Menu Close

Looking to the future of Irish bogs with Dr Florence Renou-Wilson


Dr Florence Renou-Wilson
UCD School of Biology and Environmental Science
UCD Profile

Rewetting peatlands, energy transitions, Bord na Móna’s Peatland Climate Action Scheme, bogslides & wind farms with Dr Florence Renou Wilson, School of Biology & Environmental Science.

Q: Tell us about how you started on your research journey

 A: Well, how far do you want to go back? One important influence is that I grew up on a self-sufficient farm in France. My grandfather participated in experimental field trials after the second world war. At the time, with the baby boom, the country needed a lot of milk. The equivalent of Teagasc in France, called INRA, were keen to find new ways to produce more grass for cows by managing swards of fescue. We had a very small farm, only nineteen hectares, but my grandfather was very keen to help despite the neighbours’ negative comments. My grandparents did these mini field trials: at the time nothing was computerised, so my grandmother recorded everything on little cards tucked into a spinning wheel on the wall of the dairy parlour, showing each cow with a pin where she was in her cycle, how much she grazed that day, how much milk she produced.

This is where I come from and got my love of science, I guess. But I definitely didn’t want to do pure science, I wanted to do something that would be transferable to the farmers and find solutions. So, I did an Agricultural degree. I would still promote an Ag degree as a very good general degree, when you want to do something science-y but very applicable and hands-on. I did this in France and after my five years there, I came to UCD to do my masters in Environmental Resource Management and got employed as a research assistant on a peatland project, then did my PhD on the afforestation of industrial cutaway peatlands which touched not only on silvicultural experiments but water quality issues as well. From then onwards, I received funding from various agencies to keep investigating peatlands at the cross-road between ecology, forestry, agriculture, climate change and sustainable management. 

Q: How did you discover your interest in peatlands?

A: I first came to UCD twenty five years ago through the Erasmus scheme and I took the option to study peatlands with John Feehan. As you know, John hails from County Offaly. He was the first person to teach me about peatlands. I hadn’t seen a peatland in my life, and I became fascinated. John’s book The Bogs of Ireland was really an eye opener. It’s very multidisciplinary. John is an amazing character; he is a geologist and botanist by training but he knows so much about every aspect of the environment and, in particular, he knows how to transfer that knowledge to people. That really was my inspiration because peatlands need to be studied from a multi-disciplinary perspective. This is hard when you’re a young scientist, because you want to say, for example,  I’m a chemist, I’m a geneticist or whatever, but when it comes to peatlands, you’re a peatland scientist. This means you do a bit of soil science, a bit of botany, a bit of water quality, a bit of greenhouse gas measurements – you do a bit of everything. You’re really an ecosystem scientist.

When I finished my masters in 1998, I joined Professor Ted Farrell’s Forest Ecosystem Research Group, which was working with Bord na Móna on the after use of cutaway bogs. That was my first peatlands job and I haven’t left. We worked really well in collaboration with Bord na Móna. Back then, there was a lot of studies as they already knew that they had to think of a post-extraction time; but it was more on the productive side of things; how can we use cutaway peatlands (grassland, forestry etc)? However, people were starting to ask what could be done with the bigger issues; greenhouse gas emissions, mitigate water pollution and so on, and my PhD was all about that, combining productive use that did not harm the environment.  It was hard to do a PhD and work as a project manager at the same time but it was very good training. This was when everyone was jumping on the back of Celtic Tiger Ireland but the word ‘sustainability’ was starting to be heard more, especially after Rio+10 conference (10 years after the 1992 Earth Summit), Ireland hadn’t done anything tangible about sustainability at that point and the EPA were keen to start a project. We were successful in getting funding for the first flagship EPA sustainability project, which was called BOGLAND: Sustainable Management of Irish Peatlands. The arc of Irish peatland policy traces back to this project.

Dr Florence Renou-Wilson surveying habitats and peat depth in the Ciulcagh mountains, County Fermanagh

Q: Tell us a bit about why peatlands are so important

At the turn of the 21st century, peatlands, which so far were mostly seen as wasted land, were brought to the fore all over the world because of climate change. They have been highlighted as the low hanging fruit of climate change mitigation. It is a very simple equation. If you have carbon locked up in a bog for so many millennia, if that starts to degrade – when you drain it – it releases that carbon back to the atmosphere. So, the more drained peatlands that a country has, the more likely it was contributing to climate change. One hectare of drained bog emits approximately six tonnes of CO2 every year. So that is the equivalent of six cars driving around that hectare all year, all the time.  All you need to do is rewet the peatland and it reduces the emission both to the air but also some of the carbon is lost to the drainage water. The first thing we need to be very clear about peatland rewetting is that it is all about stopping/reducing emissions, and this is the first step in mitigating climate change. It is like putting the lid on a very large source, which is important in Ireland because unfortunately most of our bogs are degraded. We’re not talking about sequestration yet, but the first step is to make the peat soil wet if we do not want that carbon to go back to the atmosphere. You do that by managing the water table in the bog.

