Bord na Móna is a major land owner in Ireland, with a significant area of peatland making up the most of the 80,000 ha in its stewardship. Understanding the ecological status of those peatland areas is critical to informing how these lands can be rehabilitated into the future.
One of the key objectives of the original Biodiversity Action Plan 2010-2015 was to establish a baseline of the ecological condition of the full extent of the Bord na Móna peatland area. This has been successfully completed and habitat maps of each of the bog areas have been drawn up using GIS. By combining the basic habitat information with extra information such as LiDAR (a remote sensing technique that illustrates contours in an area) data, aerial photography and peat depth data from GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar), it is possible to get an indication of how each bog area will develop upon cessation of peat production and rehabilitation.
Based on all of the information available, the Ecology Team has developed predictive maps, incorporating the necessary rehabilitation measures (targeted drain blocking etc.) which outline how each of the bog areas will be stabilised post peat production. Each bog is unique in terms of hydrological regime (gravity or pumped drain), peat depth and type and other influencing factors from adjoining lands which will result in its own particular future. The data has also been used to identify core biodiversity areas and/or hotspots. The work of the Ecology Team on the baseline ecological condition of the bogs has become an essential tool in managing the Bord na Móna Bogs and it will be maintained and updated as part of ongoing operations.
Some of the key performance indicators in the period 2010-2015 were:
Building on this work the following actions can be outlined for the period 2016-2021.
These actions will require ongoing work including:
The key indicators of success of these actions will be:
In 2009, Bord na Móna commenced the development of a habitat classification system for the industrial cutaway and modified bogs of Ireland. While there is a recognised habitat classification system in use in Ireland, this system assigns all habitats on cutover/cutaway bog to PB4 Cutover Bog (Fossitt 2000). While this classification is useful for relatively small areas of cutover on the margins of larger intact peatland complexes it does not account for the huge variability and diversity in habitat across the 80,000 ha of Bord na Móna bogs. In response to this the Ecology Team developed a classification system (based on established systems) that would reflect the variability in habitats and different successional phases on the Bord na Móna bogs.
The baseline habitat survey itself was a significant undertaking and by 2012 all bog areas had the initial survey completed. Since then the maps have been updated on an ongoing basis (2013, 2014 and 2015) to reflect changes and developments in the cutaway bog areas in particular. The results of the baseline survey can be described under a number of main categories of land-use, within which there are a number of habitats. A general overview of the habitats and characteristics is presented in the table in Appendix II.
ACTIVE PRODUCTION AREAS: this currently accounts for up to 55% of the bog area owned by Bord na Móna and is the active footprint of peat production plus associated transport and access facilities, workshops and hardstand areas. The main habitats are bare peat, bare ground and built habitats. Hotspots for biodiversity in this category are the active railway lines which are home to a diversity of grassland species and rare plant species such as Blue Fleabane and Basil Thyme (both of which form part of the ‘weed’ flora recorded).
CUTAWAY BOG AREAS: this category currently accounts for up to 30% of the total Bord na Móna bog area and can comprise scattered sections that are out of production located amongst large parcels and/or more extensive cutaway areas such as those around Boora and the Oweninny bogs. These areas range from species-poor to species-diverse depending largely on the drainage and length of time out of peat production. The habitats can range from pioneer (wet/dry) to more complex such as diverse poor fen and rich fen habitats to established birch woodland cover. The biodiversity value is also variable as species poor areas with some cover of bare peat can be ideal habitat for feeding wintering Whooper Swans and breeding Lapwing, while more mature wetland habitats have a rich flora and are ideal for roosting Whooper Swans, breeding Teal and reed-bed habitat. Species rich grassland and wetland habitats are generally hotspots for a range of invertebrate species. This category also includes areas in other after-uses such as areas planted by Coillte, and other commercial developments.
