Peat. Not Pete for peat’s sake!

“We wanted to find a place that represents the landscape and is a place of inspiration and resource,” is what Dearbhaill, the owner of Cnoc Suain, said to us when we arrived.  Cnoc Suain is a restored village that shines a light on its advancement in sustainable living. The lady that used to live in one of the cottages had a garden and used the peat from the land for fires. Dearbhaill and her husband, Charlie, used recycled wood and geothermal heating to restore the cottage. Dearbhaill informed us that she, “Wanted to let the cottage be as natural as possible and have natural plants grow around it.” Later on, Charlie led us to another cottage where we learned about the landscape and how it has interacted with the village people throughout the years.  He told us that an Atlantic blanket bogland, which is a land of peat that overlies prehistoric landscape, is all due to a type of moss called Sphagnum. This moss grows slowly, but it doesn’t die down because of the water that it holds and makes acidic.

Logs of peat separated into piles.

The village is near a lot of water, so the cottage floor is very damp. Today, they still use the peat from the land to heat the hearth    (fireplace).  This is the one unsustainable factor that I found during this site visit. Even though they’re saving money by using their own peat, they are also harming the environment by doing this.  Peat is a carbon sink that absorbs carbon and gives it off when burned. Our Ceide Fields tour guide, Anthony, told us that, “It’s worth more to leave peat alone on its surface than to dig it up and burn it.”  But, on the other hand, the cottage has to be heated somehow. So, if they don’t use the peat, they will still be harming the environment no matter what they use. They would most likely buy wood from somewhere which could be shipped from a location that is far away. Transportation is a huge factor when it comes to being sustainable.


The biodiversity of Ireland

When touring around Ireland you might notice how little diversity there is amongst animals and habitats. You will see endless miles of farmland and woods, but that is pretty much it. This repetitive habitat is sustainable for traditional farm animals such as horses, sheep, cows, pigs, and donkeys. However, because of the lack of diverse habitats you also have a lack of variety amongst animals. While touring with John, who is an expert in this field, he said “There is less biodiversity here because there is less variation of habitat, and since there is less variation of habitat there will be less variation of life in general.” John would also point out different species of birds that we would see flying around. He pointed out birds such as the jackdaw, wag tail, sky lark, and great black backed gulls. He was able to point out these birds from a great distance. These birds are permanent residents, but some were just visitors. Some coming from places like Africa or Iceland. We also learned about the ocean habitat. It is not uncommon to see whales, seals, and dolphins along the coastal habitats of Ireland.

It is not only important to learn about the habitats for wildlife here in Ireland, but for the people as well. Most of the population lives near bodies of water whether it be an ocean or inlet. This might be because of previous. The people who live near the water live in bigger communities such as cities and towns, and the people who live inland tend to belong to villages. There are also miles and miles of farmland which are home to families who are permanent residents. There are some exceptions for the population density. For example there are also small coastal villages that we have seen but because of my previous experience here I know that there are large cities as well.

Mussels, Sheep, and Peat Oh My !

Ireland is a country of many different landscapes and resources that its people rely on to survive. One of the best demonstrations of this is at the Killary Fjord where a sheep farm sits next to a mussel farm on a beautiful yet harsh landscape. A large part of Ireland is dominated by large turf bogs, a landscape that not all animals can survive in, you won’t find many horses or cattle there because they cannot get the nutrients that they need from this land. Sheep however seem to thrive here, getting all the nutrients they need eating the moss and grassy tops of the bog lands. The Killary Sheep Farm is a working farm that has over 500 sheep on its land grazing the mountain side.Not far down the road is The Killary Mussel Farm, another working farm that grows and harvest mussels that are sold locally in town. This beautiful landscape is perfect for the sheep and mussels who need specific environments to thrive, also providing farmers with the fuel to heat their homes, cheap and easily accessible.

The sheep graze freely over the mountainside and are checked on daily by the farmers and the sheepdogs who herd them where they need to go with skill. Tom, the farmer, calls out to his dog Silvia  “AWAY” and Silvia goes right, corralling the sheep to one side and herding them with precision and patience. The sheep are sheared in the summer when their wool becomes long and thick, this keeps them healthy and happy, Tom says never uses an electric shaver but instead goes for the harder but safer sheers that don’t cut as close to the sheep’s skin. Tom, uses turf like many others in rural Ireland to heat his home. There is a turf bog right on the property that he has been cutting for 13 years.

