Drying irish turf stack - © Aurelien


Drying irish turf stack - © Aurelien Some Scotch whisky distilleries, such as those on Islay, use peat fires to dry malted barley. This gives the whiskies a distinctive smoky flavour, often called "peatiness".Turf, also called peat, is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation that is unique to natural areas called peatlands or bogs. Upon drying, turf can be used as fuel where trees are scarce : turf is traditionally used for cooking and domestic heating. Some Scotch whisky distilleries, such as those on Islay, use peat fires to dry malted barley. This gives the whiskies a distinctive smoky flavour, often called "peatiness".

In Ireland, most Irish homes are heated with peat, a natural organic compound known for its energy and fuel potential…. Although slightly fragrant, this substance is a wonderful way to heat at a low cost, and thus makes all the charm of a warm home in Ireland.

Peat, what is it?

Peat bogs, a major geological formation in Ireland

Derrygimlagh Bog - Dermot O'Halloran - cc

Derrygimlagh Bog – Dermot O’Halloran cc

Impossible when talking about Ireland not to evoke an evening in front of a good peat fire, giving off that very special smell. Impossible either to pass by these long mounds erected in the peatlands (peat bogs) located for the most part in the western counties of the island (mainly in Connemara).

Peatlands cover nearly 16% of Ireland (20,000 km²) and only 3 countries exceed it in percentage terms: Finland, Canada and Indonesia. A peat bog is generally particularly humid: this is why Ireland is one of the countries with so many peat bogs; rainfall is regular and abundant, and thus maintains a high humidity in natural environments.

How a peat bog works

In humid countries such as Ireland (250 days of rain per year), a soggy soil favours the development of hydrophilic plants (rush, sedge moss…) and especially sphagnum moss capable of absorbing huge quantities of liquid.) It is this plant, the sphagnum moss, which is at the origin of the creation of peat bogs…

By absorbing water, sphagnum moss draws oxygen, preventing dead matter from decomposing. Sphagnum moss actually grows on top of the dead organic waste, forming a layer of peat over time that continues to thicken. This peat is then used as fuel in Irish smokestacks when mined by the Irish.

A peat bog varies from 45 cm to 13 metres deep, and is essentially made up of :

  • 95% water
  • and 5% of vegetable and organic waste such as :
    • roots,
    • compost,
    • flowers,
    • seeds, etc..

Peat mining in Ireland

Peat, Ireland’s main natural energy resource

Before being used, peat requires a certain amount of extraction work which takes several months (the time to extract and form the peat clods and to dry them).

Bord na Móna is in fact one of the main companies in charge of peat extraction in the Irish peat bogs . This company then resells the peat to consumers at prices lower than the cost of firewood…

However, there are dangers in peat bogs if the exploitation of the bogs is carried out at breakneck speed… Over-exploitation of peat bogs can become a real danger for the survival of the peat bog, which no longer manages to preserve the organic balance of its plant compounds .

The different stages of peat exploitation

  • Opening of a peat bank: the surface vegetation and roots are cut with a spade. A first strip of peat is thus cleared.
  • Cutting of the peat: the clods are cut and laid out on the surface of the peat bog.
  • Spreading: the waterlogged clods are spread out and spaced apart to dry in the sun and wind.
  • Dressing: when they are firm, the lumps are erected to accelerate drying.
  • Stacking: the dried clods are piled up and sometimes covered with straw, in order to spend the winter on the bog.

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