BOG REMNANTS AND MARGINAL AREAS: this category accounts for up to 12% of the bog area and largely comprises areas of bog remnant (i.e. degraded raised bog with supporting habitats as well as some patches of active raised bog on larger bog remnants such as Cloonshannagh, Mostrim and Clynan) together with patches of birch woodland and cutover bog on the margins of larger active peat production areas. These areas can be of variable biodiversity value and viability, with the larger areas acting as refugia for peatland species (flora and fauna) and considered to form a significant component of the Bord na Móna biodiversity network. These remnants and margins can be local biodiversity hotspots for species of conservation interest such as breeding Curlew and Sphagnum pulchrum on bog remnants, Marsh Fritillary butterfly and the plants Alder Buckthorn (on cutover edges) and Basil Thyme (on marginal ground).
DRAINED RAISED BOGS: during the baseline survey a number of bog areas (<3% of total bog area) never developed fully for peat production were identified as being of high conservation value nationally. Some of these bogs still retained active raised bog habitat and all showed good potential for restoration of active and degraded raised bog habitat. These bogs now form the core of the Bord na Móna Raised Bog Restoration programme which has effected the restoration of over 1,000 ha of raised bog across the Irish Midlands. Most of these sites are now being considered for designation as SAC or NHA as part of the National Raised Bog Conservation review while some are relatively small and considered as bog remnants of local ecological importance. It is planned to continue this work on similar areas in coming years.
An important aspect of the baseline habitat survey was to create a GIS database to illustrate the extent of the habitats present on each site and across the full range of the bogs. For each bog area there is a current habitat map and a land use map showing the basic uses within each bog production unit (access, watercourses etc.). Following from the habitats maps, and using Lidar data which reflects topography and surface levels, indicative maps were developed to illustrate how each bog area may develop post peat production and rehabilitation. Species distribution maps are also a work in progress and updated as new records are taken. All mapping data is available to review by request.
The baseline habitat survey has resulted in a significant body of data which outlines the range of habitats present on each bog as well as an informed projection as to how sites will develop post peat production and rehabilitation. While there are a number of habitats developing, it is likely that in the future the main habitats emerging on the cutaway bogs will comprise wetland and woodland types, in a mosaic pattern across each site overlain with a mix of activities such as amenity and renewables. These cutaway areas will be fringed by existing bog remnants, birch woodland and grassland habitats, the majority of sites being linked by the extensive Bord na Móna rail link.
Up to 50% of the Bord na Móna bogs will revert to wetland habitats post rehabilitation. These wetlands will predominantly be peatland habitats given that there will be a layer of peat remaining in the majority of sites. The wetland areas will form a mosaic with other habitats such as scrub and wet woodland, often with small patches of wet grassland and heathland intermittent, reflecting the heterogeneity within any given site.
The main aim of rehabilitation will be to rewet former production areas as much as possible without impacting on adjoining lands to maximise the benefits for biodiversity and carbon. Where fen peat remains, this will result in the development of fen habitats. Fens are influenced by groundwater and by their nature, are peat-forming, representing the precursor of ombrotrophic or rain fed peatlands such as bogs. The dominant fen type will be poor fen mixed with reed-swamp and tall herb vegetation, such as at Ballycon Bog.
Within these areas there is some open water but this will not be extensive in the future. Fens will become extensive in those areas that are currently pumped for peat production. There are some patches of rich fen habitat emerging, such as at Lullymore Wetlands, although this habitat is limited in the extent recorded to date.
Where ombrotrophic conditions (acidic peat) remains, rewetting of these areas will result in the development of bog habitats. These will range from wet heathland to ‘embryonic’ bog habitats – that is, habitats that comprise peat forming vegetation. They will have a number of vegetative features similar to raised bog habitats but lacking the structure and classic hydrological and vegetative character, which is likely to re-develop in the long-term.
The remaining 50% or so of the Bord na Móna bogs will revert to scrub/woodland habitats. Again, these areas will be largely underlain by peat soils and will be dominated by birch in the main, with patches of willow and pine emerging. The woodland areas will vary from site to site, forming mosaics with wetland areas and patches of other less abundant habitats such as grassland and heath.
