Spent bogs and disused railways have huge eco-tourism potential
Ireland's largest landowners are Bord na Mona and Irish Rail. Between them they own hundreds of thousands of acres – much of which has been lying idle and disused for years.
However, an ambitious project to restore Ireland's boglands will transform large tracts of Ireland into a wetland Savannah-like wonderland and attract hundreds of thousands of eco-tourists.
Elsewhere, Irish Rail owns almost 1,000 miles of disused tracks and railway embankments – which at one stage linked every town in the country – and is keen to transform the old lines into grass-covered cycle and rambler ways.
Together, both eco-tourism initiatives will bring millions of euro to parts of the country where a tourist seldom sets foot.
Bord na Mona has concluded a successful trial run in Mayo, where it converted a dead, barren landscape into a Garden of Eden.
Bord na Mona and the Environmental Protection Agency now plan to breathe new life into 150,000 acres of severely degraded cut-away boglands, which are totally devoid of any life.
Bord na Mona manages a staggering 200,000 acres of bogland, three-quarters of which has become spent and lifeless due to the industrial harvesting of peat.
However, over 90,000 acres of land may be available for rewetting and restoration over the coming years with more lands coming on stream as time goes on.
At one stage, almost 13 per cent of Ireland's landmass consisted of bogs, which, in their original pristine condition, were teeming with birds, exotic plants and insect life.
The pilot project on a rewetted industrial cutaway bog in Bellacorick, in northwest Co Mayo, has shown that over time, birds and plants and wildlife flourish if the bogs are left to fill up with water naturally.
For years, the 16,000-acre Bellacorick bog near Belmullet was dead and barren and resembled a post-apocalyptic landscape. Now, however, the pilot scheme resembles the Florida Everglades and is teeming with life.
Biologist and water chemist Dr David Wilson, who was part of the UCD end of the research, has seen first-hand what can be achieved by rewetting industrial scarred boglands.
"It went from a desert with nothing growing on it to a wetland in a really short space of time.
"When the Sphagnum mosses appear the wetland plants start growing, then everything else starts to come in, from spiders and mites to butterflies.
"The important thing is to maintain drainage and to keep the water table as high as possible. Sphagnum mosses are the building blocks of the bog, they are like sponges and they hold up the water table. They also protect the bogs in dry periods by holding on to the water."
Bord na Mona botanist and zoologist Dr Catherine Farrell, who oversaw the restoration project, says that Bellacorick is only the beginning.
"The area is now like the landscape that existed in Ireland 8,000 years ago; we call it teenage peat land – it has been a fantastic story and we are delighted. We have 75,000 acres (30,000 hectares) along the Shannon that will be rewetted and turned into a blue fen wetland habitat teeming with wildlife.
"We have also identified bogs in the midlands, which we plan to restore as part of a five-year plan," explains Dr Farrell.
Restoring spent bogs costs practically nothing and works out at roughly €150 per acre.
Eco-tourism, which attracts walkers and cyclists, has become a major niche market in Ireland. A key ingredient are green routes that are way off the main roads – and that is where Irish Rail comes in.
The Department of Transport, South Kerry Partnership and Kerry County Council have commissioned a feasibility study into creating a 26km cycleway between Glenbeigh and Renard using the old abandoned railway line.
The project is a win-win for everyone, with a disused line being converted into a profitable rambler and cycle way.
Typically, it costs roughly €25,000 a mile to convert a route into a green rambler way with full payback within six years. A study by Trinity College into the 42km-long Great Western Greenway, which runs from Westport to Achill, showed it was found to generate €1.1m for the local economy every year.
If the paths were rolled out across all the old disused railway routes, it would unlock the entire country, enabling ramblers and cyclists to travel from, say, Dublin city to remotest Achill Island without ever meeting a car.