What can a small Irish community bog preservation project teach us about landscape restoration at scale?
On a rainy day in May, a group of ecologists, academics and conservation practitioners (amongst them, the Landscape Finance Lab), stood huddled on a boardwalk in the heart of a dense, wet carpet of moss, lichen and grasses: the Abbeyleix bog. The field-trip was a gathering of WaterLANDS project participants, an EU-funded initiative to scale up wetland restoration across Europe. We had been brought together to hear the remarkable story of how the local community had saved the bog from near-certain exploitation and destruction. It’s an unlikely David and Goliath tale, with residents of the quaint Irish town of Abbeyleix, which neighbours the bog, taking on the utilities giant Bord na Móna, owners of the land. What started off as a hastily-organised citizen protest in 2000 has developed into a model, collaborative peatland restoration project with broad support from the community, businesses, local government and even Bord na Móna itself. The bog’s ecological success has far exceeded the expectations of both proponents and detractors.
The big question for the Lab, and for the other WaterLANDs delegates, was – what lessons can we learn from this modestly sized project, just 200 hectares, when Europe’s ambitions have to be for large scale restoration across landscapes many times the size? As it turns out, Abbeyleix is a microcosm, and replicates in a localised way the five elements essential for integrated landscape management.
1. A collaboration with community at its core. Locals and stakeholders opposed to Bord na Móna’s attempts to dig up the bog had a variety of motivations, but they soon realised they needed to come together. A residents’ action group and steering committee were established to manage those sometimes competing interests. As more stakeholders have become involved in different ways over the years, so the management committee for the project has grown and evolved. Following years of negotiation and lobbying, Bord na Móna agreed to hand over the management of the Abbeyleix Bog to the local community which is now legally incorporated as the Abbeyleix Bog Project CLG.
At a landscape scale, the number and complexity of stakeholder interests are multiplied, so landscape partnerships may be challenging to establish. But they are fundamental to success, and it’s crucial that local communities play an integral role. Legal incorporation can help show their seriousness.
2. A shared understanding of the challenge. At Abbeyleix, there was little agreement amongst stakeholders on the bog’s ecological value or its potential for restoration. Scientists from Bord na Móna had written it off as too degraded to be worth preserving. The Bog management committee understood that to make the case for restoration, clarity was needed on exactly what state the bog was in, both in terms of biodiversity and carbon storage. A thorough baseline study was commissioned and detailed Ecotope studies have taken place at regular intervals. This evidence has served both to challenge opponents and as the basis for planning and interventions.
At scale, a similar deep and shared understanding of a landscape needs to take place through mapping, natural capital valuations, ecosystem analyses, and land tenure and rights assessments to inform what successful restoration might look like.
3. A vision and a plan. It was agreed that restoration of biodiversity and a return to active peat formation would be the main aims for the Abbeyleix Bog Project. Over the years this has remained the focus, whilst recognising the social and economic value of the bog as secondary benefits. A Conservation Management Plan was drawn up and sought to balance various aspects of conservation of the site – including infrastructure management, rehabilitation, invasive species management, recreation, etc. The Plan, for example, set out to block the network of drains that crisscrossed the bog, but the historic railway path that cuts through the bog was kept as a compromise for local walkers.
A coherent vision is vital at landscape scale too, and it needs to inform collaborative planning that stakeholders and decision-makers across the landscape can buy into.
4. Effective action. 64 Kms of drains on the high or raised bog area of the site (103 ha) were blocked with 3000 peat dams. Ironically, a family firm that for a long time had been contracted to drain bogs for Bord na Móna was contracted to block them. Bord na Móna, now supporting the restoration, and the National Parks and Wildlife Service were involved. Local volunteers have worked to remove invasive rhododendrons that threatened to encroach on the bog.
Similarly, in larger landscapes we need to see coordinated action by public and private actors, alongside community involvement.
5. Monitoring and evaluation. “Everything we do is evidence based” says Chris Uys, on the Bog’s management committee. Over the years there have been numerous ecological and hydrological studies, from which have emerged metrics to track and evaluate success. Ecotope surveys have shown a significant increase in the area of Active Raised Bog (ARB) at Abbeyleix, a priority EU habitat, by 1,130% in eleven years. From 1.12ha in 2009 to 13.78ha in 2020. Annual CO2 emissions from the high bog are also estimated to have dropped significantly in that time thanks to rewetting – a 52.7% decrease. And this could trigger carbon payments to help pay for more restoration.
Larger landscapes too need rigorous monitoring of an appropriate set of metrics, with agreed tools and methodologies, quality assurance, evaluation, learning and development plans. The more complex a landscape, the more important it becomes to understand whether interventions are really working, especially when payments by results depend on it.
As we ventured across the bog, some of us took our shoes off and sunk our feet in the moss – a somewhat less scientific approach to evaluating the rewetting! The bog had won us over. This small gem of a restoration project offered us so many examples of good practice, and a confirmation that the elements of a sustainable landscape apply universally – whether for a few hundred or a few hundred thousand hectares.
Learn more about other Action and Knowledge sites involved in the WaterLANDS initiative here.