Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Footing turf

My daughter and I spent Sunday footing turf in the bog near our home – a phrase that made no sense when we first moved out here, now an important day in our calendar.

Turf, also called peat, is the remains of centuries of moss and other vegetation that built up in the bogs, which built up over the millennia when the submerged lower strata did not fully decompose. Draining the bog and pulling back the top layer of vegetation reveals black and spongy bio-mass that turns reddish-brown and hard when it dries, and creates a slow-burning, smoky fire when lit.

For hundreds – probably thousands – of years it has been the main way people in this cold country kept warm. The smell of burning turf is one of the most distinctive things about this land, and in country homes and pubs alike here neighbours gather around turf fires in the winter evenings.

Most farmers who lived anywhere near a bog had a ready source of fuel for the winter, once they pulled away the top layer of vegetation and exposed the peat underneath. Farmers here – everyone was a farmer of course, whatever else they did – carried special shovels shaped like one corner of a square, made for sinking into sides of a ditch and scooping out long rectangles of peat.

Today a walk through bog less than a kilometre from our house reveals fields of flowers, never-cut or grown-over, as well as ditches used to drain away the groundwater, and finally a maroon peat landscape, with the underfoot consistency of a firm mattress.

It has become a decidedly uneven landscape by now, with hollows a few metres deep in the red land, quarried where generations have scooped out the turf, interrupting it on its way to becoming coal. The canals in front of our house were built in the 1700s to go through this area, with railway tracks running from the canal banks deep into the bog-lands. Spanning the canal sits a rusted trestle and crane, about three metres tall, and perpendicular to the canal, heading off into the bog, are rail lines now buried under grass.

These days, the cutting is done by tractor, leaving long ropes of black and moist turf like liquorice, partly cut at intervals of a foot or two. While machines can cut the turf, though, humans still need to dry it by hand, “footing” it by cracking apart the liquorice into bricks and stacking them like cross-hatching, four or five bricks high.

Burning turf makes a strange conundrum for fans of independent, sustainable living. On one hand it is the only fuel, apart from wood, that you can gather yourself near your home, using ordinary tools. Peat bogs around the world present an opportunity for people to keep warm in winter without being dependent on the grid, unless governments clamp down on the activity or the bogs are tapped out.

On the other hand, “while peat is classified by the IPCC as a renewable fuel,” wrote Kris De Decker in Low-Tech Magazine, this is highly debatable. Peat is renewed at a rate of about one millimetre per year at most, and so it takes about 3,000 years for a peat layer of three metres to return to its original size – and only if the land is not disturbed in that time. In addition, mining the peat has a very large impact on the landscape, as we shall see, while the burning of turf produces slightly more CO2 emissions than coal for the same energy content. The only advantage it has over coal is that it produces less smoke and has a lower sulphur content, and thus produces less air pollution than coal.”

Right now the Irish government is forbidding hand-harvesting of turf, one bog at a time, ostensibly to protect it as a wetland -- which sounds good, except that the national energy company already mines the boglands on an industrial scale to produce most of the country's electricity. In the meantime, my daughter and I dried enough to last us for the next few years, by which time this old tradition might be only a memory, or performed in secret.

 Top photo: Loading turf into a boat for transport, circa 1900. 
Middle photo: Cut turf and stacks of footed turf. 
Bottom photo: My daugher climbing one of the quarries in the bog.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. So how much peat would you use in a year, say, in terms of square metres? And would your fire be burning 24 hrs a day?

Brian Kaller said...


According to my neighbours, who footed their turf early this year and carried it back yesterday, they carried three tonnes for the winter. I think, though, that was for their extended family -- three households of cousins -- so let's say a tonne a year.

That sounds like about three times what we would use in a winter, but we also have underfloor heating from a heat pump, hot water from solar panels, cooking gas from bottles, and wood from the trees we pollard, so our turf goes a long way. We believe in a diversified portfolio. :-)

Anonymous said...

It is such a conflict for me - I love the whole turf cutting experience but I know that we are quite rapidly using up all our boglands. You only need to look at Google Earth images to see how little of some of our raised bogs are left. And yet when we stop as we have to soon it will be a loss of a big chunk of our way of life.