DUBLIN, Ireland — That abiding image of Ireland--donkeys clambering down hillsides laden with peat for the home fires--could become fading folklore unless the alarm bells of anxious environmentalists are heeded.
It has taken a Dutch tale of woe and the pleadings of a British television naturalist to halt the decline of the bogs of Ireland.
The Dutch realized too late that they were plundering an irreplaceable ecological asset, and their mistakes have jolted Irish public opinion into calling for the preservation of what are now the last surviving bogs in Western Europe.
"Ireland can still avoid making the same mistakes, but only if the right decisions are made now," said Dr. Matthijs Schouten, chairman of the Dutch Foundation for the Conservation of Irish bogs.
Recalling the Dutch saga of depletion, he said, "Continuous exploitation since the 17th Century meant there was not a single intact bog left by the 1950s."
A Dutch bog at Bargerveen is now being reconstituted. But it is a hugely expensive exercise, and scientists concede that it may take centuries to get the bog back to its original state.
Dutch environmentalists, keen to avoid another disaster, raised $300,000 to purchase four prime Irish bog sites as permanent nature reserves.
Afforestation, turf cutting and drainage have been gradually whittling away the bogs that still cover a fifth of this rugged and wind-swept country.
Environmentalists stress the ecological value of Irish bogs, which are spared the sharp frosts of their Finnish and Soviet counterparts and therefore boast a huge range of plant and animal life.
Amid the bogs, ornithologists have listed 60 species of birds, 100 different types of insects and 113 plants, mosses and lichen. They are a naturalist's paradise, but they turn into a wasteland once the peat is stripped away.
The Dutch were not alone in raising the alarm. British botanist and television personality David Bellamy campaigned successfully to save the Clara Bog in central Ireland.
Rescued from its fate as fuel for a local power station, Clara Bog is now being preserved as a unique habitat for flora and fauna where merlins can hunt in the peat lands and red grouse and hares graze in the heather.
2.47 Million Acres
Ireland escaped the worst excesses of the Industrial Revolution, and its largely agricultural society can still today boast more than 2.47 million acres of bog land.
But Irish Public Works Minister Sean Treacy outlined for the Dutch the economic pressures of an energy-hungry and isolated island on the edge of Europe with only limited resources for conserving the irreplaceable.
"Because of the lack of an alternative fuel and the ready and bountiful availability of peat, Ireland has looked to its vast peat land resource in an effort to reduce its almost total dependence on imports for other sources of fuel," he said.
He that said Ireland, the least forested country in Europe, was planting trees to reduce its dependence on imported timber.
Appeal for Aid Funds
But he conceded: "Bogs have proved an attractive and useful subject for planting. They are very important to the Irish economy, and tree planting and harvesting of peat by private developers and the state agency results in destruction."
His department would like to conserve up to 370,000 acres of bog land as permanent nature reserves, but such giant tracts could cost up to $75 million.
Ireland, battling to control its burgeoning national debt with stringent public service cuts, has appealed for European Community aid funds.
"Resources are scarce in our country, particularly at this time," Treacy said. "And there is only so much we can hope to achieve at the national level.
"I know that in time every last bog will be cut away or irreplaceably damaged unless something is done about it and that we will have irretrievably lost a valuable part of our environmental heritage."