Peat is a material that is left in the ground by decaying vegetation, and is found in many parts of the world. Conditions most favourable to peat are low temperatures and a fairly moist atmosphere. Peat is formed in waterlogged, sterile, acidic conditions of bogs. These conditions favour the growth of mosses, especially Sphagnum. Sphagnum is a pale or ashy moss from the genus Sphagnum whose decomposed remains from peat. Peat is brownish/black in colour and in its natural state is composed of 90% water and 10% solid material. Peat consists of sphagnum moss along with roots, leaves, flowers, seeds of heathers, grasses and sedges.
There are several types of peat:
Fen Peat: is a black peat and contains a large amount of lime. It is usually found in hollows or in the beds of shallow lakes. This is found mainly off the Curragh, Co.Kildare.
Blanket bog Peat: is generally found in Irish mountains and in flat areas in Donegal, Galway, Mayo and Kerry. It is composed primarily of grasses.
Raised bog Peat: is formed mainly from sphagnum moss. Sphagnum is the main type. These are found exclusively in central Ireland, mainly in the Shannon basin.
(Irish Peatland Conservation Council 2002).
Here is an example of a peat bog landscape taken in Dublin, Eastern Ireland. (Travel Pod, Peat Bogs – Dublin, Ireland).
What is a bog?
A bog is a type of wetland characterized by a thick mat of partially decomposed material and highly acidic water. Bogs have been useful to humans for thousands of years, providing a source of fuel in the form of peat and food in the form of berries which grow on bog shrubs such as cranberries.
Peat bogs are wetland sites with poor drainage. Peat bogs are fed by rainwater and the soil builds up its own water table and acidity. Sphagnum mosses grow and decompose eventually forming layers of peat. Peat piles below the surface and may be many metres deep. (Environment and Heritage Service 2004).
Formation of a Peat Bog:
Flooded hollows and basins provide idyllic growing conditions for reeds and sedges.
When the vegetation dies, it does not rot away completely as the water in the hollows prevents oxygen from reaching the dead plants. The partly-rotted plants steadily build up to form fen peat. Eventually dark fibrous peat completely fills the hollow to form a fen. Most of the nutrients are tied up in the peat and so the only minerals available for plant growth are those dissolved in rainfall. Layers of bog moss, which has the ability to create their own acid environment, begin to replace the fen vegetation and alter fen into true bog. A growing thickness of sphagnum peat slowly accumulates and the surface of the bog starts to rise above the surrounding land. The original fen has now become a raised bog.
Raised bogs are mostly found on the lowlands around Lough Neagh, along the Bann Valley and in counties, such as Fermanagh and Tyrone. (Natural Heritage 2005 Abbot 1997).
This image is of a raised bog in the Bann River Valley, which is situated in Northern Ireland, separating Londonderry from Antrim. (Irish Peatland Conservation Council 1998).
The importance of peat bogs and there benefits.
Peat bogs are very important and extremely beneficial to the environment and humans. They are;
A living archive. A rich record of information lies sealed in our bogs. Much of this is organic and has a capacity to expand our understanding of people, culture, economy and climate far back to prehistory. Peat bogs have produced some of the most impressive finds of Irish archaeology, including extremely fresh-looking bodies of some of our ancestors. The lack of oxygen in the peat prevents the normal decomposing processes from taking place and so bogs have sealed within them a vast assortment of gold, bronze, amber, wooden and stone objects. These can tell us about how and where people lived in ancient Ireland.
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Archaeologists have discovered many fascinating structures within and below the peat. Some remains can be revealed without digging the peat. For example; the Stone Age farmland in the Céide fields, co. Mayo, is covered by up to 4 metres deep. The outline of the farm walls can be mapped by probing with iron rods which go down through the peat until they hit a solid structure. By inquiring at the right angles to the wall, it’s possible to establish the level of the old ground surface under the bog and the location and elevation of the wall built on the surface. (Irish Peatland Conservation Council 2002).
A Habitat. Peat bogs are rich in range of plants and wildlife, some of which are exclusive to these environments. They are home to thousands of insects,
including butterflies, dragonflies, and a rare raft spider. Nearly up to a thousand plants grow here, including carnivorous plants such as the great sundew as well as mosses and fungi. Birdlife is rich with waders, wildfowl, nightjar, winchat, merlin and the short-eared owl.
A Carbon Source. Peat is rich in fossil carbon which has been removed from the atmosphere by plants accumulated over many years. Drainage and damage of raised bogs results in the quick loss of the stored carbon in the form of greenhouse gases, as the peat decays. Globally, Peat stores twice as much carbon as forests.
