The bog stretches like a heathery savanna where Scots pines stand in for acacia trees. Tempting as it is to strike out across this expanse, I know better. It has been a frustration since childhood how bogland creates an illusion of unfenced freedom that it promptly undermines by the attention required for placing one’s feet. Thankfully, this is Peatlands Park, which was set up to promote understanding of a now marginal habitat. Following the tradition of trackways recorded in this area since at least the bronze age, my footing is assured by miles of trails that protect the bog’s fragile surface. I can lift my gaze.
Those Scots pines are telling. I’m at Mullenakill, a rare uncut fragment of lowland bog that lent its name (which probably means “hilltop church”) to the Verner baronetcy’s Churchill estate. These former landowners had tried to “improve” the landscape by planting the pines. Many are stunted, or dead wood, monuments to the waterlogged soil’s acid recalcitrance.
Yet the peat preserves the remains of an ancient forest. Its dominant species of oak (Quercus petraea) is remembered in the names of Derryhubbert and Derryane (“derry” is from the Irish doire, meaning “oak”), the adjacent cutover bogs where, after its harvesting for fuel, some peat is left. A gurgling raven points the way along ramparts spared by the Irish Peat Development Company, the commercial turbary, that operated here for much of the 20th century. Extraction of 2,000 years worth of peat has left a furrowed surface bristling with scrub. I tear a leaf of bog myrtle and inhale. The aroma insists sharply of the land’s different rejuvenation.
Wandering through fringes of downy birch, I stop to admire the glossy berries of alder buckthorn. On reaching the fen that has crusted over what was once Annaghgariff Lough, I’ve come almost full circle. I cross the single-track railway that previously served the turbary, and amble towards the Bog Garden. The signage advises a last look at the ground. What rivets my gaze is not the embroidery of mosses and lichens; nor the frowsy seed-heads of bog asphodel and white beak-sedge; and not even the limpid sundews and the gaping pitcher plants. It’s a single oak sapling, growing out of the wettest bog.