Countries with substantial amounts of peatlands have realised that this is really a no brainer and you have to rewet your organic soils. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced a special Wetlands Supplement, for which I was a lead author. This was to help countries to understand that if you have peat soils and if they are drained you’re going to have X amount of emissions per year per hectare (this amount differs depending on the land use and the type of peat) for as long as there is peat, and if you decide that they should be wet, on the other hand, you save all these emissions.  You can use what they call default Tier 1 emission factors, but we really want to move Ireland to country level Tier 2 emission factors because Ireland has a unique climate and types of peatlands. We are starting to get a really good dataset now from Ireland with increasing number of scientists measuring this, as well as other benefits (water quality, for example, also called ‘blue carbon’).

Last month, Ireland elected to report its drained and rewetted peatlands to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, so we have no choice now. There is a lot of work to do, so I hope the government will follow up on the science, on top of giving money to Bord na Móna.  It is important to remember that Bord na Móna cutaways are only 6% of all our peatlands, so we have 94% of peatlands that need to be adequately managed, reported and monitored. We have to look at the status of those peatlands, whether they are drained or not, how can they be rewetted. We have a national peatland strategy but there is a lot of work to do.

Q: Can you describe how peatland science evolved over the last few decades?

A: There were some scientists in UCD that have studied peatlands from a pure science perspective, such as the botanist Professor G. Doyle. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a group of researchers from the Netherlands (including Prof. Matthijs Schouten) that were helping the Irish Peatland Conservation Council (IPCC) to conserve the few raised bogs that were still intact in the country. This was very much all about conservation as the 1992 Habitats Directive (which came into force in Ireland in 1994) was not fully implemented (recall the 10 years+ derogation to cut turf on protected bogs and eventually the de-designation of NHAs because they were all but a shadow of the former bogs). But while peatland form an iconic landscape of Ireland, a refugium for rare species, Irish people have been closely connected to peatlands for centuries. John Feehan had this multidisciplinary approach that I think was necessary. Ireland has such a large peatland cover, that to approach it purely from a scientific perspective, solely to protect it, was never going to be possible in the long term. Of course, some of the peatlands have to be protected; this took a long time and was our first priority. But we needed to understand how to manage peatlands beyond that. Peatlands were being utilised for grazing, for forestry, for peat extraction. We had to look at how we could move this to more sustainable management.

At that time, peatlands were mainly understood in terms of provisioning services (providing fuel or land for food). But this shifted towards thinking about other values and services that peatlands provide. This shift in thinking was on foot of the Ramsar Convention; the first global convention that was specifically for wetlands. It was our first biocentric legislation (and led on to the Birds and Habitats Directives), our sole instrument to protect nature for nature itself and that was important. But as well as protecting what needed to be protected before we lost everything, we also needed to develop management for the lands that people wish to utilise. We needed a framework to think about how to make decisions. For example, if you plant a bog with trees, your provisioning services are being fulfilled, but at the same time, you are degrading other benefits, such as water quality, biodiversity, carbon sequestration. We need to have an overview of all those aspects for each decision that is taken about peatlands across all the island

It’s a question of balancing everything, however. You want people to enjoy nature, but there can be downsides. You have got people walking on a bog and destroying the bog because they want to be in nature. That’s not the way to do it. Everything has to be managed very carefully.”

– Dr Florence Renou-Wilson

Q: The public conversation around peatlands seems to have changed over the years, do you think awareness of bogs and their environmental significance has grown?

A: Yes, I definitely see a big change in the last twenty years that I’ve been working on this in Ireland. There are several reasons for this, I think. Education is the most important. Are you familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? You start with your physiological needs, safety and protection, then you realise that when you have all this, you are still not that happy, you are missing out on higher level needs, such as affection, sense of belonging and well-being. I think people have realised that the closest you can actually get to these needs is often in nature, by feeling and associating with what the planet is doing. David Attenborough and other nature TV programmes can really move people to see this. There is an awareness of the degradation that we have inflicted on our planet. I think that has had an impact.

