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

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.  


Powering Ireland

Ireland is an interesting place when you look at the way they consume and create their energy. In America the main source of energy is oil and natural gas which are also burned to create electricity. This is something that so far from what we have seen in rural Ireland is not regarded as the same way to keep a home warm. Turf is a popular source of energy because it is virtually everywhere in Ireland. Turf is harvested from bog lands, which over the course of history compresses and creates a carbon based product that can be burned for energy. This is not a very environmentally practice, as doing so releases carbon back into the atmosphere, which is not good for our o-zone or life on Earth. Ireland, stores about 3% of the world’s carbon. Preserving these fields are in our best interest because when carbon is burned it releases a toxin call Carbon Monoxide. Turf farming isn’t a large scale problem created by farmers in the countryside burning it for personal use on their property, the problem is the large corporations that come into Ireland and buy up land to farm the turf from the bog all at once. A farmer in Ireland traditionally uses around 3-4 turf bricks every 15 minutes when trying to keep the fire going. This doesn’t seem like a lot but when you multiply that by the hour they use 384 slabs an hour and 140,000 a year. This seems like a lot but that is if they keep the fire constantly lit throughout the whole entire year, which is not true for everyone in Ireland. Turf farming is a cheap way to heat homes in Ireland and with trees not being abundant on the island, residents do not have many other viable options to use to heat their homes. Traditional farmers using this source of fuel will never be able to clear a field in their lifetime, but corporations can tear up a 50 meters by 35 meters field in under a day according to our friends in the Killary sheep farm.  This practice has pushed Ireland to try and push back on corporations having the ability to harvest turf from bogs. One type of clean sustainable energy  that can be seen as an alternative is wind turbines, in specific we saw the models known as kw3 and kw6’s.  The smaller model, the kw3, gives out an average of 4,000kW/hrs while the larger size the kw6 gives out around 8,000kW/hrs. This is the greenest way to create energy because winds is natural and abundant in Ireland and the creation and use of these devices are not harming the environment while turf farming is. Most of the turbines we saw were along the Wild Atlantic Way but they were also seen  inlet from the coast. These are great examples of clean energy because they have a low carbon footprint which is great for the environment and allows people to realize there are alternatives to traditional practices still being used today.

Ask Pete: Should People Burn Peat?

Ireland offers different options when it comes to fuel and energy. One hot topic is the burning of turf. Turf is blocks of peat from ancient bogs that for centuries rural residents have dried and burned to heat their homes.

Because turf is a sponge for CO2, people have mixed opinions on whether or not this fuel should be utilized. For centuries, people living in rural neighborhoods have burned turf to heat their homes. Others, including Anthony, our guide from the Ceide Fields said: “Burning turf is negative for the environment because turf holds CO2 so when it is burned, it releases those damaging qualities into the air.” Turf retains water, acid, and moisture so people need a lot of this resource to last throughout winter. Peat is an important resource to consider when looking at energy options inside and outside of Ireland but it is also necessary to note that there are many pros and cons to burning this fuel. No one can deny the beneficial and damaging effects of burning turf and how those effects alter the environment.

A student is hard at work, learning tips and tricks for collecting turf.

One location where peat can be found is the Atlantic blanket bog land. This prehistoric landscape is where environmentalists can find Sphagnum moss, also referred to as peat moss. It grows a mere one millimeter every year and despite its slow, gradual growth, this moss does not die down. It does not die down because of the collected water, which comes from rain. The moss transforms to turf, which is spread on the ground and the sun naturally dries it out over the hot summer time. This prepares the resource to be burned for the winter time.

Sphagnum moss is acidic and does a great job at preserving everything!

The turf controversy aside, Ireland also demonstrates an understanding and practice of energy conservation. One effort Ireland makes towards energy conservation was demonstrated in the hotel rooms in Spiddal. In order to turn on the hallway, bedroom, and bathroom lights, the room key needed to be slid into the socket by the door. This invention makes an effort to conserve energy by making sure lights are not when a person is not home. Loads of energy is wasted by people who leave lights on when they are not home.

Altogether, Ireland makes efforts to conserve energy and use their resources wisely, although these efforts are not perfect and can be always improved.

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.

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

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.






The people of Ireland hang their hat on living in one of the most environmentally friendly countries in the entire world. Since the year 2005, CO2 emissions have fallen by 19% with the contribution of renewable energy helping avoid 3.9 tons of C02 saving close to €426M in fossil fuel emissions. The Irish use many different channels to generate renewable energy, including wind, solar, landfill, and biomass materials.

Kilknenny wind farm
Kilknenny wind farm

Driving through the countryside, I was able to see the wind farm in Clare, and the massive structures with their long-finned wings was quite a sight to see. Along with windmills, solar panels can be viewed on many houses, especially in the eco-village at which we stayed in Cloughjordan. These solar panels are extremely expensive to build, and a full solar farm could “make a net profit of a little over €500,000 a year,” but that number is inflated as it is taking into account selling the solar power at a rate much higher than what is currently the market price.

In a country that lacks consistent sun however, providing reliable solar energy can prove to be a challenge. This is where the famous turf comes into play. Naturally occurring over thousands of years, bogs can be dug up into a substance the Irish have coined as “turf” or “peat.” It is not particularly a clean source of energy, but can be used to cook and heat homes when burned. The eco-village in Cloughjordan solved the issues of solar panels by importing large piles of leftover woods chips to be burned which provided enough energy for the homes which lacked solar panels, or to the houses at which the panels did not work. One of the guys who worked at the eco-village, told us about a time when “biking to supply power” was not uncommon and was generally “an unpleasant experience.”

I was alarmed at the nonexistence of air conditioning systems and at the very least a simple fan. I had woken up many times in sweats as the hostels can become quite hot when multiple people are living in same room and it was confusing that they would not have something to combat this. However, during one the first few days that we were here, it was said that day “was going to be the hottest of the year,” and it was only 85 degrees outside. One woman told me at a bar in Westport that they “really have no need for them, most of the year is chilly”

With some newfound awareness of the issues regarding energy, I will be taking back some of the practices to hopefully apply to my everyday life in America.