Peat and Ireland

 

Ireland by many is known to be an ecologically and energy-efficient place. Ireland has earned this reputation despite its lack of natural resources because of the impressive lack of energy waste created. Although one may think that this is due to the small population size of 5.5 million, this is not necessarily the case. In fact the most pollution that comes from the country is from peat.

Peat is a deep brown natural material formed from moss creating a deposit of acidic, boggy ground. This deposit is dug, dried and used as fuel. You can find this outside almost every grocery type store in the country to be used for fuel to heat homes.  Peat may be considered a form of renewable energy due to its ability to grow back at a millimeter per year, however,  it acts as a carbon sink. The peat takes in around 30 percent of carbon emitted into the atmosphere, even more so than a forest does. When it is burned, it releases all of the carbon it had absorbed into the atmosphere. This causes devastating long-term effects on climate change. The carbon that is emitted reacts with the oxygen in the air creating carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, so when it is emitted into the atmosphere it adds to the thermal blanket which continues to heat up the earth affecting climate in totality.

Sphagnum Moss

When you stand on peat it feels as our guide Tom said, “like you might just sink right into the ground as if it were quick sand.” Luckily the earth does not suck you down into it but this was an accurate way of describing the buoyant feeling of the ground. Peat starts as moss known as sphagnum. This decomposes over many years and eventually turns into something that looks like soil. The moss is able to absorb so much water that you can ring it out like a sponge. Sphagnum’s ability to retain water is what gives the ground this feeling. In fact, it can hold such a large amount of water that during the first World War it was used as a bandage for the wounded.

While the people of Ireland are quite proud of being environmentally friendly, it was quite interesting to see how many people still burn peat as a source of heat in their homes.

 

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

What’s Turf?

“My charger won’t work!” says someone on the trip panicked at least once a day. Inevitably almost every time they’ve just forgotten to switch on the outlet, something we’re not used to doing in America. Ireland seems to take energy seriously, all of its outlets turn off and on saving electricity, the last hotel we stayed at even had you put your room key into a socket to enable lights to turn on so that you couldn’t forget to turn them off when you leave. Small things like this can make a large impact when implemented over an entire country and are a good step towards sustainability and conserving energy.

Another unfamiliar sight to many on the trip are the abundance of wind turbines throughout the countryside, doing cartwheels above the trees. Producing energy in a way that’s better for the environment. Ireland as of 2017 had over 2,000 megawatts of wind power with wind turbines providing 23% of the country’s electric power.

Wind Turbines

It’s not all perfect however, all over Ireland many people, especially in rural areas, are burning turf as a source of heat for their homes. With little tree cover in the country many say turf is the only material easily accessible to them to  heat their homes with. Turf or peat is built up over thousands of years by wet moss compacting over time. Much of Ireland is covered by these turf bogs, easily accessed on family’s land dug up by farmers as a cheap source of fuel. It is dug out of the ground and left to dry out, shriveling up into small, course, black bricks that can be burnt. The problem with this is that turf is a “carbon sink” holding in a large amount of co2, 30% of carbon in the world is stored in peat according to one of tour guides Anthony.  When burned the carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. The government has made moves to try and get people to stop this practice but for many it’s their best access to fuel and they are unwilling or unable to stop the practice. Stopping would mean importing oil or gas because there are no natural gas sources or pipelines in these areas, and this would be costly and also unsustainable.

Dried Turf

Many Irish people are aware and conscientious of the effects of turf burning and care a lot about the environment. They say that on such a small scale, as is the case in many rural areas, only taking what they need does not release enough co2 to make a large impact. People have many different views on the subject, all aware of the consequences and with different view points depending on their lives but make a general consensus. “It’s done here on such a small scale that it’s okay, it’s large scale industrial businesses that would be the problem” is the quote I heard, with little variation, from multiple different farmers who use turf. 

A Turf Bog

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. 

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.  

 

Turf Turmoil

“This is turf.” Anthony, our guide at the Ceide Fields holds a lumpy-looking black block dug up from the sodden terrain. We watch with curiosity as he continues, “Only three percent of the world is made up of peat land—where turf is sourced—but this landscape holds thirty percent of the world’s carbon… Peatland is more of a carbon sink than the tropical rainforests.” My eyes widen as I survey my surroundings. The ground squishes beneath my feet as I crouch down to study a nearby sod: Sphagnum moss curls around grasses, its acidity preserving other organic matter as it grows at the rate of one millimeter per year, gradually turning to turf.

Thus, turf is considered a renewable resource and has been used throughout Irish history as fuel. However, Anthony cautioned that some things are better left alone. He explained that out of all fuels, turf is the worst to utilize in terms of the carbon emissions it releases. Indeed, Ireland is in the midst of a turf controversy as the government has recently proposed banning its use all together.

