What comes to mind when you picture Ireland’s landscape? Heather covered mountains, green fields surrounded by dry stone walls, dramatic coast and – of course – bogs.
Bogs, boglands, peat, peatland, turf, in Ireland they all mean roughly the same thing. For years bogs were regarded as being useful for one thing and one thing only – as a source of fuel for the winter, but that is changing and bogs are now appreciated for their own unique beauty.
Traditional Turf Cutting in Ireland
Growing up in North West Ireland the annual ritual of “going to the bog” was as much a part of life as eating and sleeping were. It went without saying that every family in the area cut its own turf as a supply of fuel for the winter. Cutting turf by hand was tough, tiring work. Leading to more tough tiring work in spreading and turning until the turf were eventually dry. Sometimes, especially in wet summers the turf would be arranged into tiny pyramids known by different names depending on what part of Ireland you were in. In Leitrim and many other parts of Ireland they are known as “footings”. In the Irish speaking areas of Donegal the term is “cróigeans”. Two sods of turf were stood on end with two or more also standing on end supporting them. One or two more sods were then placed on top. This allowed the turf to dry more quickly. Finally the turf were gathered and built into a stack, which was then thatched with rushes to keep them dry.
There was a wonderful sense of satisfaction when the turf stack was built and thatched and the winters fuel supply secure. The added bonus was the wonderful rich aroma of turf smoke from the fire.
Increasing Awareness of the Value of Irish Bogs
It would have been absolutely incomprehensible to anyone growing up in rural Ireland back then that the bogs from which the turf were extracted would be regarded as a rare and precious resource and possessing their own beauty. Yet, gradually over the years, it has dawned on many Irish people that the bogs are something to be treasured and protected. As places to visit they are wonderful, with their own unique sights, smells and sounds.
Many parts of Ireland still have extensive boglands. There are actually two distinctive types. Raised bogs are common in the low-lying midlands. They are low dome shaped and were formed in former shallow marshes or lakes. Blanket bogs on the other hand are found mainly in the west of Ireland. These are the type more commonly seen in the tourist brochures. Blanket bogs can be divided into two types. Atlantic Blanket Bogs and Mountain Blanket Bogs. Like the raised bogs these started in shallow lakes and marshes. The bogs then grew out to “blanket” the poorly drained land around them.
Where is it possible to cycle over Ireland’s boglands?
As Ireland’s blanket bogs are located mainly in the west of Ireland, by good fortune they are set among some of the most beautiful and celebrated landscapes in the country. All along the western seaboard both Atlantic and Mountain Boglands dominate. In County Donegal our Donegal Coastal Treasures Bike Tour brings you through extensive Mountain Blanket Bog, especially in the area west of Killybegs around the villages of Carrick, Glencolmcille and Ardara. Likewise our Highlights of Donegal Bike Tour includes this area but also the extensive Atlantic Blanket Bog in the Rosses area between Glenties and Annagry and more Mountain Blanket Bogs around Glenveagh National Park. Like in other parts of Ireland both the close up and distant views are spectacular.
There is a wonderful sense of freedom as you cycle in these areas, as they are generally very thinly populated with quiet roads having little or no traffic.
What should you expect to see when cycling Ireland’s Bogs?
Boglands create a rich and ever-changing tapestry. The vegetation includes heathers, mosses – especially sphagnum moss, and a variety of grasses particularly purple moor grass. A vast array of flowers bloom at different times of Spring, Summer and Autumn. The diversity of plant life gives the bogs a completely different personality depending of the time of year. If you happen to be cycling along in late Spring and wonder why the bog is cloaked in white it’s just that the bog cotton is in bloom. At other times of the year the colour can be completely different. Heathers can at times be brown and relatively unattractive, but come late summer they explode into life and paint the bogs a rich shade of purple. At the same time they provide the source for one of the finest types of honey available in the world. Walk through the heather when it is in full bloom and don’t be surprised if you find your shoes are coated in a sticky film of honey. Other plants to look out for include insect eating sundews, bitter vetches and a whole range of worts including butterwort, St. John’s wort and milkwort.
In Spring and Summer the bogs will be alive with their own unique wildlife. Birds to be found there include skylarks, meadow pipit, and red grouse. Like most bog dwelling birds the hen harrier nests on the ground. They hunt smaller birds and mammals. Bogs are home to a number of butterflies including the endangered marsh fritillary butterfly and large Heath butterfly. Dragonflys and damselflies hunt smaller insects such as midges. Speaking of midges if you ever spend a bit of time in an Irish bog on a calm Summer evening your experience will be memorable – to say the least. Within minutes you (or at least miniscule drops of your blood) will be the main evening meal for thousands of midges. The itching that accompanies this is enough to drive the most mild tempered individual crazy. If you are on a bicycle though, there is simply no problem. Midges will only find you if you stay in the same place for a while.
Boglands as Carbon Sinks
Boglands have recently been recognised as something that can play an important role in mitigating climate change. Bogs act as very effective carbon sinks – locking away vast amounts of carbon – even more effectively than forests. This has led to a number of “rewetting” projects, where boglands previously used for peat production are allowed to re-establish their natural state.
Threats to Ireland’s Boglands
While traditional turf cutting methods resulted in the burning of what is, after all, a fossil fuel, the effect on the bogs themselves was relatively little. The process progressed slowly and over the years the bogs gradually returned to their original state. The advent of machine harvesting however has had a much more detrimental effect on the boglands. In recent years the Irish Government has attempted to reduce the amount of turf cutting. This has lead to resistance from many who see it as a traditional right. Other threats to the boglands include over-grazing, construction and planting of non-native trees – particularly Sikta Spruce.
Despite this however, there is a growing desire in Ireland to preserve these wonderful resources for future generations. Ireland’s boglands with be around for years to come to be enjoyed by everyone. So if you fancy cycling in a beautiful part of Ireland be sure to include the feast for the senses that are Ireland’s boglands.
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