A week in a life of an international peatland restoration volunteer 

Picture caption: Holyhead port at 1am. Photo credit: Joshua Cohen

Day 1, Sunday 3 September

As part of the WaterLANDS EU wetland restoration programme, iCASP’s UK Action Site at the Great North Bog has been twinned with the Abbeyleix Bog Knowledge Site in Ireland.

During our volunteer week, I visited  Abbeyleix with Action Site Co-ordinator Dr Richard Grayson to learn about their site, in particular how the local people had a sense of collective ownership and concern for the bog.

Considering that WaterLANDS’ tagline is ‘Water-based solutions for carbon storage, people and wilderness’ I made my way there using a lower carbon form of transport. My journey started on Sunday taking the 19.44 train from Leeds to Chester, then the 23.02 deserted train to Holyhead followed by the ferry to Dublin at 2.40am.

Day 2, Monday 4 September

Garry Luttrell, Director of the Abbeyleix Bog Project, met me at Portlaoise station and we drove to Preston House, Abbeyleix – a beautiful Georgian home that would be the international volunteers’ base for the week.

We were given a tour of Abbeyleix bog with a talk from Des, impassioned volunteer and key part of the Abbeyleix project, telling us some of its history. Despite quite different opinions and motivations, people came together in 2000 to protect the bog from industrial peat extraction, 23 years later the bog community is very much still going strong.

This was followed by a walk along the wooden board constructed by the project across the bog and we had a glimpse of the rich plant and insect life beneath our feet.

Picture caption: Des leads the volunteers along the boardwalk

Day 3, Tuesday 5 September

Our group was given the task of digging a dipping pond, complete with wooden platform as part of an outdoor classroom to be used by school children to learn about the ecology and importance of the bog and use nets to scoop up insects and plants.

Picture caption: Local and international volunteers arrive at the site of the dipping pond. Garry Luttrell, in the green high-viz, in the foreground. Photo credit: Joshua Cohen.

Hugh, a long-serving member of the bog project, has made beautiful wooden benches in memory of local residents who have passed away.

As we worked, a regular trickle of people passed by, taking a walk by the bog. Many asked questions about the work we were doing, others shouted words of encouragement. Slowly but surely, we dug down below the water level. The peat started to stink and become wetter, heavier and stickier. We dug a trench between the back and the pond so that a dam formed. In a ritual moment with many witnesses, we broke the dam, and water poured into our trench forming a little dipping pond

Picture caption: The stream after our day of hard digging. The last remnant of the ‘peat dam’ is visible in the middle, tuft of grass on its head. Photo credit: Gary Luttrell. 

Day 4, Wednesday 6 September

Richard Grayson, our Great North Bog Action Site co-ordinator arrived in Abbeyleix and we fixed a  bouncy bit of the boardwalk, assembling a wooden stabilising foot underneath it.

Picture caption: (from left) Josh and Richard fixing the boardwalk.  Photo credit: Senne Van Alphen

Our volunteers faced a glorious battle with (invasive) rhododendron roots while others assembled the base of the dipping pool platform ready to be decked out the next day.

Picture caption: (from left) Caro, Richard, Yana, Sofie, Senne, Marieke, Des, and Olesia stand victorious over the Rhododendron they’d managed to heave out of the earth. Photo credit: Garry Luttrell

That evening, we met with Chris Uys, part of Abbeyleix Bog Project’s technical advisory group and other members of the project to find out more about their work, their research and approach to community engagement including how they had managed to get more nature taught in the school curriculum. Richard and myself also gave short talks on our work with WaterLANDS.

In order to be sustainable and keep people committed over the long timescales needed for restoration, we heard how ‘engagement’ needs to be led by those directly affected by wetlands and their health.  We heard about work with the Community Wetland Forum, which now has 45 community groups caring for wetlands across the country. 

Day 5, Thursday 7 September

Today I helped to size up, cut and attach some of the deck-boards to the dipping pond platform. By the end of the day, the platform was complete and able to take the weight of all the volunteers, local and international.

Picture caption: Hugh, on the left discusses our handy-work, whilst standing on the completed dipping pond platform. Photo credit: Richard Grayson.

That evening, Chris took us on a memorable tour of the bog, telling us of some of the challenging politics of trying to protect a bog in a country where industrialized peat extraction has been usual practice for so long. He told us about years of careful trial and error restoration experiments including the building of 3,000 dams, hourly measurements of water pH, electrical conductivity and water depth. These offer important clues as to why some bits of the bog are experiencing revegetation, and others are not.

A key tool had been the many kilometres of peat bunding (damming), constructed by skilful and knowledgeable contracted digger drivers. Using their weighty machines, they are able to deftly lift and shift the vegetation layer of the bog to one side, homogenize the peat below to strengthen and reduce routes for water to pass through and replace the vegetation layer back on top in order to bolster the peat bunds they help form. Often with years of experience in peatlands, such contractors are able to read the land and offer suggestions to improve upon what computer-generated models might say is the ideal location to intervene in the watery landscape. 

Photo caption: walking on top of one of the all-important peat bunds. Photo credit: Joshua Cohen.

Day 6, Friday 8 September

Richard and I left early in the morning to drive north to visit the Irish WaterLANDS Action Site. Action Site Co-ordinator Guaduneth Chico and artist in residence Christine Mackey took us on a fascinating tour around a badly degraded blanket bog at Sliabh an Iarainn (Irish for “iron mountain”), in County Leitrim mountain-top site which will soon hopefully be on the way to better health.

Picture caption: Christine takes photos of the bare peat on top of Sliabh an Iarainn, while Richard and Guaduneth discuss possible solutions. Photo credit: Joshua Cohen

As we drove to Dublin to catch the plane home (no ferry for me this time), I reflected on what from these last few days might be most valuable. Many things, but probably top of the list was a reconfirmation of the importance of how you need to be in places in order to understand them. Abbeyleix Bog is a complex ecosystem in which human beings, with all their conflicting concerns and interests, play a vital, inseverable role.

This is exemplified by Abbeyleix Bog and the community that it is part of. By being there, talking face-to-face, shaking hands, sharing jokes, digging and smelling the peaty ground, this took on a tangible reality that I can now recall in my bones. Such a sense will cement the lessons I’ve learned there as I try to understand their relevance to my work on ‘engagement’ in the north of England with the Great North Bog partners. 

Finally, we at the UK Action Site very much look forward to hosting the Abbeyleix Bog Project in the not too distant future.

By Dr Joshua Cohen, iCASP WaterLANDS engagement lead.