The development of these woodlands will vary, determined by the local conditions. Where wet peat soils remain, the birch exhibits patchy growth and the ground flora is dominated by wetland species. Dry birch areas are generally denser in growth and develop a closed canopy, such as at Turraun. Their long-term development will be monitored.
The future management of these woodland habitats will be of national importance, particularly given the scarcity of native woodland in the Irish countryside. Bord na Móna has already undertaken two Native Woodland Scheme projects under the guidance of Woodlands of Ireland and the Forest Service, and there is significant potential to add to these areas. While scattered areas of the Bord na Móna cutaway bog areas have also been planted by Coillte in the past with a view to commercial development of these stands, these areas are deemed largely commercially unviable. Management of these Coillte stands in will also contribute to the national native woodland resource in the future.
Over the course of the baseline habitat survey and as a result of the ongoing rehabilitation of cutaway bog areas since the 1990s, a number of areas of high biodiversity value have been identified. These can be categorised as:
This includes a range of raised bog areas including those prioritised for restoration under the Bord na Móna Raised Bog Restoration programme 2009- present. The first site restored was Abbeyleix Bog and this was very much a collaborative project with the local community and others including the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Irish Peatland Conservation Council (IPCC) and Laois County Council. Following from that initial project the Bord na Móna Raised Bog Restoration programme has focused on clusters of raised bog sites with clear potential for restoration in East Galway and Roscommon.
The main conservation interest on these sites is the potential to create conditions favourable for the reestablishment of active raised bog habitat, a priority habitat listed under the EU Habitats Directive, by means of drain blocking and rewetting. During the baseline survey, these areas were identified with restoration potential for active raised bog habitat as well as having other features of biodiversity interest and nature conservation value such as use by Red Grouse, Curlew, rare plant species etc. It was subsequently agreed by all in Bord na Móna that these sites should be restored. In the interim, the National Parks and Wildlife Service has reviewed the condition of the bogs and selected the majority of the Bord na Móna sites for designation as SAC and/or NHA habitats.
The future of these bog areas will be determined by changes in climate, but for now they are clearly earmarked for biodiversity within the Bord na Móna network. The sites are monitored using the standard ecotope monitoring method employed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
An example of the ecotope mapping work for Abbeyleix Bog is shown in the following PDF.
Since the 1990s, Bord na Móna has been actively carrying out research into rehabilitation of cutaway bogs for the purposes of promoting biodiversity. This has resulted in an extensive network of cutaway bog with a range of established habitats. These cutaway bog areas illustrate how former peat production areas can be rehabilitated with a combination of natural regeneration and targeted rehabilitation to return relatively quickly to species diverse areas.
The network of rehabilitated bog areas to date includes the Lough Boora Discovery Parklands complex of bogs (c.2,500 ha cutaway bog habitats – wetland, woodland, grassland, heathland, riparian etc.), the Oweninny bog complex (~6,500 ha rehabilitated acidic cutaway with regenerating peat-forming habitats), Ballycon wetland rehabilitated in 2006 (~240 ha, fen and birch woodland habitats) and Lullymore wetland (~250 ha, rich fen and birch woodland habitat).
Further areas added to this network in the period 2010-2015 include Kilberry wetlands, Bunahinly rewetted bog and Derrycashel and Cavemount wetlands. Each of these areas are outlined in the following tables and presented on the accompanying map (pages 40 and 41).
Because of the extensive environmental variability presented by the Bord na Móna bog areas, there is a huge diversity of species to be found. A full list of species of conservation concern recorded on Bord na Móna bog areas to date is presented in Appendix IV.
A few of these species are highlighted below to demonstrate the importance of the Bord na Móna sites to their national populations. The species have been recorded often on discrete areas of bog that have been identified as valuable for species of conservation interest such as Littleton Bog for breeding Curlew (an area of regenerating cutaway), Lullymore and Clongawney Bogs for Marsh Fritillary (marginal areas of regenerating cutaway), as well as a number of Hen Harrier roosting sites (regenerating cutaway and bog remnants). In some cases the areas are relatively small, or they are areas with ongoing activity. These areas are managed in conjunction with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, local community groups and ENGOs. Specific site detail and information for species of conservation concern is not presented here.
