Peat: leaves, wood and water compressed into the earth

Photo of turf in ireland

General Description / Cultural Significance

Turf is a term for peat, sods dug from bogs that cover large expanses of land, and that have been burned for heat for thousands of years. This is the most significant scent culturally for Ireland. Turf is made up of decayed vegetation compressed into the earth in a boggy moist area over time. It is turned, cut, and laid out to dry so it can be used for fuel, and this is when the earthy woodsy scent can be experienced, emanating as it burns. Generations of Irish people have memories of sitting around turf fires, socializing, and listening to stories. The turf fire is the warmest place in any Irish house and the hub of activity. The unique smell of turf smoke is known by everyone in Ireland and is part of their culture and national identity.

Peatlands are important to history, culture, and the economy. They are vast areas of land that are assets in the ways that rainforests are for other countries of the world. In the bogs, peat accumulates over hundreds and thousands of years, with depths of 45 centimeters. Its composition includes partly decayed remains of plants—trees like yew, oak, pine, and birch, and flowers like Heather and gorse. The oldest peats in Ireland’s peatlands are 9,000 years old. 

Climate Change/Conservation Status

Ireland does not have oil, and little gas or coal, so they have harvested and burned turf for fuel. But when bogs are drained for cutting, the organic matter breaks down, releasing greenhouse gases, and more emissions are released when the bricks are burned.

Peat bogs take thousands of years to evolve, and once destroyed, it is probably impossible to restore the historic richness of the soil, the habitat it provides, and the climate-mitigating capacity of the turf. Six of Ireland’s warmest years have occurred since 1990, and its frost season is shortening. Ocean acidification has begun to disrupt rain ecosystems around the country. Ireland has designed plans to bring down the country’s climate-changing emissions and to make the country more climate-resistant by planting more trees. However, as agriculture is both key to the country’s economy and the main source of its greenhouse gases, its plans to step up its economy are currently in conflict with its greenhouse gas emissions goals. The nitrogen-based fertilizers that are spread on Ireland’s grasslands are a significant contributor to their greenhouse gas emissions, but the major problem is the flatulence of their herds of over 7 million cattle. A report by The Institute of International and European Affairs writes that the plan for expansion of food output and increasingly stringent emissions reductions suggest contradictions between Ireland’s climate and agriculture policy objectives. In 2023,  efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions included culling dairy cows.

Ireland is rapidly stopping turf extraction and revaluing bogs for their extremely important climate contribution. They are moving to sustainable energy, especially wind, to meet their climate goal of having net zero emissions by 2050.

On October 16th, 2017, Hurricane Ophelia, the strongest eastern Atlantic hurricane on record, hit Ireland with violent wind, heavy rain, storm surge, and life-threatening flooding. Ireland continues to get warmer and wetter.

According to the Armagh Observatory, October 2023 was the wettest month on record in Ireland and with it came with extreme flooding events. 

Alternate Names

Cooke, K., 2017. Ireland’s climate plan offers vague intentions. Smarter Shift and Energy Mix Productions. [website]

Curtin, J., and Arnold, T., 2016. A Climate-Smart Pathway for Irish Agricultural Development. The Institute of International and European Affairs.

EPA, n.d. What Impact Will Climate Change Have For Ireland? Environmental Protection Agency. [website]

Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations. This statement can be found on the World Sensorium original website.