EPA-funded research identifies the increasingly important role of Irish peatlands for both climate change and for biodiversity

Date released: Oct 07 2011

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has today released a major research report which provides the first comprehensive assessment of peatlands (bogs and fens) for Ireland.  The report, Bogland: Sustainable management of Peatlands in Ireland, clearly identifies the vital role that peatlands play in key areas such as climate change and biodiversity.  It concludes by recognising the need for increased protection of this valuable resource and makes recommendations for the development of a national peatland strategy.

Laura Burke, EPA Director of Research said:

"The EPA welcomes the completion of this very extensive national study on peatlands which received significant funding under the EPA STRIVE Research programme.  It will provide useful guidance to policymakers highlighting as it does the important relationship that exists between carbon sequestration, biodiversity and this historical resource.”

The report highlights that the most important function of peatlands in this century is that of a carbon store and sink.  The study estimates that Irish peatlands likely contain more than 75 per cent of the soil organic carbon in Ireland.   An intact or undamaged peatland can actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store the carbon within the peat body.  This important function is reversed (i.e. there is a net release of carbon) when the peatland is damaged. Central to this process is the requirement to keep these peatlands wet.

Peatlands also provide habitats for unique and specialist flora and fauna. The study demonstrates that peatlands support unusual and rare species that are exceptionally adapted to their environment.  In this study two species new to Ireland were identified, a mite (Limnozetes amnicus) and a caddis fly (Erotesis baltica), and another species of mite is possibly new to science. These discoveries show how diverse, and indeed poorly understood, Irish peatlands really are.

Dr Florence Renou-Wilson, a UCD biologist and the lead researcher on the project, said,

“The objective of the Project was to develop strategies for the sustainable future management of peatlands in Ireland which currently cover one fifth of the national land area. As is the case in Western Europe, Irish peatlands have been extensively modified by humans, particularly in the last half century.  It is only in more recent times that we have begun to understand the critical role peatlands play, for example, in the mechanics of climate change. Carbon management could be a key driver for the sustainable management of peatlands.”

The project involved government representatives, non-government and specific bodies as well as other stakeholders.  In addition to recognising that peatlands form our oldest natural heritage and some of our most unique landscapes, such as Slieve Bloom, Connemara and the Ox Mountains, we now know that they are also essential to nature’s carbon balance. The report illustrates the global significance of this national resource and focuses on bridging the gap between scientific priorities and the practical management of peatlands in Ireland, recommending the development of a national peatland strategy.

The research report recommends that natural peatland sites that have been designated for conservation should be managed with a view to increasing the total area of near-intact peatland and preserving these endangered habitats. Strict protection of these sites is also critical for the maintenance of their carbon storage and sequestration capacity. For other peatlands, management is needed to control carbon loss and maintain disturbance at an acceptable level. For example, managed grazing and controlled turf cutting could represent such management options on blanket bogs – albeit under strict surveillance.

Two reports are available: the full report Bogland: Sustainable management of Peatlands in Ireland (STRIVE Report no. 75) and the more detailed Sustainable Management of Peatlands in Ireland PROTOCOL DOCUMENT (STRIVE Report No. 76).

Note to Editor:
Peatlands Council: The recently established Peatlands Council is tasked with responding in a strategic way to the requirements of the EU Habitat’s Directive which require Ireland to protect and conserve important peatland habitats.  This report is particularly timely given the emergence of the Peatlands Council in recent months.  The report will provide very useful information and context for the work of the Peatlands Council.