Tom Shearing One of his Sheep

Down the road on the water is the Killary Mussel Farm, yet another environment providing food for the local people. The environment to grow mussels must be very specific, they need the brackish water found in the fjord to be able to grow so many. This place is perfect for the mussels as it is for the sheep and easily accessible to the mussel farmers. Mussels on barrels in the water spawn and attach to ropes that are pulled from the water harvested and cleaned. Mussels are sold to only local markets and restaurants for around three euros a kilo,  much more than if sold to plants. When asked about toxins in the water like red algae, also known as red tide, the farmers said they ensure that the quality of the mussels is good by sampling water every Monday and sending it to a Marine Institute to check for toxins. Over all, Killary Fjord is an important environment for many of the local people providing both food, fuel and a source of income for local farmers.

Ropes of Mussels growing at Killary Mussel Farm

Animals Everywhere

The whole country of Ireland has fewer people than the number of people in New York City. The whole country of Ireland can fit into the state of Maine. “There are 11 million chickens in Ireland, more pigs than people living in Dublin, and more cows and sheep than people in the whole country” explained our bird watching tour guide, John.  These statistics clearly explain the habitat of Ireland. Animals are a major aspect of Ireland’s habitat and make up a large part of the country’s GDP which people rely heavily on in rural Ireland. 

While driving through the west coast of Ireland, as far as the eye could see, the land is all shades of green. On this land live sheep, cows, horses, other animals and people. In Ireland, animals are given acres of land to roam and live on. These animals provide their owner’s income. Agriculture makes up €666 million of Ireland’s overall GDP. Ireland is the 6th largest exporter of meat in the world. It makes sense why there are animals everywhere you turn in rural Ireland, many people rely on these animals as their main source of income. 

        The importance of animals was evident when we went to visit the sheep farm and the mussel farm. Farmer Tom has 200 sheep that roam over hundreds of acres of land. He relies on these sheep to give birth to lambs once a year. Tom relies on the sheep farming to support him and his family. Likewise, aquatic animals are relied on for income. For example, the mussel farmer harvests many mussels every year. These mussels are used to feed his own family, sell at the farm, and sell to local restaurants. In Ireland, farmers are reliant on both land animals and sea animals to make a living. These are just two examples that show the importance of animals to Ireland’s habitat. 

Oh for Sheep Sake!

The Killray sheep farm is located in the parish of Bunowen, an hour away from Spiddal. We were dropped off by Dez at a road that would eventually lead the to the farm. It was about 25 minutes to walk to the establishment accompanied by a rising scorcher. The sun was relentlessly beating down on my black shirt. We finally arrived at the farm and the first thing that immediately caught my eye was the numerous baby sheet congregated in a pen to the side. I walked over, and dozens of tiny legs came zipping towards me. Little baby sheep, all in a herd took over the gate. I was excited thinking they may have wanted to give me attention, but then Tom told me they thought it was feeding time. A blue bottle was handed to me and my heart melted as I watched baby sheep surround me and push each other as they each desperately tried to steal a sip of milk. I asked why the lambs were in there own enclosed area and Tom reassured me it was for their own safety. Much like any other young living creature, they are prone to putting anything and everything in their mouths. The babies are too tiny to be able to eat grass, reason being why they are separated. I also saw an uncountable number of sheep across acres and acres of land stretching beyond Tom’s property. Sheep inside fields and sheep freely grazing elsewhere. It is on the top of green mountains that overlook the bay. I was curious how all of Tom’s wandering sheep kept hydrated and he explained to me that he and many other farmers use “catchments.” Catchments are structures made with rocks that are slanted downwards that have the ability to collect rainwater. This overcomes the daily task of filling buckets up with water and helps with the overall conservation of it. This is done in order to help save water while still hydrating the animals. Along with this natural process of H2O, sheeps main food source comes from the tall grass that grows and never seems to end giving the animals a large food resource.

Looking Back to Move Forward

“These days, young people are looking for meaning through authenticity,” says Dearbhaill Standún. She tends to a peat fire as we file into seats that line a traditional thatch roof house. I observe the house’s quaint interior, adorned with sprigs of sphagnum moss, wild flowers, and a St. Bridgid’s cross perched carefully on the stucco windowsill. Dearbhaill owns Cnoc Suain—25 acres of farmland turned Gaelic cultural heritage site—with her husband Troy. While she tends to soda bread, Dearbhaill explains that the cottage, built in 1825, belonged to a woman named Ellen O’Hare who reared 15 children primarily on her own. “People had to very self sufficient back then,” she remarks. I gasp, 15 children! Clearly this place has a rich history.

And a rich history Cnoc Suain has indeed.

