13th June 2019
As King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands begin their 3 Day State visit to Ireland Dr. Catherine O’Connell along with the staff and volunteers of the Irish Peatland Conservation would like to extend a warm welcome to Ireland. To follow Dr. Catherine O’Connell, CEO of the Irish Peatland Conservation Council shares with you her experience of attending the Peatlands in Perspective Symposium hosted by the Netherlands in 1987.
‘When I was a student volunteer with the Irish Peatland Conservation Council back in 1987 I got the opportunity to travel to the Netherlands and to be part of an international “Peatlands in Perspective Symposium” highlighting the importance of protecting Irish bogs. The Dutch were the first country in Europe to cut out all of their peatland habitats – the turf fuelled their Golden Age of the 17th Century. I remember the shock when one member of the Irish group present on a visit to the last remnant bog in that country at Bargerveen decided to take a quick walk out onto the site from the embankment as something caught their eye. With much diplomacy it was explained that the reserve was so precious and so rare that no-one was permitted to leave their foot print on it, or endanger the last refuge for insect-eating Sundew and Sphagnum moss in their country. Later during the trip there was more excitement when the late HRH Prince Bernhard Fons handed over the deeds of Scragh Bog in Co. Westmeath to Mr Noel Tracey TD as a gift of good will and commitment from the Dutch nation to help Ireland’s peatland conservation efforts. The gift tag on the deeds read “that Ireland should protect pristine examples of our peatland habitats before they were all modified by other land uses and developments at which time their protection would cost millions of euro in terms of repairs”. That’s a battle the Irish Peatland Conservation Council still spearhead. Later that evening we had a fabulous meal in Castle Groeneveld, the menu inspired by bogs included Consommé the colour of bog water, peat moss Mousse and a mini turf Mocca!
This Symposium was the mastermind of Prof Matthijs Schouten, founder of the Dutch Foundation for Irish Bogs in 1984, the group who raised the funds needed to purchase Scragh Bog from the sale of Symbolic Share Certificates (a technique copied and used as a successful fundraiser by the Irish Peatland Conservation Council to this day). Journalists, politicans, NGO’s, students, academics, artists, musicians were all invited from Ireland to learn not to leave bog conservation for others to bring about when it is too late.
Over the years the Dutch and Irish nations have worked together developing their understanding of the science of Irish bogs, and the steps needed to manage and enhance them. Two other sites in Kerry and Galway were also purchased as gifts to the Irish people. The interest of the Dutch Royal Family in the Irish bogs has remained steadfast in the intervening years. Prof Schouten was knighted by Queen Beatrix in 2002 for his work in raising international awareness of Irish peatland habitats, their biodiversity and their immense carbon-storing capacity. “The preservation and protection of Ireland’s boglands is a matter that goes to the hearts of many Dutch people, especially because so much in our country has been lost”, HRH Queen Beatrice of the Netherlands. Queen Beatrix walked on Roundstone Bog in Connemara when it was threatened with an airport development in 1990 to raise awareness about the irreversible damage it would do to the peatland area.
That trip to the Netherlands all those years ago put me on the road to a career in peatland education and conservation working with the Irish Peatland Conservation Council. I was not the only person impressed with the visit. President Michael D. Higgins also attended that symposium and has advocated widely for the natural environment all of his life. The visit of HRH King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands to Ireland brings all of these memories to the fore and the joys of the successes of the save the bogs campaign in Ireland over the last 35 years. I bid them a warm welcome and thank them for the rich living heritage of Irish bogs their family have given to the Irish people’. – Dr. Catherine O’Connell