Peatlands and People

Peatlands provide various benefits of value to human beings, namely:

  • A direct use value from the accumulated peat for extraction (e.g. fuel, horticultural medium).
  • A direct ecological use value (e.g. bird watching, nature appreciation). Peatlands have a particular value in terms of species that are rare in a European context. Most fundamentally, the specialist peatland flora has the further value of providing the infrastructure for species interactions without which there would be no bog. The ecology is therefore critical to the sustainability of peatlands and, consequently, to all the other ecosystem services it provides.
  • A direct landscape and cultural value (the cultural landscape). Part of the cultural value of peatlands is derived from the traditional association between people and the bog as a source of household fuel and, within the last century, as a source of industrial energy.
  • Protection of archaeological heritage (through the preservation properties of peat). Many people value the archaeological finds that have been recovered from peatlands over the years. Intact peatlands have the effect of preserving artefacts in situ. However, it is usually only through extraction that such finds have been recovered. For instance, in 2003, a 2,000 year old bog body was found in Ireland. He was given the name Old Croghan Man.  An even older bog body, which is over 2,300 years old, has also been found. This body has been called Clonycavan Man. The discovery of bog butter dating over 2,000 years in recent years also provides important archaeological insights into historic livelihood practices, which are important from a heritage viewpoint.
  • Hydrological and water quality benefits (water storage, filtering). Peatlands can moderate rainfall runoff with potential relevance to downstream flooding risks. Peatlands provide a prospective ecosystem service and public good in terms of their hydrological functions. Both fens and bogs are of value for their water storage and filtering role. Catchments with extensive areas of peatland may be more likely to maintain supplies of water during short periods of drought.
  • Carbon storage and storage. Peatlands are large stores of carbon which has accumulated in situ over long periods of time. Carbon storage and storage form a regulating ecosystem service that is only now beginning to be understood and which, most certainly, has been undervalued in the past. Ironically, these peatland services are at risk of being undermined by climate change. Indeed, degraded peatlands contribute to climate change through the release of carbon dioxide, a process that may be accelerated by climate change. Unfortunately, as most Irish peatlands have been degraded to one degree or another, the area of peatland that is likely to be emitting carbon dioxide is greater than that which is storing greenhouse gases. The cost of burning peat (either industrially or for domestic purpose) is very high in terms of carbon loss. However, the social aspects of peat use are very complex and solutions will have to consider the cultural attachment to turf cutting (EPA, 2011).

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