In 1821, peat cutters discovered a body similar to a mummy, pinned down by two wooden stakes deep in the mud. The body’s face still held red hair and a beard, their teeth were well preserved, and a hoop of willow was wrapped around their throat. But this wasn’t the dry, hot climate of Egypt but a cold and rain-sodden bog of Ireland. Later assessment suggested that these were the remains of a young man, and the likely victim of human sacrifice over 2000 years ago. A member of an ancient peatland community. The peat cutters were looking at a progenitor to their labour; a heritage of knowledge and practice which reached out to them from the past.
The Gallagh Man, as the body was eventually named, is one of many bog bodies unearthed across Europe from peatlands. Buried beneath the mossy surface of these bogs, the oxygen-free underworld provided by a decaying mass of water-logged plant matter enables a quality of conservation where some bog bodies can even have their finger-prints taken. Not all were the victims of sacrifice however; some were buried, others may have simply drowned. Whatever the reason for their submergence, the bodies tell of a deep cultural connection to peatland that reach back over millennia.
Peatlands AREN’T wasteland
Modern stories about peat bogs are often framed in terms of conservation, and rightly so: formed over thousands of years as bog moss (Sphagnum species) partially decomposes and piles up, lake and land become the wet and springy body of peat.
This bog of biomass is one of the world’s most efficient carbon sinks: despite only making up 3% of the world’s land surface they make up 33% of its carbon store.
Mostly found in the cold, wet climates that crown the Earth’s North, these wetlands contribute to a high local biodiversity, hosting a greater variety of flora compared to the arable hillsides or monoculture forests which so often occupy the same landscape. This makes them attractive to a variety of wildlife, including vulnerable species like the Curlew and the Swallowtail Butterfly. Once considered wastelands, peatlands are now recognized as worthy of protection in the fight against ever rising global temperatures and declining biodiversity.
However, the peatlands of Europe are degraded. Yet conservation efforts may be setting themselves up for failure if the landscape’s history isn’t scrutinized. It’s easy to consider landscapes and their features to have developed in an organic, wild manner. And yet the majority of Europe’s landscapes didn’t develop this way, but as the result of how communities have historically interacted with the local ecosystem over millennia.
What we think of nature isn’t natural, it is eco-cultural.
The Eco-cultural Landscape
The role of humans in nature has led to the development of characteristic landscapes with deep cultural connections, to the point of human-environment relationships escalating to inform regional and even national identity. This is the eco-cultural landscape: the long-term etching of both human meaning and activity on the landscape, and the landscape’s response expressed through characteristic environments.
The historic peoples who live near peatlands depended on them; the rural poor were limited to using the resources closest to them. In medieval England, the rights of commonage allowed communities to collectively use the landscape for pasture, fuel, and building materials. These collective owners – or commoners – both utilised and conserved local resources through small-scale, long-term use. Over time, knowledge of flora, fauna, and feature developed. Practices were inherited which in turn became tradition and culture. People became intimated with their surroundings; much of the landscape we may think of as wild lands today are the product of long-term subsistence farming.
But just as the history of the peatlands isn’t one of untouched wilderness, neither is it one of placid, idyllic community.
In 1235, the Parliament of England granted manorial lords the right to assert ownership of previously common land. English barons appropriating this land deprived the poor through enclosure, removing traditional access to use their local environment. Private landowners exploited landscapes previously used by local communities; peatlands were often intensively exploited for fuel or were otherwise drained to make way for more productive arable, agricultural, or forestry land.
In the coming centuries the enclosure of common land continued as the process became formalised: from 1604 to 1914 one fifth of England was enclosed.
Enclosures either limited what was available to local people or left them with nothing as the peat was exhausted through intense exploitation.
Soon, peatlands were increasingly used for fuel as the lowlands transformed under industrial revolution, urbanisation, and agricultural intensification. Fuel moved from peat to coal to oil, and technological innovation divorced people from the need for local substance living. As the landscape was transformed into one managed for productivity and profit, the eco-cultural landscape was lost both physically and in memory. By the 20th century the industrial exploitation of peat almost led to the complete destruction of the old wetlands. With it, the traditional communities and characteristic landscape that had slowly developed alongside each other had vanished with the peat.
This story is familiar across Europe: the continent’s formerly abundant peatlands have been dramatically cut back. Agricultural intensification has transformed the land, degrading both community and biodiversity, and erasing eco-heritage throughout.
All its history notwithstanding, the peatlands still provide a sense of place even now, offering a spirit of identity and community to people who still use the peatlands for grazing and peat extraction. Despite the story of degradation cut through history, local knowledge and practices still continue. But what can be done to preserve the peat bogs, and other eco-cultural landscapes?
Protecting People and Peat
Conservationists can restore peatland lands by removing trees or re-wetting the peat, but without the communities who worked the lands, conservation strategies become vulnerable to the vagaries of the political and economic climate.
Without keeping an eye on eco-cultural heritage, conservation strategies risk attempting a re-wilding of a landscape which was never wild to being with.
But despite an increase in strategies to synergise local knowledge, research and policy to ameliorate eco-cultural decline, the recognition of eco-cultural heritages is still lacking from national- and European-level land management. Local, traditional knowledge is frequently neglected by authoritative institutions, lacking any meaningful integration within governing land-use policy. Often eco-cultural heritage is cached as a conservation topic. The need for this integration is dire; the displacement of peatland communities has meant much local knowledge and practices have been lost completely.
Resuscitating the eco-cultural heritage of peatlands requires awareness, inclusive of outreach and education initiatives, and research in key fields are needed to manifest an otherwise invisible history. Conservation efforts need to integrate local knowledge and practices, lifting the needs and opinions of local communities.
Tourism provides an opportunity too: strong links between characteristic landscapes and local identity draws in tourists. Investing in cultural knowledge and practices can help preserve distinctive landscapes. The challenge is to make sure that the profits of tourism is relayed back into the local community, ensuring a collaborative relationship rather than one exploited by a parasitic tourist industry.
The risk faced by conservationists and governments looking to restore peatlands is to pursue a mythic natural history; as we are forced to imagine environmental futures we must reckon with unnatural histories of our landscapes.