We listened transfixed as Dearbhaill told that after she and Troy found ruins of cottages dating back to the 1660s on the property, they hoped to establish an educational foundation, giving young people like ourselves, “the inspiration to go forward, by looking back, but to not be stuck in the past.” It was immediately evident that Dearbhaill is deeply in touch with the historical habitat of Cnoc Suain. As a fluent Gaelic speaker, she works to promote teaching the language in Irish schools, fighting its stigma as a “background language.” She sang us traditional songs in Gaelic and explicated that before electricity came to Cnoc Suain in 1980, children and adults would gather around the fire to sing and tell stories.

However, being of Gaelic heritage was not always merry. During the British occupation, those who lived at or near Cnoc Suain had to resourcefully navigate their environment in order to survive, often eating seaweed and dulce for iron intake and periwinkle for protein. As Dearbhaill told this to us, I noticed many grimaces amongst my peers. She passed us plates of seaweed and dulce to try. I took two brittle green and salty smelling pieces, eyeing them carefully before popping them in my mouth. Not that bad. I was surprised and impressed by how much the earth can provide us if we just care to look.

Later that morning, Troy held a hearty amount of thrush—a reed-like plant that grows in the bog lands surrounding the site—and explained that people used to throw it onto their floors to keep mud from the ground from sticking on their feet. He also discussed the process of thatching and how, if done correctly, it can make an immensely durable roof. Fascinating, I thought. My mind wandered to images of the big, generic, boxy houses made of plastic siding, standing obnoxiously on artificially green Chemlawns back in New York. Dearbhaill is right, we can learn a lot from the past to move forward, and perhaps a starting place is reconnecting with our natural habitats—rekindling the local knowledge of our traditions, languages, and environments to create new sustainable technologies and innovations.

A Simple Life in the Traditional Irish Home

Imagine yourself living in Ireland in the late 1800s—completely vulnerable to the elements with only yourself to get you through the cold, wet winters. You would most likely have a family of eight to twenty siblings, all living in the house with your parents. Your home would be made of thick stone walls with small windows to help keep in the warmth during the winters. The roof, covered in thatch acts as a thermal blanket, ventilating the smoke from your hearth and keeping the rain out.

You would walk into the heart of the home and be immersed with the scent of smoky peat burning from the hearth. The hearth was what kept the space dry and you warm. It was how you would cook all of your food. It would be the only stationary element in the home. Stories would be told with neighbors and friends around the fire to make the dreaded winters less miserable.

Door to children’s bedroom that would be reached by a ladder.

At night you would be snuggled up with the rest of your siblings in one of the three small bedrooms the home had. You would be fortunate to get a bed next to the door so that you would not have to climb over your siblings to escape. While there were no stairs because of the needed space in the living area, there were ladders. Essential to get to the bedrooms that would be a story above the ground. The only bedroom on the ground floor was your parents room. Their bedroom would be positioned on the wall that had the fire-place on the other side. This would be their source of heat. Your warmth would come from your siblings and the little bit of heat that would be floating up into your room.

People become wrapped up in the commotion of modern-day society. It is the simple things such as stone walls, a thatched roof and a hearth that as Dearbhaill, our guide says, “Young people are looking for meaning through authenticity” in order to live a fulfilling life. The simple life as such has led to many happy lives for the Irish as you see today since many people are still living this way.

Grassy Fields and Rocky Walls

The definition of habitat is the natural home or environment of an animal, plant or organism. Traveling throughout the northwest side of Ireland, our group witnessed many different habitats. When I think of habitats I think of animals and their living conditions, whether they are living in their natural habitat or a man made habitat. For most of the animals we have seen along the way (mostly sheeps and cows) they have huge fields of grassland that they wander about in. This is obviously a more preferred habitat for both the animals and their owners. However, some animals aren’t fortunate enough to have as much room and land to occupy. In the places we have traveled in Ireland the typical habitat is a large field of grass, flowers and very little trees. The animals are usually kept inside rock walls, but some-like sheep-are allowed to wander in the street and wherever they want. This habitat is very natural and healthy for the animals. We don’t see much of this in the United States unless there is a farm, and if not then the animals are usually kept in barns with stalls or cages like chicken coops. There are a lot more free range animals in Ireland and their habitats are a natural process.

When we visited the bird aviary, the habitat that the birds were kept in was a man made cage filled with a few branches and trees. It was nice to see that when they were let out of the cage they like to fly around for the demonstration. However, their habitat is very unnatural and they are trained to come back to the aviary.

