Irish raised bogs represent some of the finest examples of their habitat type in the world. Surveys indicate that some 50 000 ha of reasonably intact or uncut raised bog habitat remain in the country, which represents about 16% of the original natural extent of the habitat. Of this, about 21 500 ha is regarded as being of nature conservation value and is included in a network of protected areas: Natura 2000 network sites (SACs) and Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs). Previous afforestation schemes on bogs have affected their ecological integrity and current national forest policy includes goals to protect semi-natural habitats of nature conservation value, including raised bogs.
The primary objective of the DBPRBRI project was to help restore wetlands and peat-forming conditions on Ireland’s raised bogs by continuing the process of removing plantation forests. This project built upon the work carried out under Coillte’s previous LIFE project (‘Restoring Raised Bog in Ireland’ LIFE04 NAT/IE/000121), which demonstrated that tree removal and drain-blocking can have positive effects, even in the short-term, on bog hydrology and vegetation. Bog restoration actions were targeted at active raised bog habitat at 17 sites, which have been partially or wholly afforested.
The DBPRBRI project removed forestry plantations from 685 ha of raised bog habitat at 17 sites in 7 counties of the Irish Midlands: 5 Natura 2000 network sites (SACs) and 12 Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs). All the project sites are owned and managed by the project’s coordinating beneficiary Coillte. Following the removal of conifer plantations by commercial harvesting and project forestry work, water levels were raised by dam repair and construction, and the blocking of drainage channels, to begin the process of peat bog recovery. The project sites were mainly on the edges of raised bogs, where the rewetting helps to buffer and protect small areas of active raised bog in the central dome.
Preparatory actions involved the elaboration of Restoration Area Action Plans, land surveys and drainage pattern assessment. The mapping of Habitats Directive Annex I habitat types in Ireland was updated during the project, giving a more accurate baseline against which to assess the impact of the project. In this interpretation, the habitat type 'degraded raised bog' was much more tightly defined to only include habitat which can be restored to 'active raised bog' within 10 years. The remainder is now classed as 'supporting habitat'. The restored areas will remain wet and by functioning as supporting habitat will prevent further deterioration of small areas of active raised bog. As well as having a direct impact on an area of ‘degraded raised bog’, the project has therefore helped to support the future development and management of a range of habitat types at the bog margin by raising water levels. The expected future habitats include wet and dry native woodland and open bog. Ongoing management will be required to control the spread of invasive rhododendron and laurel, and to remove self-sown pine and birch trees from the open bog. The recovery of raised bog vegetation is a slow process which will be followed through national vegetation monitoring schemes.
The project continued the restoration programme begun with the 2004 LIFE project and added to the experience of site managers and contractors in carrying out restoration work. Some changes were made to restoration techniques, such as the favouring of mechanically-constructed peat dams over more expensive plastic piling dams (though these were constructed on the high bog where the use of machinery would be damaging). A programme of hydrological and vegetation monitoring was implemented, for periods before and after tree felling. In addition, the Aquatic Services Unit of University College Cork conducted physico-chemical water monitoring at two sites.
The restoration work was considered to be a success and the Irish National Parks and Wildlife Service confirmed that the 12 project NHAs were eligible to be upgraded to Natura 2000 network sites (SACs). At the end of the project, associated beneficiary the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) prepared Standard Data Forms for the 12 new SACs, based on the Coillte land holdings on the NHAs. This represents a significant increase in the number of raised bog SACs in Ireland.
Two of the LIFE project sites, Girley Bog and Scohaboy Bog, were selected as demonstration sites with a special focus on public awareness. At these sites, broadwalks were constructed and visitor information panels were erected to explain the overall project and features particular to that site. The project also raised awareness and disseminated information through land manager training days, a website, project brochures, a film on DVD, and bog walks.
The draft National Raised Bog SAC Management Plan was published in 2014 following discussions with the Irish Peatland Council and European Commission. The restoration of raised bogs is also a priority in the Prioritised Action Framework submitted by Ireland to the European Commission in 2013. To support the delivery of this, the NPWS has developed a follow-on LIFE project (LIFE14 NAT/IE/000032), which will focus on Annex I habitat ‘active raised bog’ on the 12 new SACs.
Turf-cutting (turbary) is a long-established right in Ireland, and all raised bogs have been affected to some extent. In establishing SACs, including the new ones established in the framework of the LIFE project, the Irish Government has developed a compensation scheme to provide turf-cutters either with new sites or payment for rights that are given up.
Despite their reduced size, the Irish Midland raised bogs retain an air of wilderness, and are a unique ecosystem. They provide habitats for a range of mammals (e.g. Irish hare and otter) and birds (e.g. red grouse and snipe). The project therefore represents an important contribution towards the preservation of ecosystem functions and the conservation of this precious natural and cultural resource.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Conservation Plan (see "Read more" section).