“Banning turf would cause a civil war,” Tom, the owner of Killary Sheep Farm proclaims later on in our travels. He demonstrates turf digging to our eager group, using a traditional edged spade to hoist the dripping blocks out of the earth. “I’ve been digging this patch for thirteen years,”he waves an arm towards the small terraced chasm in which he stands, “this is how we heat our homes… It’s the machines you have to worry about, they can strip an entire area in half a day.” I think of his remark in contrast to those of Anthony and wonder how many individual turf farmers cause as much pollution as one turf machine. How much damage are those rural villages actually causing?

In Ireland, turf is abundant. I have observed it burning from the majority of houses passing swiftly by our bus windows: gray tendrils reach up through chimneys, casting a distinctive earthy aroma that many of the Irish consider the scent of home. Turf, as a central and seemingly inextricable element of Irish culture, makes me contemplate whether the ‘scent of home’ can become less of a contributor to climate change.

Ireland is innovative in many environmental respects, from keycard light switches to push-button showers. On our way to Spiddal, I observed many fields adorned with wind turbines and was informed by Des that there are many offshore wind farms as well. I am curious to see what the future holds for the fate of turf, given the recent developments in sustainable energy sources. Can the shift to clean power be culturally sensitive, respecting the interconnectedness of turf to Irish history while also respecting the planet?

Shearing Sweater

“None of them are ready yet” are the words Tom said as he attempts to grab one of the scared sheep who run with nowhere to run to. Tom then grabs one successfully by the horns as it’s legs wiggle all around. This is part of Tom’s job and what he does for a living, he gets a sheep that is ready or almost ready to be sheared then shears off their wool and sells it. Tom is one of many farmers in Ireland who shear sheep for a living, shearing each one yearly. This was news to me, I had never thought on the logistics of how wool clothing was made until that very moment. As Tom asked for volunteers to shear the wool off the sheep, I clenched. “It does not hurt them”, “they are supposed to be cut” “it is like a haircut” is what individuals in the RWU study abroad group and Tom were saying, but I could not bear to see the sheep squirrel around like if they are in agonising pain. After seeing a sheep’s wool being shorn the only thought in my head was how could they kill a sheep or even a cow. I believe that it is not okay to raise animals just so humans can consume them; however, that is easier said than done. I am not a vegetarian but have tried to be before, and failed. I simply do not like the idea of taking care of these animals for some time just to eat them. As soon as Tom finished shearing the wool of the sheep, it ran away to where the other sheep were. To me the shearing processes seemed like a painful haircut as tom had grabbed and turned the sheep by its horns.

Sheep Haven

Killary Sheep Farm
Lambs

Tom grips the scissors tightly in his right hand while he strongholds a sheep in his left.  He makes quick decisive cuts while shearing the long sheep wool. By the end, free of the heavy wool, which sits in a large pile, the sheep looks half its original size. Now the sheep will be able to be cool for the summer and slowly grow back its wool, until next year, when it will be sheared again. I am astonished the sheep did not get hurt once. Even as Tom allowed volunteers who had no experience shearing a sheep before cut some of the sheep’s wool, the sheep is free from even the tiniest of scratches. The scissors never once touched the sheep’s skin.

At home, I own three sheep. Each spring my sheep also get sheared, however the technique used by the shearer is not as kind. Instead of scissors, the common practice in the U.S. for sheep shearing, is to use an electric razor.

As Tom leads us on our tour around his luxurious sheep farm in Killary, Ireland, I scramble to catch up with him. Once I catch up to him I tell him about how my own sheep are sheared with a razor, not scissors. Due to this, I explain, my sheep often get nicked and develop open wounds that are prone to infection.

Tom sputters. “That is just plain cruel!” he exclaims, speechless. “You need to find another shearer this instant!” From his face, I can tell that Tom is visibly upset about how my sheep are sheared. I explain to him that shearers in Maine, where I am from, are rare to find and all that we have employed have used the same method of shaving. Before coming to his sheep farm, I hadn’t even known there was an alternative.

As Tom and I discuss his sheep and my sheep, I take a moment to take in the scenery around us. The sun is shining and there is not a cloud in the sky. We are surrounded by a five hundred acre sheep farm, filled with luscious green grass for the sheep to graze and set next to the water, which offers a cool breeze on this warmer than normal June day. It is a sheep’s paradise.

“I used to name the sheep,” Tom tells me, “but now there is just too many, I can’t keep up.” The fact that he cares enough to name his sheep proves the level of care he gives his sheep – a level  most large sheep farmers in the U.S. do not. Tom provides the sheep with a habitat now close to extinction in the U.S. Most sheep in the states that are bred for meat are kept in pastures that don’t even pass F.D.A. standards. Tom has created a haven for the sheep to live in. Two lambs skip behind us, bleating excessively.

