Thursday 6 September 2012

Hands off our Bog!

Non-Irish readers may be interested in this one, a bit of local 'culture'; especially Diamond who is convinced we have "gone to live in a bog". Well, we haven't; we are about 75m above sea level but it is true to say there are tracts of turf cutting bog all around here and there is even an old tract of previously cut bog within vendor Anna L's land, just down in the valley to the north of us. There is a great tradition of turf cutting here and many local people are involved. Enshrined in local law is a clause which puts turf cutting rights with each 'chimney', so our Deeds to our house even mention the rights to cut turf even though we bought the piece of land which excluded the actual bog area.

Cutting by hand is strictly for the tourists by now, ( although there are hand-cut turf classes in local 'Flower Shows' and Agricultural Shows and we have a good pile of old hand cut "sausage" turf under a sheet near the horse drawn hay rake and you can still buy the special spade or "slean" (pronounced "Shlorn") in Castlerea at the right time of year (May-ish). Nowadays turf is cut out of the ground using a hydraulic excavator; the standard tracked ones you see on building sites. The digger is used to fill a 'hopper' ( which is a special trailer towed behind a double-tyred tractor. This hopper mashes the turf and extrudes it through a row of about 6 'tooth-paste tubes' onto the ground, so that it lies there on the surface in long strips about 3 by 4 inches. It is left to dry for a while and then broken into lumps about 12 to 18 inches long which are stacked in a variety of style stacks to dry over the Summer.

Whole families get involved in this, and many have their own rented bog going back generations. They all go down to help stack it for drying, re-stack it if need be and then collecting it and bringing it back to the house. Our own near-neighbour and friend, John Deere Bob (pictured) has been doing this all his life and still has his bit of bog, although everyone is telling him he's too old and should just buy a load from the contractor. We have been advised that the economics work out quite well if you are prepared to put the work in stacking etc. You can rent a tract of bog for about €300 p.a. and clear a good €1000's worth of turf from it. Turf is much lighter and much less dense than coal, so the thousand Euro's stack is a good 8 feet front to back and 5 feet tall in a 12 foot wide bay of e.g. your hay-barn.

This widespread turf extraction has led to over-exploitation in some areas and alleged despoiling of fragile natural environments. The curlew, for example is almost extinct as a breeding bird in Ireland, partly because of habitat destruction, though the other side of the argument holds that this is caused by peat extraction for gardeners, and nothing to do with turf for burning. The government body "Bord na Móna" (Peat Extraction Board) has tried to limit extraction and has banned turf cutting in some areas. This has brought them into conflict with local culture who have ALWAYS been allowed to cut turf for generations and fails to see why some Dublin blow-ins can tell them not to. On the road from Castlerea to Ballymoe you can see a big Irish flag flying and big signs saying "Hands Off Our Bog!"

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