A fuel source. Peat has been the traditional domestic fuel in Ireland since the early 1300’s when peatlands were more widespread. Traditionally peat was cut by hand, using a special turf-spade called a sleán/slane. It is a slow, labour intensive process that can allow the bog to recover partially. (Godwin 1981)
Endangered species. Many rare and unprotected species of plant and animal are found on bogs. For example, The GreenLand White-fronted Goose relies on wet bogs with pools for feeding and roosting. The invertebrates found on bogs contain many rare species. The bog moss Sphagnum imbricatum is entirely restricted to bogs and is the main peat performing species in the oceanic peatland types. Sphagnum imbricatum is becoming rarer as further sites are brought into development and bogs are being destroyed therefore killing off this bog moss.
An electricity source. Milled peat moss is used to produce electricity. Milled peat is air dried peat in the form of powder or crumbs. This began first in co.Offaly in the year 1957. Bord na Móna is responsible for peat production in Ireland. Bord na móna owns 80,000ha of peatland and harvest 4 million tonnes of milled peat per year. The main market for milled peat is the energy sector both for burning in power stations and for domestic consumption via briquettes production.
A tourist attraction. Due to huge areas of bog land in Ireland, many tourists visit the peat bogs. This is benefiting the local surrounding area economically and making people more aware of the importance of peat bogs. Peat bogs are a great place for Bird watchers as there is a huge diversity of birds. (Godwin 1981 Irish Peatland Conservation Council 1996).
Although peat bogs are very important, they do however face many threats, the main one being;
Peat extraction and human intervention, the introduction of machines for peat-cutting and milling has destroyed vast areas of bogland. Once the peat is cut, the area is drained and in turn damages the delicate ecosystem. The surface of the peat bog lowers and becomes drier and the wildlife there begins to die or leave. Humans can benefit from cutting peat economically. When humans cut too much peat at one time out of greed, they damage the bog as the peat does not have sufficient time to recover. If the peat was extracted gradually, the bog has a better and longer chance of survival. (Natural Heritage 2005 Environment Waikato Regional Council 1997-2007).
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There is a huge demand for peat from amateur gardeners. Peat actually isn’t a great source of nutrients for plants as it contains very little biological activity. Manufacturers add nutrients to boost its chemical fertility. If gardeners were to make their own compost our peatland wildlife would have a more secure future and there would be less peat extracted from our peat bogs.
Another threat faced by our peat bogs is silage run-off.
This poisonous run-off can seep into the bogs water table; the results are devastating to both animal and plant life within, killing large numbers of different species present here.
Overgrazing can have huge effects on our bogs. This can disturb wildlife and it damages the surface of the bogland. However, it has the ability to increase nutrient levels through animal urine and dung.
When there are plant pests present and living, they threaten the biodiversity. They can grow very quickly and will compete against native plants for space, light and nutrients. These pests are reducing the original and native plant diversity. (Backyard Gardener)
The Government has had a huge success in introducing laws to protect our peat lands. This was mainly prompted by the Irish Peatland Conservation Council. Our peat bogs need to be protected for many reasons.
Bogs contain a wide variety of plants and animals. Without bogs as a habitat some of these animals may become extinct. Animals and plants can live and breed there without being disturbed. (Godwin 1981).
Bogs contain a lot of water. Most of the water comes from rainfall. This is an excellent source of water when the community is in need. The peat bogs also help to filter water, leaving it fairly clean.
The carbon contained in peat bogs make up 60% of the carbon in terrestrial ecosystems. If the bog is still living, (not destroyed or damaged) then carbon is slowly emitted to the atmosphere which helps reduce carbon dioxide pollution. In return, this provides for a better and cleaner environment. (Poland. Pl 2009)
Peat bogs are a natural archive to our past. We can investigate into the changes of climate and the anthropogenic history of the area. Peat takes a long time to accumulate, so by analyzing the remains of plants preserved in peat, we can research changes which took place in the environment over the years.
To observe nature in its natural condition unchanged by human intervention becomes a very popular way of spending free time. Therefore, people travel to see this landscape and it becomes a tourist attraction in many ways. (Irish Peatland Conservation Council 1996).
What can we do to help save our peat bogs?
It’s easy and requires simple tasks such as;
Refuse to buy peat or plants grown in peat.
Stop using peat in your garden; you can start a compost heap as an alternative.
Visit a peatland reserve close to you and see the wildlife. Once you do this, you’ll never want to buy peat again.
Raise awareness of the importance of our bogs and inform the local community about our peat bogs.
If you live near one, keep an eye out and report any illegal cutting or dumping.
Recycle kitchen/garden waste to make your own compost and persuade others to do the same. Oxigen waste company have even introduced a brown bin collection day for all kitchen and garden waste that can decompose. (Irish Peatland Conservation Council 1996).
In conclusion, although we may not think about it, peat and peat bogs have a huge influence on humans and the environment and vice versa. Without bogs, a wide variety of species would be killed off, there would be no natural source of history available to historians etc., there would be a lot more carbon in the air which would result in ozone damage, some animals would be left without a habitat and finally, they are a source of water when we are in need. However, Peat lands help humans in many ways and have a huge importance in the world today.
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