Irish turf farming and peat bogs
On an expansive windy plain in the west of Ireland, Joe is preparing for a cold winter. It’s what he’s done every year for decades.
It’s only June but now is the best time to harvest the natural energy that’s going to keep his family warm when the weather turns sour.
The peat bogs of Ireland stretch out for kilometres and have a unique history to this land that stretches longer than anyone can remember.
They’re slightly springy as you walk on the grass on the top and I’m pretty sure you would sink down into the mud if you didn’t watch carefully where you walk. I slip a little as I slowly make my way across the bog and climb up to where Joe is working.
He is laying out strips of peat – cut from the ground – to dry. This is the traditional way of doing things, the way it has been done for hundreds of years. But a lot has changed in that time.
These bogs have always been a rich source of fuel. The peat inside them, created over many years from decayed vegetation, burns well in a fire but doesn’t create much smoke.
It’s perfect for a stove or a fireplace in a small house. And, best of all, it’s already on people’s land and it’s free.
But this access to cheap and easy fuel has created problems over the years because it’s been overharvested.
Recently, strict conditions have been put in place and now industrial farming of the bogs is very limited.
Joe is able to still go and take the peat from his land but many other farmers have been banned because they live in more environmentally-sensitive areas. And even Joe can only take it for personal use – he’s no longer allowed to make a profit by selling it to other people.
He’s a friendly man, Joe, who doesn’t mind a stranger just wandering onto his land to ask what he’s doing. I get the feeling I’m not the first.
He points to the edge of the raised area we’re on, about a metre high, and explains that a machine was used to cut off a slice about 30 centimetres wide. In that slice was the peat that he’s now putting out to dry.
It will be enough for a whole year.
Before I have a chance to do any maths in my head, Joe points to a pole about three metres away and tells me that’s how much they’ve used in the past ten years.
It doesn’t seem like much at all and I find it hard to understand why there are such strict bans on peat harvesting until I remember that this is just for one house.
Joe is a little hard to understand. He’s got a thick Irish accent that is made even less smooth by his rural upbringing. But it’s got the usual lyrical trills that make listening to it a pleasure.
It seems I’m a bit hard to understand too because Joe is confused about why I don’t know more about peat. He asks me, perplexed, what we use for heating in Sydney.
Well… where do I start to answer that one…