It’s a question of balancing everything, however. You want people to enjoy nature, but there can be downsides. You have got people walking on a bog and destroying the bog because they want to be in nature. That’s not the way to do it. Everything has to be managed very carefully. It’s about balance and having good managers to manage the land. The farmers and the local communities are at the forefront of all this; we need them to help manage the land. Land should not be managed by governments, it should not be a decision somewhere in Dublin; it should be local, but framed by national and international policies.

Less than 20% of Irish peatlands are protected and NPWS are doing a fantastic job in ensuring these areas are managed to keep all the ecosystem services functioning (that is a living bog in equilibrium). But should conditions change, ecosystems will change. Degraded bogs are the least resilient. The remaining 80% of non-protected peatlands have to be managed carefully if we don’t want some nasty surprises and this needs a bottom-up approach involving the landowners and the local communities. Peatlands management must be based on the three pillars of sustainable development but at the heart are the people and local communities. This collaboration is very tricky. We are a small island and we should be able to share information very easily, but it’s still not quite there yet, but I’m hopeful.

Mountain blanket bog, Glenveagh, Co. Donegal

Q. You sometimes hear amazing facts about bogs in Ireland, that Ireland has or had a uniquely large proportion of the bogs in Europe, what is the status of our bogs now?

Ireland still has one of the largest areas of peat cover in Europe, 21% of the total land area. Approximately 50% of bogs considered to be of conservation importance in the European Atlantic Biogeographic Region are found in Ireland. Ireland has the last remains of a type of bog that is quite rare in the world. Both raised bogs and blanket bogs are quite rare and we know they are rare because the Habitats Directive has listed them as a top priority. We have a good proportion of blanket bogs left but we only have 16% of our raised bogs left uncut. More critically, only 1% of these raised bogs are actually active. What I mean by active is that they are alive; they grow, they sequester carbon. They are how they should have been in nature if humans hadn’t interfered with the bogs. There is less than 2000 hectares of active raised bogs left in the country. In fact, as I tell my students, they are more green parks in Dublin city than active peat forming raised bogs in the country. That’s shocking, knowing that we had the highest proportion of raised bogs in Europe; originally an estimated 310,000 hectares.  

We were going the same way with blanket bogs. We haven’t damaged them as much but we have afforested and overgrazed a lot of blanket bogs. We need to really actively move our attention to the west of Ireland. A lot of the work so far has been in the Midlands and I appreciate that Bord na Móna was located there but it’s only a small proportion. Most of the bogs are in the West and they haven’t really been looked at. There are lots of clear objectives in the National Peatland Strategy and there is a new LIFE project starting on Atlantic blanket bogs. It is now the era for the blanket bogs, and it’s about time.

“It’s very hard to change paradigms and change point of views. Communication is key to people staying open and not being so set in their views. We need to be careful of people coming to an adult age and thinking, ‘we know everything, we don’t need to question anymore’.”

– Dr Florence Renou-Wilson.

Q: It can be challenging for communities who relied on peat extraction for livelihoods and fuel to transition to a more sustainable relationship to their environment. What can be done to bring people on board to this?  

A:  It’s understandable, that was the way it was thought of and that’s fine. Now, we just need to realise there are other ways of viewing things. It’s very hard to change paradigms and change point of views. Communication is key to people staying open and not being so set in their views. We need to be careful of people coming to an adult age and thinking, we know everything, we don’t need to question anymore. I think we need to educate people to think more like a ‘good ancestor’. I do this with my students a lot, we are teaching them a way of learning for life, not a way of learning this year. They need to make sure that they question what they know all their lives and integrate a long-term perspective. They should be ready to integrate new information and re-evaluate everything, not just finish their degree and say that’s it I’ve learned everything and it’s not going to change anymore.

This is very much true for peatlands and of course, sometimes it causes some difficulties but there is always solutions. Even on the protected sites, people have been relocated to other bogs to continue to cut turf or are provided with already cut turf or given financial compensations. There has been a tremendous amount of work carried out that is often unacknowledged. Civil servants have actually been working very hard to move into a sustainable path, and this is not always appreciated. There are solutions to everything, it just needs to be managed very well. Yes, sometimes that is difficult, and we are always learning from our mistakes.

