The misguided theory of 'rewetting the bogs'

By Michael Newman

As everyone knows you need heat, air and moisture to grow a crop. You also need a good soil.

Long before John Innes with his various soil formulae, everyone knew that Leaimould – the decayed leaves of deciduous trees – was the perfect medium in which to grow vegetables or flowers, especially small seeds like lettuce and onions.

Up to a mere 400 years ago, there was a massive cover of trees over this island and they had produced a massive amount of leaves and each year those leaves fell on the ground and were blown all over the place.

They decomposed and became leaf mould on top of the previous year’s leaf mould, until they accumulated into ‘fen’, ‘fen peat’, ‘bottoms’, ‘blackbogs’, ‘swamps’, ‘bogs’, ‘wetlands’, and because of their nature, they grew massive crops of seed rushes, which in turn died and gave rise to more accumulations. It was all ‘bog’ soft – ’bog’ what’s the Gaelic for soft?

And these ‘wetlands’ sloped down to a little lake which was a tiny lake or pool 15,000 years earlier, and the leaves blew into that lake until it could hold no more and it ‘grew over’ and became part of the rolling landscape – it and its hundreds of comrade lakelets. A trap for unwary deer or elk.

As the bogs grew in area and depth, they went from being natural hollows to becoming natural hills or mounds, because the trees and scrub on them was inaccessible for firewood or other uses.

They were never more than three to five metres above the adjoining swamps – just that bit higher. It was the wettest part of the surface for two reasons (1) the material is/was mainly sphagnum moss/’Puck Turf’, to a depth of one or two metres; and (2) that holds water up to nine and a half times its own weight. All natural peat is 90% water anyway.

That’s your bog and that’s how it came to be.

Bord na Mona set up

In the 1940s, the government decided to set up the Peat Development Board and Bord na Mona was born. It fell to Dr Todd Andrews to set the wheels in motion. His outstanding work created thousands of jobs in Westmeath, Kildare, Meath, Offaly, Longford and neighbouring counties.

The bogs were ‘bought’ from the hundreds of thousands of owners for as little as a euro an acre (€2.50 a hectare). New access roads were constructed – railway lines (by the mile) were laid and Ireland was a mass producer of native fuel.

Power stations that followed burned (milled peat) ‘turf mowl’ colloquially, which generated steam which in turn drove massive turbines to generate electricity.

Villages were built in Rochfortbridge and Derrahawn and several more places to house the families of workers who could have been cycling 10 miles out and back each day.

Many of those workers became fitters, skilled mechanics, electricians as well as learning other valuable skills. There were permanent, pensionable jobs too for graduate engineers.

All these people worked hard and were proud of their independence. They did not have to take the emigrant trail, and paid their rates and taxes and their pension funds or superannuation and ‘bought out’ their company houses.

It was not their business to know that one day the peat might be all gone and only a wasteland left or to wonder what would become of those massive wilderness areas.

The company title exempted it from any responsibility to do other than develop peat. It owned the land that lay under the bogs and when one farmer would only ‘sell’ to the board if he could have his land back when the peat was all gone.

It went to the high court, where Mr Justice Keane found in favour of the farmer.

Tenacity is the only kind word I can think of to describe what ‘authorities’ do to a citizen. It (Bord na Mona) appealed the case to the Supreme Court and won, and that fixed Mr Farmer!

As a semi-state company, it was not liable for tax – actually it got several leg-ups from the state when there was a bad crop of turf or a fall in finances.

In the event of having a million or two to spare, it could ‘create’ one or two new specialised (or maybe 200) jobs – with the same or similar status as the general Civil Service and wasn’t all that great!

Except! Whose job is it to take out from the Shannon (An Sean Abhain “The Old River”) the millions of tonnes of peat sitting on the river bed to a depth of up to three metres? This is in the form of small islands in places, there is so much of it.

Is that why there is so much flooding on the Shannon and its tributaries, the Camlin, the Suck?

Remember Aesop’s fable about the bird and the jar with the sup of water on the bottom which he couldn’t reach? It kept dropping pebbles into the jar until it brought up the water within reach.

Look across the bridge in Athlone and you will see water, lots of it, but it is brown in colour – bog water, stained by the bogs – ‘unmindful of how the dark bog water stains’.

