Nightjar falls silent following dire damage to raised bogs

John Feehan’s book charts effort to protect Offaly habitat and inherent biodiversity

As a teenage naturalist amid the bogs of Co Offaly, John Feehan tracked the sounds of corncrake and nightjar – the second even more mysterious as it churred away in the dusk. The sound rose and fell like a spinning wheel, the tuirne lin of the song.

Today, as Birr's veteran geologist, botanist and ecologist, Prof Feehan (75) can add optimist to the list. To call his latest book When the Nightjar Returns is no small act of faith. The bird has been locally silent in Offaly since the end of the 1960s and is now a summer rarity anywhere in Ireland.

A community’s faith in the future, indeed, is the story of the book. And for neighbours of hundreds of raised bogs in the midlands, it offers a model of effort and reward.

Killaun Bog is an isolated peatland outside Birr, about 3km square, reaching into a dozen or more townlands. In the deepest parts of what was once raised bog the peat is still 9m deep. Much of it is scarred by swathes of industrial shaving, some of it is forested with conifers, and the rim of the bog has been nibbled into by generations of turf cutters.


The “Greater Killaun Project”, as it’s known today, began some 30 years ago, when St Brendan’s, the local community secondary school in Birr, secured a reserve from Bord na Móna in part of the bog and brought care for biodiversity into its teaching.

With Feehan as guide, I visited the boardwalk built by the school in 1991 which led invitingly through the birches at the fringe of the bog. With support from Coillte and many other sources, including Offaly County Council, the boardwalk has been replaced and extended. It will soon be linked to a 20km trail around the entire bog – an "explorer's trackway", in the school's description.

In its drive for active learning, St Brendan’s pushed the limits of an older, passive curriculum. With Feehan as adviser, a blend of science and spiritual philosophy has forged an exceptional partnership of school and local community. Primed with new knowledge, its teachers look forward to leading school visitors to the bog.

Killaun is now made up of several parts with different owners. Among them is the Oxmantown Settlement Trust, which has taken on the care of the woodland fringe of bog formerly worked by Bord na Móna.

Feehan's book, an A4-sized paperback published by the school and county council for €20, has prolific illustration of the bog's natural history, landscape and human story. A long record of exploitation has left a wide variety of habitats, from bare peat and dry, high bog to the old cutover areas, and from furze scrub to the emergent vegetation of pools.

These offer homes to a surprising range of wildlife. The many pages on its spiders, for example, engaged even an arachnophobe like me. No fewer than 125 species were recorded in the past year, their abundance speaking for a wide range of insect prey.

Killaun is not alone in community action to protect a local raised bog, clearing all the dumped rubbish, blocking drains and opening a walking trail. But there are scores still unloved in the midlands.

Many share Killaun’s encircling birchwood on the old, turf-cutting ground and offer homes to hares, otters and ground-nesting birds. Each bog is a island in the sterile sweep of intensive farmland, with potential as a link in a network of biodiversity.

The damage to raised bogs has been dire, despite the nominal protection of 139 of them by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). As their promise of carbon storage adds to their value to nature, the two big State agencies with raised bogs as their territory have swung over to restoration and repair.

Last year, Bord na Móna was handed €5 million to begin restoration of 800 hectares of protected midland bogs, partly to create new jobs. Coillte pursues its own intensive programme, part-funded from the EU, to remove plantation forests from bogs in seven counties.

Getting rid of conifers, which shade out and drain the peat, is a priority in the manual for raised bog restoration published online by the NPWS. Here too are the practicalities of blocking drains, building bunds on high bog and cutover, and inoculating rewetted peat with sphagnum moss. Irish Wildlife Manual 99 clearly hopes that peatland enthusiasts will do much of the work, as can be seen already on many restoration bogs.

Once given a fresh future, as Feehan writes, the bog may best be left to find its own equilibrium – with any luck, a new and richer wilderness to welcome the return of the tuirne lin.