Only recently, I was pleased to see a Galway TD, saying that he was happy to see a bog rewetted for the future generations. That’s what it is about these plans, they are for future generations. We need to think of being a good ancestor. Have you read the Good Ancestor (by Roman Krznaric)? It’s a good way of seeing what environmental policy should be about. It shouldn’t be about us today; it should be about the much larger ‘unborn generations’. There are far more people coming after us than has ever been before. We are at a very important juncture. It’s a very good position to be in, it’s a very empowering place. I tell the students that, even though they can get depressed, especially when they come to study global change and realise all the damage our species has done. Yet, we have made a lot of progress, and now we need to have faith in our power to steer the world onto a more sustainable path.

 Q: There is a very active peatland community network and I’m sure it’s the same on a scientific level. What is it like being part of national and global peatland communities?

A: I have just been involved in a review for An Fóram Uisce (the National Water Forum). They wanted to know what the situation was with peatlands from a water quality point of view. It’s all linked, peatlands are the heart of everything. We carried out a stakeholder mapping exercise and I was shocked because we had over thirty community groups just eager to manage their local bogs. There are more out there I’m sure and so we need to improve communication within this large network of peatland stakeholders, and this should start between all the departments and statutory bodies. At a national level, we already have the National Peatland Council to which I am a scientific advisor. But on the ground, our next job now really is to is to improve the network of collaboration, because if everybody tries to reinvent the wheel, this is going to be a waste of resources. This was one of our recommendations in our report. Ireland is a small nation; we should be able to easily share all our knowledge on bogs. Yet the network is not necessarily working as well as it could, it gets stuck in places.  We need to give more resources to groups like the Community Wetlands Forum as an umbrella for other community groups. Everything needs to be brought together and move as one big Irish peatland group. We have recommendations, for example, on what needs to be shared, it is not just knowledge, it is know-how. We need to have sites that people can go and visit when we are allowed to visit again.

Blanket bogs utilised for forestry and grazing in the Ox Mountains, Co. Sligo

Q: You’ve been very involved with peatland policy. What was it like working at the interface between science and policy?

A:  I was lucky to be a researcher and manager of the BOGLAND project that became, in essence, the National Peatland Strategy. I had to learn how to bridge the gap between science and policy. When I published the final report, I also had to publish a synthesis report as a policy brief, and then I created a one pager that a Minister can read when he or she’s in an elevator. I asked colleagues how can you put a 1000-page report in a one page document? Nobody really had any clue. Scientists are not really trying to communicate to policymakers and that’s what brought me then to develop this master’s I’m directing, the MSc in Global Change. It’s about ecosystem science and policy, trying to bridge this gap between science and policy. I give my experience to the students, as an example, whereby you need to be able to collect and analyse data or crunch existing datasets, then bring it to the table of the policymakers in a format that is understood by all the stakeholders. All the students have a scientific background and understand the biogeochemical processes, but they are not just doing science for the sake of doing science, they want to make a difference and they want to apply that science. And move that to a place where policy can be made: it’s evidence-based policy making. 

Q: Is it frustrating as a scientist to have been calling attention to this issue for a long time to see the large-scale decommissioning of bogs and rewetting happening at this late stage?

A: I’m more of an optimist, so I always think it’s better late than never!  I was working with Bord na Móna twenty years ago and the people back then were already working on this, so what we’re talking about now, it’s not new. Bord na Móna have collaborated on our scientific papers, they were the very first to have studies carried out on their bogs to know how much carbon is being emitted, how much carbon can be sequestered when you rewet. They had successful sites like Bellacorick in County Mayo and other sites in Galway and Roscommon and Offaly as well. It’s not like suddenly we took a decision, this is what we’re going to do, and we don’t know what’s going to happen. We have long-term studies showing what was going to happen.  

I remember talking to Donal Clarke at the time, he was a head of a department at Bord na Móna. He co-wrote The Wise Use of Mires and Peatlands with Prof. Hans Joosten. He clearly understood that peatlands were a fragile ecosystem and whatever the utilisation, it needs to be very well managed.  He had extensive knowledge of bogs outside Ireland, for example, Canada, where they have a plan for how they are going to restore that bog before they even drain it and only extract the minimum amount of peat, so that the bog can be restored. Unfortunately, that was never really brought to the psyche here in Ireland.

“The problem is we that we are now tackling the issue of our disappearing peatlands, but we also have to tackle climate change at the same time. Believe me, we thought we had one problem but we now have problems that are multiplied and amplified because of climate change.”

– Dr Florence Renou-Wilson.