And... ‘The Green Man on the Bike’ has all the answers!

“Re-wet the bogs” - and his mantra is it taken up in chorus by his co-conspirators. All bogs are 90% or higher content of water. Even milk is ‘only’ 87.5 per cent water – try adding water to a container of milk and it will overflow.

The water on a bog gets away by various little cuts and shucks until it reaches the main outfall and on to the Brosna, the Boyne and the sea.

Massive umbrella

The OPW widened and deepened those waterways and many other rivers so that there was a fall for drainage of the swamps, the bottoms, the moors. By the time of land project people in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, thousands of hectares became the richest and most productive land on the island.

If the refined thoughts of the clown on the bike go this way – (like Trump) a wall will be built – near Trim on the Boyne and almost overnight the waters will rise up to Tyrrellspass up to Ballynacargy on the Inny and everywhere else. That’s what ‘re-wetting the bogs’, as proposed, will mean.

Actually the bogs will not be a spoonful wetter – or drier (if nothing is done) for two reasons: (1) already stated – they are 90% water already; and (2) because of what is called ‘The Cohesion Principle’, and despite what one of ‘our leading scientists’ has stated, there is no such thing in a bog as a water table – in land yes, a bog, no!

The raised bogs of the midlands do not absorb water during heavy rain – they act like a massive umbrella!

The bog-wetters are conveniently ignoring the 200,000 hectares of cutaway, and going to re-wet the uncut remaining high bogs, which as I explained, is the same as trying to add water to a full bucket of milk.

Is this a convenient diversion? A deliberate deception?

Those 200,000 hectares are worth, on the open market, €2 billion. Bord na Mona owns them and they have the potential to be the biggest and best single farm in Europe!

The farmer who went to court knew that 30 years ago and so did Judge Keane, and so does every farmer on the island today.

Bord na Mona enjoyed the ‘protection’ of the Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) Act of the mid-1800s and had all the power! This land, for land it is, would grow enough sugar and beet and leave us independent of sugar imports and all its byproducts – like molasses for silage making, or treacle.

Each hectare could yield 16 tonnes of refined sugar. We did it before!

The ready-made factory is at Lanesboro. The planting harvesting machinery is all over the place and the best leaves with their photosynthesis would take out all the carbon!

Mr Mussolini, Il Duce, in 1937/8 had the Pontine marshes drained and destroyed for ever. They were the Italian home of the mosquito and the disease of malaria. It is now rich Italian farmland growing mainly fruit, in abundance.

Maybe one of our Irish MEPs would propose to the European Parliament that those marshes be restored. And when he or she is at it, why not restore the polders of the Netherlands and Belgium, why not?! And let the Rhine and the Meuse and the Scheldt back to nature, indeed, why not?!

Holland (De Nederlanden) is just the size of our province of Munster and exports food to the world. Belgium is about the same size. Luxembourg, the size of County Cork, with three big brothers set up the EU.

It’s time we started using our country wisely. With all we have going for us, we can grow trees twice as fast as Britain and 10 times as fast as Scandinavia, because of our climate and God’s central heating system, the Gulf Stream.

To conclude (for now) the amount (the massive amount) of land at the disposal of Bord na Mona is so vast that it obviously cannot figure what it might be used for. So a few years ago it carried out an experiment and dug holes here and there in the desert (the cutaway bogs). It found enough gravel and sand to supply us forever! They even found plenty of silica sand – Ireland’s Silicon Valley.

And hey presto: it is into waste disposal by landfill. Well it has the land and it is state owned and you would have to wait 30 years for a crop of timber to be harvested.

And a parting shot to ‘The Boy on the Bike’: peat is organic, it is not fossil. Coal and oil are fossil. Bord na Mona is the principal seller of coal in Ireland. Look at the bag. There was always more money in dealing than in producing, and no risk, so I suppose Bord na Mona, when it ceases to produce garden horticultural peat, will import it instead from Finland, and of course sell it at a profit.

Poor Dr Andrews would be angry that he fathered such a bold unpatriotic child.

• Michael Newman from Kilbeggan worked with the Dept of Agriculture for 40 years, mainly dealing with land drainage, the land project and later the Farm Improvement Scheme. Same thing different name. He also took a class of Leaving Certificate students or Agricultural Science on Saturdays in St Mary’s College, Mullingar.