Conserving peatland heritages

A version of this blog post also appears on the Bogs in Transition blog on the Community Wetlands Forum website as part of Heritage Week 2022.

“Heritage has always been with us and has always been produced by people according to their contemporary concerns and experiences” (David Harvey)

Broadly speaking, heritage is about what society ‘chooses’ to inherit and pass on to the next generation. There are often differing, even conflicting views of heritage. On the one hand, it can be viewed as a way for communities to care for their culture and landscape, providing a sense of identity and belonging. On the other, it can be seen as a potential source of conflict, an elitist enterprise or a commercial use of the past in the form of the heritage ‘industry’. I have been interested in the heritage of peatlands for some time now and below I share some heritage-related posters from previous research projects that look at peatland heritage past and present. I am also interested in the idea of heritage as a process which is shaped by changing attitudes and societal contexts over time. This means that conserving heritage means constantly renegotiating what constitutes heritage, and such negotiations are often political, as is currently playing out in Ireland as we try to let go of past activities like turf cutting.

UNESCO Cultural Heritage Classification

Alongside the politics, scientific significance and expert opinion also influence what is chosen as heritage. Although progress is being made, there is still a tendency to separate management of cultural heritage from management of natural heritage. In reality, the management of peatlands involves many intertwined social and ecological considerations that should be managed holistically. Heritage is linked to the past but also to the present and future as it represents some sort of inheritance (tangible or intangible) that is passed down to current and future generations. The question of what and whose heritage is conserved, and how past stories are told is fundamental. Heritage choices reflect our current values and influence what is passed on to future generations, and in turn, chosen heritage receives investment and resources for its conservation. Today’s peatland communities are choosing to change the story of Ireland’s peatlands to ensure their living heritage is passed on.

Joint Programme between UNESCO and the CBD Secretariat to deepen awareness of the links between cultural and biological diversity

In terms of holistic management of landscapes, the idea of biocultural diversity (the variety of the world’s natural and cultural systems) highlights how the interweaving of nature and culture can have a positive effect on biodiversity. Language diversity hotspots are frequently found to correlate with species diversity hotspots. However, natural and cultural heritage are frequently managed in silos rather than together which can lead to conflict. One solution for peatland sites would be to create ‘integrated’ management plans that address both natural and cultural heritage objectives, and involve local communities to bring together different disciplines and types of knowledge. Such plans could pave the way for more joined-up thinking, deliberation, and action for peatlands, bringing together the state and civil society, and potentially draw investment and funding opportunities.  As noted in an EU report on natural and cultural heritage, “this integrated approach is especially important where there is a complex land ownership pattern, for example, where the land is not publically owned and/or where it is used for other economic activities, such as agriculture or forestry or water management”. This sums up many of the land ownership issues relating to conserving peatland heritages.

In Ireland, the Community Wetlands Forum provides an example of an organisation that values the bio-cultural nature of peatland landscapes and their entangled natural and cultural heritages (as outlined in this report on The Role of Culture in Climate Resilient Development). The Forum emphasises the ways in which peatlands continue to provide value for communities, through engaging in conservation activities, as well as ‘through art, eco-social activities, books, photography exhibitions, blogs and heritage projects that draw attention to the beauty and biodiversity of bogs, alongside important messages of the value of peatlands for climate resilience’.

Have a listen to this interesting podcast on ‘The Hurting Heritage of Bogs: Waste and Enclosure, part of the Critical Ecologies class on the MA in Geography and Spatial Justice in NUI Maynooth.

The posters below feature the outcomes of historical, oral history, and heritage interpretation research carried out in 2015 during my time in UCD studying World Heritage Management & Conservation.

  1. Historical perspectives on peatland management and conservation

“At no very distant period, all traces of their very existence will have disappeared” (Cromwell, 1820)

This research poster traces the history of peatland management in Ireland, using historic maps and other archival sources to illustrate changing perceptions of the value and use of peatlands. The time period in this case study begins in the 1600s, when historic peatland management practices such as drainage, reclamation, grazing, burning, and turf-cutting were commonplace, to current management for conservation, local communities, and maintenance of ecosystem services.

2. Girley Bog Oral History Project

“It’s a place of great solitude, like the early Christians, you find a solitude in it. You can go walking and observe all the changes that take place during the year(Usher, 2015)

This project was carried out in 2015 and consisted of interviews with a small sample of community members living in and around Girley Bog, a raised bog Natural Heritage Area near Kells, Co. Meath. These oral history interviews elicited valuable information on the cultural heritage and social history of the bog. If you would like to contribute photos, memories, or stories of  Girley Bog, please contact me through this form. The poster below displays some of the findings.

3. Interpreting the heritage of Irish peatlands

“So we get the message across that the bog is conserved for the people of Ireland, for everybody, its free for anyone to go up and have a walk around and enjoy it. That is a very important message to get across and then it becomes the responsibility of everybody to save it” (Kelly, 2015).

This research poster examines informal environmental interpretation programmes at two peatland sites in Ireland with the aim of providing information on effective strategies for delivery of such programmes at similar locations. The focus is on informal interpretation, which reaches people outside the formal education system, for example families with children, tourists and local communities.  This type of interpretation includes guided walks, workshops for adults and children, conservation activities, and wildlife-themed talks.

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