Complex Cultural Realities: A Railway Sparks Restoration

Paddy Woodworth

A field trip to a raised bog that expands on many of the issues raised in Chapter 13, “Making the Black Dessrts Bloom,” of Our Once and Future Planet.


The local community played a remarkable part in the restoration of another bog, which was written off as insignificant by professional ecologists, until angry citizen protests against its proposed exploitation by Bord na Móna made them sit up and take notice.

“This was a case,” Jim Ryan of the NPWS cheerfully concedes, “where local pressure made an expert change his mind.”

Ryan’s survey of potential bog SACs in the 1990s had passed over Killamuck Bog in County Laois, partly because it was bisected by a 19th century railway line that had radically altered its hydrology. Besides, much of the bog was cutover, and Bord na Móna had put in 66 km of drains on the dome—the ‘high bog’—after buying it in 1987. By the time Ryan examined it, peat-formation had almost totally ceased.

By a curious irony, which underlines the complex cultural, as well as biological, realities behind restoration, you could say that it was a love for that same railway line, among other factors, that sparked off the campaign to restore the bog, but which also limits that restoration. Laying a track across raised bog had been a challenge to the stalwart Victorian engineers of Ireland’s early railways. Though the actual tracks are long gone, their achievement remains a source of local pride to older people, who remember travelling on them. But there was also an impact that the engineers could never have predicted. It is thought that they pre-empted collapse by excavating a channel through the peat, and packing it with limestone. The lime lowered the acidic structure of the adjacent soil. When the line was closed and the tracks were removed in 1962, the lime helped pioneer trees and woodland flowers to flourish along its margins. It became a favoured walking and horse-riding trail for the townspeople of Abbeyleix, which is just a quarter hour’s stroll from the bog.

Abbeyleix is officially designated as a ‘heritage town’ for its fine architecture. It owes its style to the local Anglo-Irish landlord family, the de Vescis. In the late 18th century, they moved their tenants en masse from an unhealthy marshy site and rehoused them in a model settlement. The buildings around the main street remain in harmony with the stately design of their great house and estate close by. So the sense of civic pride here runs exceptionally long and deep.

But while the locals loved the railway trail, most of them had no deep attachment to the bog itself. Turbary rights had been leased by the de Vescis, but never granted outright, to estate workers and their families. They had all ceased to harvest turf by the 1960s, and in any case the heavily wooded demesne and its environs provided an easy, if not always precisely legal, alternative supply of domestic fuel.

So no one had objected when Bord na Móna bought the bog from the de Vescis in 1987, and quickly and quietly drained the high bog. The board made no effort to extract peat for the next 13 years, but in the meantime concern about the environment in general, and bogs in particular, had moved into mainstream public debate. In 2000, the local heritage committee was discussing the development of a formalised walking trail along the railway line with the board, and thought discussions were going well. There was an understanding that there would be no changes on the bog without consultation. Then, over a single weekend, extraction machinery was moved onto the bog without any warning, and it was learned that turf-cutting was due to start on the following Monday morning.

When board workers arrived to start into the bog, they found their way blocked by 50 angry citizens, who felt betrayed by the breach of their understanding. What was more, one of them, Gary O’Keefe, had driven a crane between the machinery and the high bog, and lowered a 90-foot boom that completely obstructed their access. “We thought it would be easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission,” Gary says today. He is a successful businessman who fitted effortlessly, in fact with obvious relish, into the long Irish tradition of resistance and civil disobedience. The enemy was not now the British and their landlords—in fact the de Vescis had been generally well liked in the area—but a company widely regarded as one of the icons of the independent Irish state.

The motivations of the protesters varied, according to O’Keefe, who now chairs the management committee for the bog, and his colleague Chris Uys, whom I met in December 2010. With shifting attitudes to the environment, some already wanted the bog preserved for its own sake. Others were concerned about the preservation of the railway and other sites, for archaeological, heritage and recreational reasons. Some were afraid that Bord na Móna, which was also involved in landfill waste disposal at this time, would put a polluting dump in their backyard. Even turf-extraction would have probably ruined the railway trail. Many were simply angered by what they saw as high-handed behaviour, and wanted the board to be accountable for its actions.

Reflecting on this plurality of motives, O’Keefe says: “Not everyone is that enamoured with nature for its own sake. That is not a terrible fact; it is just a fact.” Restoration for biodiversity emerged as the main aim of Abbeyleix Residents for Environmental Action (AREA) over the next few years, but he insists that recreational, educational and even business uses of the bog must also be facilitated as final plans for the restoration are crystalising.

After a tense stand-off, national media coverage helped persuade Bord na Móna to go into negotiation with a community committee, which had attracted several hundred people to public meetings in a town of 2000. The board played a lot of hardball over the next eight years, finally taking Laois County Council and An Bord Pleanála [the Irish Planning Board] to court in an attempt to resist demands that it should seek formal planning permission before it began extraction on the bog.

Meanwhile, AREA followed a subtle strategy. There remained a tacit commitment to renew direct action if necessary, but they generally eschewed the ‘eco-warrior’ tactics that coloured several other Irish environmental controversies in this period. They also refused to be drawn into adversarial legal disputes with the board, or to become a vehicle for political parties. They made individual complaints to the European Commission, but they also persuaded the board to do a ‘voluntary’ environmental impact survey on its plans for the bog.

Predictably, the board’s internal survey showed that damage to the bog was already ‘irreversible,’ but private surveys commissioned by AREA suggested it had far more biodiversity value than previously realised. However, even the IPCC warned them that they were most unlikely to win in such a David-and-Goliath contest with the board.

