A Civil War Issue

While driving through the west coast of Ireland, it was evident that rural Ireland uses wind turbines and turf as their main sources of energy.  Looking out the bus window, I saw miles of wind turbines generating power.  Wind turbines are efficient but they haven’t always been used in Ireland. Throughout Ireland’s history, they relied on cutting and burning turf as the main energy source. Recently, cutting turf as an energy source has been called into question after environmental issues were brought up about burning peat.

Burning turf has been used as fuel to heat people’s homes for the majority of Ireland’s history dating back centuries ago. Many farmers lived on bogland which is where the turf is cut. The farmers would use a sléan to remove the peat and leave it out to dry throughout the summer. Since peat is made up of 90% water, the turf bricks would shrink in size as they dry. Once the turf was dry, it would be burned in a fire to heat the house and to cook with. This practice is still used today by farmers and many people in Ireland to heat their homes. Although using peat as fuel was feasible because it was accessible, it presents a danger to the environment.

A majority of the world’s CO2 is stored in the turf from bog lands. When the turf is burned, that stored CO2 is released into the atmosphere. At the Céide Fields, our tour guide explained, if the CO2 is released into the air it is very dangerous to the environment, therefore, peat land should be protected. On the other hand, we met people who rely on peat as their main fuel source. These people, including Farmer Tom (pictured above), do not think the government should stop them from burning the peat because they as a small farm do not make a large impact on the environment. Tom explained, “The government cannot ban burning peat because it would start a civil war.” But, he does believe the big machines that cut turf are bad for the environment because they can do more damage in one day than he has over 13 years. Although cutting turf has yet to be banned, the government incentivizes farmers to stop cutting turf by offering them monetary compensation. There has yet to be a clear plan for cutting turf going forward since it has been a part of the culture in Ireland for many centuries.  

 

Fueling Fire: The Burning of Peat for Energy

Turf at the Killary Sheep Farm

A common, yet controversial source of energy in Ireland is peat, or “turf”, a sort of soil made up of decaying matter. As discussed by our bus driver and tour guide Joe, most people burn peat to heat their homes, particularly during the winter months. The popularity of this energy method was made clear by the number of peat bricks lying in fields as we drove by. There would be rows of what looked like dirt blocks ordered side by side or piled together. At Craggaunowen, our guide Stiofàn explained that the people who lived there hundreds of years ago would also burn peat to cook meals, so the turf was used as a source of energy.

So what exactly is peat?

This source of energy is not available everywhere. Peat is collected from bogland. To cut turf, a person would first remove the surface layer of grass from the ground with a shovel. A rectangular shaped tool called a slain is then pushed into the soft ground, and when it is pulled out, a brick of peat is extracted. These bricks of peat are then laid out in the field, either stacked together in a “teepee” form or flattened rows. The sun will dry the peat, causing each brick to shrink, and the timeline of this process depends on the weather – for example, if it is a rainier season the peat will take longer to dry.

Peat drying in “teepee” form, at the Killary Sheep Farm

There have been critiques of burning peat for energy because of its negative impact on the environment; burning peat releases CO2 into the atmosphere, which destroys the ozone layer and contributes to climate change. A single brick of peat will only burn for 15 minutes or so, which means that vast amounts of peat must be dried in order to last one home an entire winter.

Despite the controversy surrounding the use of peat, it still appears to be widely used by many Irish people. The tour guide at Céide Fields even discussed this issue because some of the peat there was being cut and used for energy. He admitted that peat contributes to climate change, but said that “it’s really the large scale peat burning that causes the problem”, so essentially he argued that the peat burning there was not an issue.

Energy

With each step after the other, all I could think about was getting swallowed up by the ground. My peers around me were jumping up and down, creating the surface I was also standing on, to move even without movement from my own feet. It almost felt like being on a gymnastics mat or a trampoline, bouncing with every step. Bogs are the squishy bouncy part of land that contain many layers below the surface. Bogs are common

