To trudge the high blanket bog of an overgrazed western Irish mountain, lacking heather enough to hide a hare, may indeed be to cross a wet desert, apparently lifeless and silent but for the wind and the wing-beats of passing ravens. This is peatland at one hard-pressed extreme. But bogs come in many different forms and conditions, ranging from the bleakest of mountain mud to flowery lakelands brimming with dragonflies and skylarks.

The aim of conservation is to preserve the best remaining examples with their watery ecosystems intact. In some scenarios for the impact of climate change, however, it seems possible that peatland will progressively dry out and break down, leaving shrubby heath in its place.

Clearance of the original, native Irish forests, and the emergence of an island mostly denuded of trees has been the historical change that has registered most deeply. The part played by colonial exploitation has dramatised and often misrepresented the true history of forest clearance.

Such exploitation (to smelt iron, make barrels and build warships for the British fleet) did, indeed, go on, and was sometimes dramatically destructive, but it happened at a great historical remove from the clearance of primeval wildwood. This resulted straightforwardly from the early spread of agriculture, and, in reality, little original forest awaited the Elizabethan colonial settlers in the wake of the Tudor military campaigns.

By the time of the Civil Survey of 1655 - the equivalent of England's Domesday Book - perhaps 3 per cent of Ireland remained under woods, with the main impact of commercial exploitation still to come. By the time of the next island-wide survey, in 1835, perhaps one-tenth of that meagre share of trees remained in existence; the rest had disappeared under farmland.

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