I was delighted to receive the invitation to address the Peatlands Gathering and to congratulate you all on this first “Gathering”, a unique platform to promote a healthy exchange of dialogue and ideas regarding the Peatlands of Ireland.
Peatlands play a significant role in the natural and cultural heritage of Ireland and this Gathering will allow us to cultivate a new beginning for peatlands and to share knowledge and understanding.
In this era of hosting virtual events, I believe that we have been given a great opportunity to reach a much wider audience of all interested parties to discuss the remarkable work being done on our peatlands and the strive towards a shared plan for their future.
I look forward to seeing the key messages from this Gathering being brought forward to the UN Climate Change conference (COP26) which I hope to attend in November this year.
I am delighted to see the archaeological heritage of our Irish peatlands also take a prominent place over the course of this event. Thirty years of State-funded archaeological survey of Bord na Móna’s industrial landholding has led to the recording of thousands of monuments of wood and stone in our raised bogs. Many of these fascinating sites have been investigated through excavations funded by our Department and by Bord Na Móna, available to researchers in our National Monuments Service archive.
The INSTAR + archaeological research programme which I recently announced will offer an opportunity for the synthesis of this information, to place wetland archaeology, so long at the margins of archaeological discourse in Ireland, centre stage.
While there have been challenges in managing impacts on this vulnerable material, the Bord Na Móna Enhanced Decommissioning, Rehabilitation and Restoration scheme will provide an unparalleled opportunity to preserve our peatland heritage into the future and also contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Irelands Programme for Government commits to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and this will involve policies and measures for decarbonisation in each sector of our economy and society. Great work has been done over the years by a number of different actors - the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) of my Department, by state agencies, environmental organisations and through community and volunteer efforts to restore degraded peatlands in Ireland. I am delighted that we can share our experiences, research and lessons learned in a “Gathering” such as this.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service of my Department are partners in a number of significant peatland projects including the INTERREG Care Peat project where enhanced rehabilitation techniques were undertaken and also in the EU LIFE Integrated Peatlands and People Project (with Bord na Móna, EPA, NUIG and private consultancy ERINN) where over 2,900 hectares of raised bogs will be restored by NPWS and 7,000 hectares by Bord na Móna.
The Wild Atlantic Nature LIFE Integrated Project is well underway now and will tackle a spectrum of issues in the relation to western blanket bogs, but particularly will be engaging with local communities to find common ground for protecting and promoting our upland peatlands which are so important in a European context.
The EU LIFE Raised Bog Project ‘The Living Bog’ is also near completion and been successful not just in peatland restoration measures but in engaging local communities in conservation efforts and providing ancillary socio-economic benefits for the project areas.
We should all be encouraged by events such as the Peatlands Gathering to show us the extent of peatland projects, research, community engagement and practical restoration and rehabilitation measures currently underway. It will allow scientists, conservation practitioners, local stakeholders, NGOs, Government Departments and all other interested parties to explore how the peatlands of Ireland, and all those involved in their management and conservation, should proceed especially during the current climate and biodiversity challenges we face. Knowledge gained here in Ireland can be replicated across Europe just as we have learned from our European and international counterparts.
Today through study, research and land management experience we have a better understanding of the longer term benefits that our peatlands can provide to society as a whole, particularly in terms of assisting our common responsibilities in reducing, and in the future hopefully preventing, the release of carbon emissions into our atmosphere. This transformative process towards a decarbonised future has been and will be a challenging one, but with events like the Peatlands Gathering showing a mutual ambition for success in these challenges, I believe it is an achievable one.
Nature provides many values that go beyond the obvious services that it provides. Habitats such as peatlands are carbon rich systems and are vital, super powered ecosystems if they can be returned to a natural state.
In the midst of this biodiversity and climate crisis nature, whilst being the core part of the solution, also needs a helping hand from humanity if we are to reverse the impacts we have had over the last century. By restoring and revitilising peatlands we can bring a range of benefits to people and the environment. Peatland protection and restoration can be a low-cost, low-tech and high impact nature based solution for both climate action and biodiversity. Restoring these degraded landscapes should inspire people to re-engage with rich, diverse habitats, can support jobs with purpose and restore and protect our biodiversity.
Only with healthy ecosystems can we enhance people’s livelihoods, counteract climate change, and halt the collapse of biodiversity.
It is important to achieve a fine balance between ecology, culture and economy for the benefit of wider society. In line with our shared global responsibilities and goals it is vital that we conserve and restore our natural ecosystems in a partnership model, adopting a strategic approach across policy areas while considering all viewpoints.
We live in a world that is interconnected. Our landscape is a dynamic place. Water and peat, soil and air, flora and fauna, people and culture are all interrelated. Our oldest stories and richest tales were taken from our ancient landscapes when the forests were tall and expansive and our peatlands were deep, sodden and intact. Government policies also now strive to be interconnected, aligning with UN sustainable development goals. Climate and biodiversity, heritage, just transition and rural regeneration are all dependent on our finite land resources. When pressure is placed on one aspect of this interconnectivity it can impact elsewhere. Where synergies are not there, there is a need to restore the balance and find compromise between ecology and economy.
The journey to protect our natural and cultural heritage has historically resulted in the development a range of, at times, opposing viewpoints but I believe we have reached a stage where agreements can be made and common ground found and an initiative like the Peatlands Gathering can help us find the path that we need to take to find a permanent and satisfactory solution for all stakeholders.
From the experience of my Department we know it is crucial that the government helps and supports projects, plans and all endeavours that help achieve positive climate change and nature conservation results.
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who are working in mutual co-operation, towards turning the course of how this sector of our natural heritage is managed for our mutual benefit.
During the course of the gathering I look forward to learning more about the variety of peatland-related initiatives currently being developed and implemented.