on the countryside of Ireland, and many people dig out the turf from below surface to use for fire fuel.  In a bog there are many layers, and the bottom-most layers have been around for many years. The layers consist of dead plant remains that are topped by living plants. When the living layer dies, it is also topped with a new living layer and becomes the dead layer. Over long periods of time, the layers compost into each other to become one. The top layer is always alive until it becomes part of the dead layer. The bog consistently produces turf, which the Irish people rely on as fuel source. Wood is not a very popular source for fires because trees are not always readily available. Turf comes naturally from the ground over time, and there is plenty of turf to last a while because it self renews. Families each have their sections of bogs that they harvest turf from and then lay out the turf to dry. After the turf is laid out to dry it is ready to be collected into bags to take back
home. The turf is perfect for fires, and lasts a long time. Another source of energy closer to home, that the Irish are more aware of conserving is something called ghost power. Ghost power loss occurs when say a phone charger is plugged into the outlet, but you are off at work with your phone. Nothing is plugged into the charger, but all day it is running energy. The out
lets in Ireland turn off with a switch, instead of continuously pushing out power out. We learned the lesson the hard way when we plugged all of our Iphones in without flipping the switch and they never charged. Soon after checking to see if all of our chargers were broken, we realized there was a switch to turn the outlets on. My trip to Ireland exposed me to alternate fuel sources as well as giving me ideas for conserving power usage back home.

 

Energy from the Bogland

The first time I heard the term “bog” used after my arrival in Ireland was while I was sitting on a bus, listening to our driver, Joe, talk to us about the surroundings. When he mentioned the bog, I found myself confused, as my initial thought was “Bog? I don’t see a swamp around here…” My eyes were looking at lush green fields with some trees lining the roads and large hedges covering stone walls. None of these things were what I associated with the word “bog”.

It wouldn’t be until a few days later that I fully understood what all these Irish people meant when they referred to the bog. This understanding also came to me while sitting on a bus, rolling through the Irish landscape. Only this time, we passed a field that had several small, brown rectangles that looked like bricks, arranged in tiny tee-pee shapes. Our driver, Desmond, referred to the bricks as turf. He then explained the process of how turf is made.

Turf being cut in the bog.

The bogs were formed during the Neolithic Age after people settled the land. When settling the land, they cleared trees. Previously the trees had caught the rainfall before it reached the ground floor, but with the ground fully exposed, coupled with high amounts of rainfall, the land became waterlogged. When the land became waterlogged there was also a lack of oxygen, which caused partial decaying of the plants that covered the top of the soil. This process continues and accumulates over time, taking about one thousand years to form one meter of bog.

Turf is often sold as briquettes, pictured here.

Now, the bog covers a large portion of Ireland. The turf is cut from the bogland and dried. Once it is fully dried, the Irish people then utilize the turf to heat their homes, burning it in place of wood or coal in their fireplaces. Walking in to many places in Ireland, you’re greeted with the unforgettable scent of turf burning. The scent reminded me of a tobacco barn on a chilly fall day in Kentucky–it reminded me of home. Likewise, turf is not merely a major source of energy for the Irish people, but is a symbol of home as well.

The Great Bog’s of Ireland

 

“A farmer was digging up through some bog and found the body, it was fully preserved and probably over 100 years old.” Can you imagine something that would be able to fully preserve something such as a body for over 100 years? Bogs can. It is a naturally forming substance that exists throughout Ireland and plays a huge role in Ireland’s cultural history. A bog is approximately ninety percent water and ten percent turf and while it may not sound like a lot,  it takes centuries to become a substantial amount. It forms at around 1 millimeter per year. A bog is essentially thousands of years of old wood. There may be a lot of bogs but it is not unlimited. Bogs are all around Ireland and are used by nearly every farmer around the country. 

Ireland is an interesting country in the fact that it has a really small number of different habitats compared to other nations. Ireland has two main habitats that are vastly around the parts of rural Ireland – bog and limestone. The interesting concept between these two habitats are from how much they differ, a bog is highly acidic while a limestone habitat is not. pH level is the level of acidity in anything rated on a 1-14 scale, 1 being the most acidic, and 14 being the least acidic, and a 7 means that it is completely neutral. A bog usually rates under a 5 on the pH scale*, rendering it very acidic land which inhibits the growth of a lot of different types of fauna. Limestone habitats usually lay above a 6.5** on the pH scale, which represents a very neutral state or non-acidic land.

        Bogs can be separated into three different categories: typical bogs, fens, and tropical tree bogs. A typical bog, which I was able to see most of the time traveling around Ireland, is covered in what is known as bog moss. The fens are mostly filled with grass-like fauna. Lastly, the tropical tree bog is almost entirely just three remnants of tree remains known as peat which formed over thousands of years, which each bog also consists of.* Limestone has what is known as alkaline soil, which means it can have a high pH level, which also limits the various amounts of fauna to grow on the soil. Some shrubs such as evergreen shrubs, deciduous shrubs, and perennials can be grown on this soil well, but it is tough to grow many other species in these areas.

 

Sources:

*https://www.britannica.com/science/bog-wetland

**http://www.hortmag.com/headline/plants-for-alkaline-soil

http://vric.ucdavis.edu/pdf/Soil/ChangingpHinSoil.pdf