The main habitat that we stayed in throughout the trip was a country/rural setting. We had only a few days of small urban towns, but for the most part the population was spread out over a lot of land and grassy fields. We were surrounded by a lot of free range livestock and especially on the island were surrounded by the ocean, rock and not many other buildings or people. If we stayed in the major cities it would have been an entirely different habitat.

Cows grazing…the typical scenery

Bird is the Word

A habitat is a natural home or environment of an animal, plant, or other organisms. It can be a living creature’s both external and internal environments. A habitat can be manifested in many ways such as how a person decorates a home, the setting a bird chooses to nest in, as well as the micro-environments within an existing system. The birds on Inis Oirr have an interesting habitat. On our tour John Rattigan told us, “This island has less habitat variation and some of the birds migrate here for the weather during certain seasons. On this island, however, there is less biodiversity which means isolation.” A bird’s environment here does not include mountains, lakes, or the company of other animals because this small island does not have a variety of resources to offer.

Birds use the island’s resources and view their landscape as “home.”

In terms of the types of birds one could find on Inis Oirr, swallows migrate to this island from Africa to breed. They also fly close to the ground because they are visually attracted to rotting seaweed. Another type of bird is the Great Black Backed Gull which is a kind of seagull that is very powerful. One example of their power is how they can easily hold crabs in their mouths. For other types of birds who do not breed, they only come by Inis Oirr as a stopping point on their journey to another destination. There are two kinds of bird populations on this island. Both kinds can be very social. The small crow even makes a jack noise to attract attention from others. Other birds one can find here include the hooded crow, woodland bird, and other singing birds. A large singing bird can be best identified by the crest it displays on its head. However, these birds are scarce on the island. 

Sea campions, clints and grikes, and seaweed are just a few of the elements these birds experience.

When considering the habitat for birds on Inis Oirr, there are many elements to analyze. These elements can help explain why micro-environments work in the way that they do. On an island, the wildlife is exposed to weather conditions that can vary drastically when compared to where the birds migrated from.

The bird habitats on Inis Oirr offer a limited environment and resources so this fact does have an influence on the numbers and types of birds that can be found here.

The Wild Atlantic Way

Being on the coastline of Ireland is a surreal experience. The smell of the salty air rushing onto your face. The sound of waves crashing on the cliffs from below your feet. Cliffs so high, you feel like an ant in this small world. The sound of seagulls and puffins chirping in the distance. The water being so blue, that it’s as if you are on a tropical island. All of the features of Ireland’s coastline make you feel like you are in a postcard. These beautiful yet monstrous coastlines remind you just how talented Mother Nature is and how small you are in comparison to the rest of the world. Before I arrived in Ireland, I imagined beautiful views, but I only imagined the country views—endless hills and fields carrying off into the horizon. I never really thought about the coastline views that we would encounter.

The Wild Atlantic Way gives people the perfect view of the west coast of Ireland. Turning that first corner onto the first breathtaking view, it felt like something from a movie. From the top of the cliff, the waves look small and harmless. The closer you venture to the shoreline, the more you can feel the vibrations from the waves crashing on the shore, and hear them crashing onto the sand or the cliffs to the side. From far away you forget how powerful these waves are. The closer you get the more your realize how powerful a wave can be. Climbing on the rocks you can look into the crevasses and see small sea anemones clustering and catching their food. The mussels are congregating into large clusters in various locations of the rocks. Making the rocks look like pieces of cookie dough. 
If you are lucky, you can see a pod of dolphins in the distance. Looking at these outstanding views, you try to capture the beauty with your camera. However, cameras only get the framed version, and not the whole picture. Leaving each view, you want to wrap it up and take it home so it will last forever. At each site we visited, I was the last person to leave because I wanted to soak up all the views I could get so when I went home, my mind would remember the full picture, and not just the framed version I have on my camera. 

Dearbhaill Standún and her husband Charlie live and work in some reclaimed and restored cottages out on the Wild Atlantic Way. They lead a lifestyle that includes not interfering with nature. Instead they, “Let nature run its course,” by letting everything around them grow naturally. Lifestyles like Dearbhaill’s and her husband’s, are a step in the right direction to keep the habitats of Ireland whole. With Earth’s balance becomes unhealthier day after day, Dearbhaill tells us, “the future is through them,” meaning, young people. The young people are bringing their technology to rural areas and are beginning to merge the two worlds, to create an environment where changes can be made quickly. Hopefully these healthier lifestyles will spread from town to town and habitats like the coastline will be preserved for future generations to enjoy.