My name is Dr. Catherine Farrell and I am head of ecology at Bord na Móna. I have been working on the conservation and restoration of peatlands since 1996. I am joined by my colleague Stuart Conaty, land and property manager at Bord na Móna. We thank the committee for inviting us here. In light of the time, I will reduce some of the paragraphs of my statement so I invite witnesses to delve into it for all the detail required.
Peatlands are specialised ecosystems comprising a range of habitats and species leading them to being complex and unique areas of high biodiversity. Peatlands are wetlands and when presented in a relatively natural state, provide a range of ecosystem goods and services. In the late 1960s, Bord na Móna has recognised the value of bogs as habitats for indigenous plant and animal species. This led to the purchase of a number of sites purely for the conservation of raised bog and fen habitat as well as blanket bogs in the west of Ireland.
With the focus of the company clearly set on decarbonisation and the short timeframe for continued peat production, the company looks forward to working and collaborating for the significant benefits of peatland conservation, restoration and rehabilitation locally, nationally and internationally. With that in mind, those remaining near-intact bog areas within the company's holdings - in the region of 4,000 ha of degraded raised bog capable of regeneration - are earmarked for conservation and the necessary restoration works to reverse the impacts of drainage. These bogs will play an important role in the national peatland strategy and the conservation of active raised bogs in particular under the EU habitats directive. Iconic species such as curlew and red grouse are using these bogs and their future management will be critical to sustaining these remnant breeding populations.
Bord na Móna has applied machines full-time to the restoration of this nationally and internationally recognised habitat. To date, we have restored 2,000 ha of raised bogs and a further 2,000 ha are in the process of restoration. These bogs are earmarked by the NPWS for designation to replace other special areas of conservation-natural heritage area sites that have been degraded since the time of designation by ongoing turf cutting in the margins. This includes well known sites such as Abbeyleix Bog, Ballydangan Bog and the Clonboley-Killeglan group in County Roscommon.
With regard to the remaining Bord na Móna lands, I will further discuss the nature of these areas against the backdrop of the wider national peatland resource. Over the past centuries, peatlands were used for afforestation and drainage for agriculture in the 1900s. According to the latest research on mapping peatlands from Dr. John Connolly of DCU, peatlands account for approximately 20% of total Irish land cover with 66% of those converted to other land use, including agriculture at 27%; forestry at 35%; and industrial peat, or active peat fields, production at 4%. A further 20% of the national peatland cover is considered degraded leaving few remaining unmodified examples of the original peatlands.
Bord na Móna is the custodian of 80,000 ha of peatland in Ireland. The company was established in the 1930s with the remit to use our natural resources to provide energy security for the new State and to support employment. Since then, we have continued to do so - harvesting peat annually for energy and horticulture with small amounts harvested for animal bedding. In 2018, the company CEO, Tom Donnellan, announced that peat for energy will be significantly scaled down as part of the company's decarbonisation strategy with limited continued production for horticulture. The company is growing strong renewable energy and resource recovery businesses and developing other commercial options as part of its ongoing remit to provide employment in the midlands.
Of those 80, 000 ha of Bord na Móna peatland, approximately 50% is related to peat production, of which half consists of peat production fields. A total of 15% comprises undeveloped margins, including bog remnants, areas birch, etc., while 5% is under forest cover and 30% falls into the category of cutaway bogs or bogs depleted of commercially viable peat resource. When Bord na Móna was established, the view was held at Government and management level that once the commercial peat was extracted, the bogs could be converted to productive growing land. Despite significant efforts that continue today, the bogs have proved to be largely inhospitable areas for crop establishment and growth. That includes forestry, grassland, tillage and food. We have discussed that at other Oireachtas committee sittings. Some biomass trials continue on parcels of land in areas where we can manage those areas to establish willow and other biomass species. This is in support of replacing peat with biomass in the peat-fired stations.
Since the 1990s, larger areas of bog have been emerging as cutaway and the company has been working to rehabilitate these cutaway bogs to develop replacement wet peatland systems, i.e., wetlands and wet woodland systems, that can provide a range of ecosystem goods and services other than the traditional use for peat and-or land for agriculture and forestry. The best example of extensive rehabilitation is the Lough Boora Discovery Park in County Offaly. The rehabilitation work began in the 1990s and work is still ongoing at the margins of this extensive bog complex which stretches over 3,000 ha. This former bare production landscape is now home to a documented 1,000 plus peatland species. The mosaic of wetland and woodland habitats found there represents a range of ecosystem goods and services, most notably, space for walking and enjoyment of the outdoor for all levels of human ability. It should be noted that these replacement peatland habitats are not akin to the former raised bog ecosystems that pre-dated peat production. They do, however, comprise poor fen, rich fen, wet grassland, reedswamp, open water and wet birch woodland - all habitats that were present prior to the formation and that led to the formation of the great bogs.
Where we can restore recognised raised bogs systems, we will continue to do so, as highlighted already. The rehabilitation of the Oweninny Bogs in County Mayo has involved the re-wetting of up to 6,500 ha of industrial cutaway blanket bog that have now shown to be reverting to diverse peatland ecosystems as well as switching already from carbon sources to healthy carbon sinks.
Once peat production is stopped in an area, or in the lead up to that time, the Bord na Móna rehabilitation approach involves establishing a detailed baseline ecology and drainage map of the cutaway bog followed by targeted internal field drain blocking and management of external outfalls.
The methods have been developed over 30 years of rehabilitation activities, working with local community groups, NGOs, including the Irish Peatland Conservation Council and the Irish Wildlife Trust, and statutory bodies such as the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and local authorities. To date, 15,000 ha of cutaway bog have been rehabilitated using this approach, with 5,000 ha in active rehabilitation, in the Littleton bog group.
Bord na Móna has highlighted that peat production will cease over a large part of its lands by the mid-2020s as peat burning is phased out. In the interim, rehabilitation measures will continue to be carried out with the focus on re-wetting and rehabilitation of the cutaway areas in line with national policy such as the national biodiversity action plan, policy on climate change, and the water framework directive. This will result in an extensive network of replacement peatland habitats, wetland and woodland systems, which will provide an expansive landscape for species and habitats otherwise marginalised by agriculture, forestry and peat production. The new landscape also provides other ecosystem services such as water filtration or attenuation, and reduce carbon emissions from the formerly drained peat production lands. Results from the work to date illustrate that, nationally and internationally, significant numbers of wintering birds are using the rehabilitated sites annually, and the breeding bird populations, particularly of wetland species within the sites and in surrounding areas, have also been enhanced.
We have brought copies of our biodiversity action plan, which is the main vehicle we use for consultation. We are in the process of developing natural capital accounts for our lands. This is using the UN environmental and economic accounting approach, and this will enable the company to demonstrate how its transition from active peat production to rehabilitated and recovering peatland systems in terms of water, climate, health and well-being can transform all our lands at this important time.
We thank members for their time. We extend a warm invitation to them to view and explore the outcomes of our bog restoration work, as well as the fruits of the rehabilitation work at Lough Boora Discovery Park, to see at first hand what we have been endeavouring to portray in a five-minute presentation that was meant to be a ten-minute presentation.