“They think I’m their parent” Tom explains, “Their mother died during birth, so I had to feed and raised them myself.” In the U.S., it would be rare to find a farmer willing to put the time and effort into raising two lambs on their own. It is more likely, had those two lambs been born in the states, neither would have made it past a week. I am hopeful that before more animals lives are negatively impacted that the U.S. will begin to mimic a model similar to Tom’s sheep farm for raising animals.

 

The Muddy Bog

A Sleán for cutting turf

I walked down the muddy steps, one step, two-step then I walked on a thin wooden platform and I had to catch my balance, wow that was slippery. I caught my balance and I thought to myself how lucky I was that I did not slip and fall into the muddy bog in front of my professors and classmates. Tom handed me a two-sided spade called a sleán (pronounced slawn), which is used to slice blocks of peat from the bog. A bog is a wetland that accumulates peat, which is a deposit of dead plants. A bog is formed when a lake or land with high precipitation slowly begins to fill with plant debris, then new plants grow on the decomposed plants. Bogs create a refuge for a wide range of plants, birds and invertebrate species and are commonly used for grazing sheep and cattle. As Tom handed me the sleán I angled it into the muddy bog, slowly and gently I cut off part of the bog.

Turf drying

Then I gently picked up the sleán and placed the muggy block known as turf (dried sod) onto the grass outside the bog. After placing five or six sods of turf onto the grass they were leaned up against each other in a teepee shape and were laid out in the sun to dry; this is called footing the turf. Once the turf is dry, it is brought into homes or stored in sheds, this turf is then used as fuel to heat up homes. While turf is able to provide heat, are many negative aspects to using bogs as a main source of energy. At the Killary Sheep farm I was told that bogs are partly renewable energy they take hundreds of years to develop, and will not be ready to harvest in one person’s lifetime. Once the habitat is destroyed it can take centuries for the bog to recover from disturbances. Not only does this destroy the habitat of many species but turf also heavily fuels climate change. The turf consists of water, and organic carbon, which was built up over thousands of years and when the turf is suddenly exposed to the air, it decomposes and turns into carbon dioxide which is then released into the atmosphere. Besides the bogs taking a long time to actually grow, bogs can also be a major fire hazard. Peat fires can burn for quite a long time especially if oxygen is present. Is it really worth destroying the earth just to heat up one household? As I placed the cube of turf onto the grass I thought about how it is now going to take over 100 years just to regrow the few cubes of turf I removed from the ground, it will heat a household for a few hours but is that really worth it?

The burning turf

“Baaa” by Shelby Payanis

It has always been one of my dreams to hold a lamb, and at the Killary Sheep and Mussel Farm in Killary, Ireland, that dream came true! But I did not just get to hold one, my classmates and I were all given bottles of milk so that we could feed a whole bunch of them – it was amazing!

Me, feeding the lambs!

At this farm we also got to witness first hand how the sheep in Ireland are able to run free amongst acres and acres of land, and watch how they can be herded by a sheep dog – more specifically a 2-year-old sheep dog named Sylvie! Tom Lee, owner of the farm, told us that, “Sylvie is only happy when she’s working – she loves it!” Also, before coming to Ireland, I often heard the joke or myth that there are “More sheep in Ireland than people,” and after visiting, I have to confirm that this indeed may be true.

Sylvie takes a breather before returning to work.

There is a significant difference between the process of farming in Ireland and the United States. Although I do not agree with raising animals just to consume them, in Ireland, the farmers work tremendously hard and genuinely care about the lives of all of their animals before they have to turn them into consumable meat.

In America, cows, sheep, chickens, etc., spend their entire lives in small and crowded factories before they are put on a conveyor belt and turned into a package of meat that is shipped to the nearest Stop and Shop. However, in Ireland, the animals get to roam free and enjoy the beauties of nature before they are sold at the local market.

Sylvie leads the sheep back to their pen.

But even that shows the difference between Ireland and America. In the states, we often do not know where our meat comes from, and most of us only consume it because it is convenient. If we had the same process in our country as they do in Ireland in which a local farmer (who you know) is gathering this meat for you, maybe more and more people would not consume them. According to WorldAtlas, “Six percent of the Irish population are vegetarians.” This seems low, but Americans are not even on the list! This means that even though American citizens often do not know where their meat comes from, they are still willing to buy it and eat it.

Overall, I really enjoyed this trip to the farm and I thought it was fascinating to see the great quality of life that these animals are given before they are turned into consumable meat. This may be the vegetarian in me talking, but I hope that as more and more people visit this place they will start to see that eating animals isn’t always the “right” choice – just a convenient one.

And they’re off!