Marsh Fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia) is considered threatened/vulnerable in many countries including Ireland. This butterfly species relies heavily on wet grassland sites where the presence of the main food plant devil’s bit scabious is essential as this is the only food plant of the larvae (caterpillars). Habitat loss has led to the decline in this species. Bord na Móna Ecology continues to identify new sites in order that appropriate habitat management can take place. Butterfly Conservation Ireland in collaboration with Bord na Móna manage an important site for this species on a cutaway bog in Co. Kildare. A further area in Kildare was transferred in the early 2000s to, and is now managed by the IPCC. The Bord na Móna bog areas currently monitored for Marsh Fritillary include Lullymore (Co. Kildare), Carrickhill (Co. Laois), Doire Bhile (Littleton, Co. Tipperary), Moyarwood (Co. Galway), Clongawney (Co. Offaly). A local community group at Ballivor Bog (Co Meath) recorded a new site for Marsh Fritillary in 2015.
The Otter (Lutra lutra) is one of Ireland’s iconic wetland mammal species. They spend much of their life in and around waterbodies such as lakes, ponds, rivers and our coastline, where they eat a variety of fish. They will also eat birds’ eggs. Otter has declined across most of Europe, however their numbers appear to have remained stable in Ireland. The Otter is a shy creature and is rarely seen, however they leave distinctive signs that they have visited a site in the form of footprints and spraints (droppings). Silt ponds, streams, drainage channels and wetlands in Bord na Móna bogs are attractive for Otter and there has been widespread recording of this species across the Bord na Móna estate.
In February 2015 serrated wintergreen (Orthilia secunda) was first observed in Ballydangan Bog, Co. Roscommon during the annual Biodiversity Action Plan review day field trip. Up until recently, this species was thought to be extinct on raised bog habitats across the Republic of Ireland, with only two small populations remaining in Co. Fermanagh. This plant is approximately 65cm tall and flowers in the summertime, with all of the flowers located on one side of the flower stem. Serrated wintergreen are semi-parasitic and rely on root interactions with mycorrhizal fungi in order to exist in the harsh environment of the bog. Bord na Móna restoration work in Ballydangan Bog was completed in 2013 and the site is home to the Ballydangan Bog Red Grouse Project. The discovery of serrated wintergreen highlights the importance of these restoration programmes in this bog and other similar bogs.
Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) is a species that has undergone a severe reduction in numbers in recent times and is now Red Listed as a breeding species in Ireland. They are a ground nesting bird and select open sites with low vegetation. Several Bord na Móna rehabilitated sites (such as Drinagh Bog) are used as breeding sites for Lapwing and specific rehabilitation techniques aimed at making cutaway bogs more attractive to Lapwing and other waders are in development. It is important that their breeding sites are open, without trees and scrub and that the surrounding areas contain habitats with an abundance of insects, which both the adults and chicks eat. Ballycon, Lullymore, Cavemount. Blackwater and the Lough Boora complex are all important Bord na Móna sites for breeding Lapwing.
Curlew (Numenius arquata) was once a widespread breeding species, when its haunting call was heard all over Ireland. In recent years a decline of almost 80% has been observed in the Irish breeding population. Curlew are ground nesting birds and favour wetland sites for nesting, they eat insects which they extract from the soil using their long, curved beak. Bord na Móna has a number of sites where the breeding success of Curlew is monitored in a joint project with BirdWatch Ireland which commenced in 2015. These include Ballydangan Bog (Co. Roscommon), Derryhogan Bog (part of Littleton Bog, Co. Tipperary), Blackriver Bog (Co. Kildare) and Cloneragh Bog (Co. Laois). Each of these sites in being monitored for breeding Curlew and future management measures will be developed and implemented under the continued guidance of BirdWatch Ireland as part of the rehabilitation planning for the sites.