The situation remained stalemated until June 2008, when AREA seized on an unrelated upcoming visit by the new Green Party Environment Minister, John Gormley, to republicise their campaign. And in fact, as Catherine Farrell’s responsibilities in Bord na Mona had expanded, a shift in company thinking was already under way. This was reflected in the ‘New Contract with Nature’ commitment in preparation with the new CEO, Gabriel D’Arcy. It promised to “consider all peatlands from a triple bottom line accounting perspective. In this regard we will account for the value attached to profit, people and the planet.” This commitment would find full expression in the board’s impressive 2010 Biodiversity Action Plan.

“I went to look at the bog in January 2008,” says Farrell, “and thought it was worth saving. The peat production side of Bord na Mona didn't want to go into it. It was too costly and after all that had happened—they were reluctant to even think about it.”

“The community got re-mobilised at the same time, and we all met up. We got Jim Ryan on the case, found the money and just did it! Pressure from Gormley might have played a role, as he was aware that other active raised bogs were being lost.… it was the right time for the project.”

The AREA committee showed its maturity by warmly embracing collaboration with a company they had been at loggerheads with for eight years, and found a very willing counterpart in Farrell. “We had always told them that we had no wish to ‘beat’ them, to humiliate them in any way. We are delighted that we can work with them from now on to restore the bog,” says Chris Uys, the Namibian immigrant who has played a key role in the project from the outset.

The NPWS was called back into the picture, a new ecological survey was commissioned, and some rare species, like the marsh fritillary butterfly and an endangered snail, were found. More importantly in the long term, the bog ecosystem itself scored quite highly on the EU Habitats Directive scale, with three of the habitats recommended for preservation and restoration still present, if sometimes precariously so. Only one per cent of the dome was still actively peat-forming, but judicious drain blocking could probably significantly improve that figure. The extensive degraded cutover bog, which in Ryan’s words “sits properly in its landscape,” also qualified as capable of restoration. A third significant habitat was found among the hummocks that form the micro-topography of the high bog, small depressions rich in sedges and sundews.

For Jim Ryan, however, the most remarkable feature, however, was the existence of a remnant ‘lagg.’ This is the fen zone that should border a raised bog, but which has been partially or totally destroyed on almost every Irish example, including Clara. Killamuck’s lagg now takes the form of a bog woodland, and though its sphagnum cover and variety is too poor for it qualify as an EU Annex I habitat of its type, it still plays a vital role in maintaining the hydrology of the bog.

A management plan was drawn up, and the drains on the dome were blocked with no less than 3,500 dams over a few weeks in 2009, an operation funded by Bord na Móna and NPWS. In a typical restoration reversal, a family long contracted to drain bogs for the board was now contracted to block them.

Following the drain blocking, there was a celebratory atmosphere at an Irish Peat Society seminar held in Abbeyleix the following October, to mark the new phase in the life of the bog. There were speakers from the IPCC, Bord na Móna, the NPWS, Laois County Council and of course the local community, all now represented on a new management committee.

Amenity and Restoration: Negotiating Tensions

There was some interesting discussion on the role of the old railway line. Ryan pointed out that its embankment acts as a barrier to the natural flows of water on the bog, and therefore pre-empted attempts to restore anything close to the bog’s original hydrology. On the other hand, some members of the community voiced fears that, with the drains blocked, their beloved walking trail might now be subject to flooding. Catherine O’Connell of the IPCC said that flooding should be facilitated, “if the water wants to be there,” and that a bridge should be built to facilitate walkers if necessary. But no-one suggested that the path should be excavated and removed to assist a ‘full’ restoration of the raised bog ecosystem. Not only would such a fundamentalist move probably cause as much ecological damage at this stage as the railway ever had, but it would also severely damage local support for the project, and deprive it of one of its most cherished labels—“the only bog in Ireland with full wheelchair access.” It was generally agreed that some tension between the community’s amenity use of the bog, and aspirations towards the fullest feasible ecological restoration, was probably inevitable—but also negotiable.

A field trip to Killamuck followed. The rich flora along the walking trail included a bird cherry, a handsome tree with a metallic gleam to its bark. It is quite rare in this part of Ireland, and this is the only individual known in this county. Moving out to the high bog, we found that the peat, which had been “bone dry last year” according to Catherine Farrell, was now well wetted. Sphagnum was spreading along the blocked drains, though not as fast as some would have hoped. “Let’s leave it be for another year,” said Farrell, “ and see what comes in of its own accord.” Her namesake, Catherine O’Connell from the IPCC, was more in favour of assisted propagation.

Everyone was concerned about the spread of lodgepole pine, and rhododendron, on the dome. Not chronic yet, but encroaching, steadily. Farrell hoped the rapidly rewetting peat would kill them. Michael Delaney of Coillte, who has much experience in these matters, was sceptical, and predicted that manual removal would be necessary. Several local people thought this task could provide a good focus for engaging more volunteers from the community in the project.

How much of the high bog would revert an active peat-forming condition, someone asked Ryan.

“Fifteen per cent perhaps,” he said, “but there are many unknowns. To have got it so much wetter so quickly is a massive victory. At a record low restoration cost of €900 per hectare, I can’t see a downside to this.”

From a very cautious scientist, this is quite an endorsement. It was echoed by the two Catherines:

“Never forget how important the work you are doing here is,” O’Connell told members of the local community.

“We have the headquarters of this ecosystem type in the world,” said Farrell. “We should cherish it.”

But do we? And can we?

The University of Chicago Press
1427 E. 60th Street • Chicago, IL 60637 USA
Voice: 773.702.7700 • Fax: 773.702.9756
The University of Chicago Press Home