Q: The Peatlands Climate Action Scheme will see over 80 Bord na Móna bogs rehabilitated. There are often worries from communities about the effects of rewetting on neighbouring land.

A: Following the announcement of €108 million in funding from the Just Transition Fund, Bord na Móna have now ceased peat extraction for industrial fuel use and have launched the Peatlands Climate Action Scheme (PCAS), with plans to undertake ‘enhanced rehabilitation’ or restoration on 33,000 ha. Unlike previous rehabilitation, whereby drains remained open and vegetation was left to colonise unaided, ‘enhanced’ rehabilitation involves rewetting through bunding and drain blocking, and other restoration techniques will be included, such as Sphagnum reintroduction.

This has brought worries of course but mainly there has been a conflation of issues. The problem is we that we are now tackling the issue of our disappearing peatlands, but we also have to tackle climate change at the same time. Believe me, we thought we had one problem but we now have problems that are multiplied and amplified because of climate change. In my experience of working with Bord na Móna cutaway bogs and SAC bogs, flooding is not an issue, Bord na Móna engineers are very good at managing water tables, they have been doing it since the 1940s. They know how to drain a bog, and they know how to manage water.

You can get something like an unusual high precipitation event, such as when you get lots of rainfall one winter and everything backs up, especially if you’re near the Shannon. But you can’t blame the rewetting on something that has happened for the last 2000 years. We need to present the scenarios that happen and the fact that rewetting the bogs does not equate to flooding. The LIFE Living Bog project is also a really good example, whereby SAC bogs have been restored through rewetting, and NPWS staff and expertise have also been excellent at managing this. The more sites where we can show that this has worked the better.

The emphasis needs to be on developing site-specific drainage management plans for each bog. We do not have that many! Every bog has to have its own plan and now we have the technology whereby we can fly drones over and use LIDAR data, so we don’t have to tread around the bog and do very costly and time-consuming surveys. Obviously, local knowledge will tell you a lot as well. It’s all about managing and controlling water. Switching off a pump is easy, you let the field flood, but that is not what we want Bord na Móna to do. Flooding a cutaway is the worst thing you can do. You can have smaller ponds, small lakes, like you have in Boora, a little lake, but not large, flooded areas.

Q: Finally, the last question is about some recent controversy over bogslides and the placement of wind farms. What do you think about the use of peatlands for wind turbines?

A: Well, this is a big topic. First, I have to say again it’s very site specific and of course depends on the status of the peatlands in the first place and their potential to be rewetted or not. The Bord na Móna industrial cutaway bogs must be utilised in a way that answer the current policies. What is it that you want to do? First, we want to stop carbon emissions to combat climate change, so wherever it’s possible, you rewet those bogs. But there will be some areas that are not going to be rewettable: if they are higher in the landscape, they are drier, so why not put wind farms there if there are no protected areas in the vicinity that is! I have no issues with that, as long as you have gone through your assessment of land use change options.  But remember, only 6% of the total Irish peatlands are Bord na Móna cutaways.

The problem is with the wind farms on blanket bogs. Most of the wind farms, until now, have been put on blanket bogs. That’s where people wanted them. Unfortunately, blanket bogs are very sensitive ecosystems. Raised bogs are sensitive but blanket bogs are even more sensitive, in equilibrium with their environment (climate, topography etc.) A degraded blanket bog that has no potential for rewetting, such as those areas that have been used for turf-cutting for generations and generations; they could be easily used as a wind farm and I have no issue with that as long as you make sure that area doesn’t impact any other potentially good blanket bogs or associated sensitive habitats. Wind farms should not be placed on an intact blanket bog or a natural blanket bog that still has potential to be rewetted.

You have to use a decision tree that helps you understand the impact of the land use change: checking the benefits and the negative impacts of each management options, so what is the impact on carbon? What is the impact on biodiversity, on water, on communities? If you only have one positive box ticked, that doesn’t look like a good decision for your land. Wind farms on blanket bogs have been around for many decades now. But the monitoring data collected via the planning system conditions is not helping in predicting current and future impacts as new methods are being deployed. This is a problem. The ecologists can’t keep up with the engineers. Turbines change shape, as do construction methods, and we don’t know how they impact on the bog. Now, unfortunately, we have also climate issues and the fact that we have more and more severe rainfall events is likely to cause trouble for any land use on blanket bogs.

Milled peat extraction for horticultural peat product at Coolcraf, Co. Westmeath

Related Posts