“To love a swamp … is to love what is muted and marginal, what exists in the shadows, what shoulders its way out of mud and scurries along the damp edges of what is most commonly praised. And sometimes its invisibility is a blessing. Swamps and bogs are places of transition and wild growth, breeding grounds, experimental labs where organisms and ideas have the luxury of being out of the spotlight…” Barbara Hurd
Bogs incite a range of emotions for Irish people, both positive and negative. The aim of this blog is to celebrate these often ignored and under-rated landscapes, and to discover why we should appreciate them as magnificent natural resources. My love of wild places comes from childhood escapades to rivers, forests and mountains but my love of bogs began in earnest when I started visiting Girley Bog, near my hometown of Kells some years ago. A raised bog set within the pastoral agricultural land of County Meath, its wildness and isolation contrasts with the surrounding lush green fields and countryside. Its name comes from the Irish word “greallach”, meaning a marshy or muddy plain.
Girley Bog is beautiful in all seasons, with Spring bringing frogs out of the mud to congregate for mating and Autumn bringing rich shades of orange and rust to rival any tree’s display of leaf colour. These changes in colour are a result of the recycling of nutrients that takes place in Winter as bog plants store nitrogen in their roots for the following year. Thus even in the Winter months, bogs are landscapes of intense colour. The bright straw yellow of Purple Moorgrass on the cutover bog is a cheering sight when other vistas are grey and colourless. But Summer is the season of splendour on Ireland’s bogs and Girley is no exception. The insect-eating Sundew reappears, Bog Asphodel cloaks the surface of the bog in yellow stars and the bog hums with the sound of a myriad of insects, butterflies and dragonflies. Wild raspberries, strawberries and bilberries appear for foraging and orchids line the old bog roads.“Out on this gently domed mass of bog, rising 10 feet higher than the cutover, I had the sensation of being at sea, afloat on the back of a great grey wave under ecstatic lark song.” Christopher Sommerville
Considered wastelands for many years, only useful for cutting turf or growing conifers on, appreciation of bogs has grown with research and understanding of the essential ecosystem services they provide. Research has shown that Scotland’s bogs store 1.6 million tons of carbon, ten times more than all the UK’s trees put together*. These waterlogged habitats support unique communities of plant and animal life and represent a uniquely Irish landscape, a fragile ecosystem as irreplaceable as the Amazon rainforest. Girley Bog may not have the exotic plants, animals or diversity of life found in a tropical jungle. It may not even be the most beautiful area of bogland in Ireland, but it is a wilderness close to where I live, and thus has great value to me and the many people who have come to appreciate it.
Evidently Girley Bog is not a true wilderness if such a concept even exists anymore. The bog roads, cleared forestry, cut-over bog and occasional sofas dumped there all attest to the impact of humans on the site! However, it does give “the feeling of isolation in nature” which the conservationist Aldo Leopold described, in 1953, as having “a scarcity-value that is very high to some persons as attested by the wilderness controversy.” This wilderness controversy I will discuss another day, as it goes to the heart of a paradox in nature conservation – our ability to cherish depends on our seeing and visiting these wild places, yet if enough people see and visit them, they lose their wildness, as roads, visitor centres and other infrastructure is built to accommodate growing numbers of visitors.
“Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land” Aldo Leopold*
It looks like being an exciting year for Girley bog, with the recent purchase of land by the Native Woodland Trust and the Irish Peatland Conservation Council. The bog is also the site of a Coillte EU Life Project, demonstrating best practice in Raised Bog Conservation and last year a hydrological study was carried out with funding from Action for Biodiversity, to determine future conservation of the site. There is a 6 km National Looped Walk around the edge of the bog which gives the opportunity of enjoying the bog without damaging its delicate surface. For more on the history and current state of conservation of Girley Bog, read the Irish Peatland Conservation Council page on Girley Bog.
Next Post: Plant of the Month – Sphagnum moss!
*Leopold, A, A Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, 1949.