithic) hunters would have fished around the shores of the lake. At the edges of the lake, communities of reeds were developing.

These reed communities extended into the lake, depositing peat (poorly decomposed vegetable matter) on the lake bed. Over many years, this peat built up and up, choking the lake, until it began to emerge above the surface of the lake. Only small areas of open water remained by 1500BC, and these would have had a special, probably religious, significance to the Bronze Age farmers nearby.  The water table rose until no water was running into the lake from surrounding land, and it stagnated. The peat and water thus became acidic, further preventing decomposition. The oak, ash and elm which now grew were partly cleared by farmers.

By 500BC, the lake had been completely filled in, becoming a raised bog. The dome extended higher than the edges of the bog, carrying the water table upwards with it. Thick cushions of bog-moss would have covered the mass of peat. For a period around this time, the climate was drier than today, and large trees were able to grow on the bog itself. These have been found buried in bogs today, along with grasses that could not survive there now. Farmers would have used the drier bogs for grazing in summer.

By 500AD, in the Celtic period, the climate had turned wetter and the bogs became more marshy again. Their vegetation cover reverted to thick mats of bog-moss. At the edges of the bog, the wetter conditions allowed areas of stagnant water to develop, which allowed the bog to encroach upon, and bury, surrounding areas of woodland. With no decomposition of waste, the bog’s dome continued to rise, becoming much higher than  the surrounding landscape. This is where raised bogs get their name. For humans, the water at the edges of bogs provided places to find iron- rich ochre (which seeped out of the bog), helping to usher in the Iron Age in Ireland. As the bogs were now too wet to walk upon, let alone graze animals on, some Iron Age farmers built wooden walkways over them.

 

It is uncertain how raised bogs would have evolved after this stage in their development, because significant human activity started to influence them to a great degree around 300 years ago. Most intact raised bogs vary between 3 to 12 metres in thickness, with a mean of 7 metres (23 feet). The image on the left shows an intact part of Ardee raised bog, county Louth, which was partially drained in the 1700s. Image by Leo Swan.

Starting in the 1700s, the raised bogs of Ireland were exploited as a source of cheap fuel. Most of this was cut by hand, and laid in the sun to dry before being burned. At the time of the famine, peat (called ‘turf’ when cut) was often the only source of fuel available. In 1934, the Irish Free State (the name of the Republic of Ireland after independence in 1921) set up the Turf Development Board, which bought land under compulsory-purchase orders and cut turf. Half of Ireland’s raised bogs were destroyed (at a rate of 800,000 tons per year) between 1814 and 1946. After World War 2, the government set up Bord na Móna to cut peat by mechanical means and this simply accelerated the process. In 1969, there were just 100,000 hectares of raised-bog left in Ireland, of which Bord na Móna owned 45,000 hectares. Most of this will be exhausted by the middle of the coming century.

In recent years, there has been increased awareness of the importance of raised bogs to science. In the Republic of Ireland, there are plans to set aside 10,000 hectares of raised bog for conservation purposes. In Northern Ireland, which has less raised bog to begin with, almost all raised bogs are being preserved as Areas of Special Scientific Interest. It has been noted that the removal of large areas of bog is leaving behind a new landscape for which some use will have to be found. Most of the cut-over areas are being carefully restored to blend in with the local environment. Given that the European Union is already over-producing food, it seems unlikely that the land will become agricultural.

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