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The main threats to water quality posed by large-scale peat extraction sites are suspended solids deposited as silt downstream, and oil and fuel leakages from harvesting equipment. Elevated levels of dissolved organic matter, nutrients and metals are also observed in run-off from these sites. Silt/suspended solids cause lasting damage to river habitats by clogging gills, causing fish to suffocate and die, and by destroying spawning sites and insect habitats on the riverbed, thereby depriving fish of their food source. The impact on receiving watercourses is site-specific and depends on the scale of operation versus the size and quality of the receiving watercourse.

Activities carried out on peatlands, such as overgrazing, peat extraction and afforestation, can also have detrimental affects on water quality within local river catchments and on aquatic biodiversity. Overgrazing of a peatland leads to changes in species composition, and may lead to the creation of bare peat. This is followed by damage to the peat soil caused by compaction, and results in the erosion of peat. In severe cases, overgrazing may cause a “bog burst”. Mechanical peat extraction by private individuals and industry can lead to the deposition of peat silt in waterways. Peat sedimentation in salmonid and pearl mussel rivers is detrimental.

‘The widespread afforestation of peatlands has taken place since the 1950s, particularly in lowland and upland blanket bog. Drain installation, aerial fertilisation and the growth of conifers can impact on peatland and on the local river catchment by increasing siltation, eutrophication and acidification. To comply with the Sustainable Forestry Standard Code of Best Forest Practice, a species action plan for the Freshwater Pearl Mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera and Margaritifera durrovensis) is being produced. This species action plan contains a programme of measures, which aim to protect water quality by reducing the adverse impacts of peatland disturbance on water quality.’

This and further information on peatland activities can be found in Malone, S. and O’Connell, C. (2009) Ireland’s Peatland Conservation Action Plan 2020 – halting the loss of peatland biodiversity. Irish Peatland Conservation Council, Kildare.

More information can also be found here, in Shannon International River Basin District Project: Pealands Report. Chapter 3 focuses on the potential effects of peat excavation activities on water quality & control systems.

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