The Sperrins: Stretching from the Strule Valley in the West to Lough Neagh in the East, the Sperrins AONB in Northern Ireland Encompasses a Glaciated Mountainous Landscape That's Steeped in History and Contains a Large Proportion of the UK's Internationally Important Blanket Bog

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'You're probably the first tourist to climb Mullaghmore,' says my companion as we reach the summit. 'We certainly don't get many of you up this way.' It's a perfect day to enjoy this wild, desolate landscape: sunny and clear with a cool breeze. Far off to the east, I can see the shimmering grey waters of Lough Neagh--the UK's largest lake. I can just make out the imposing silhouettes of the Mourne Mountains to the south, the Donegal highlands in the west and, to the north, the distinct profile of the Antrim Plateau, home to the Giant's Causeway.

The Sperrins Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) consists of a range of hills that straddle the Northern Ireland counties of Londonderry and Tyrone--at 100 square kilometres, it's one of the largest, yet least visited, upland areas in Ireland. The Sperrins the name derives from the Irish Na Speirini, meaning 'spurs of rock'--were sculpted by ice from metamorphic rock that formed many millions of years ago. The peaks would once have been much taller, but 12,000-15,000 years ago, an ice sheet sheered off their rough edges to give them their rounded whaleback appearance, while depositing rich glacial deposits in the valley floors.

Although the views across the Sperrins are undeniably impressive, we've actually climbed Mullaghmore in search of an unusual landscape feature that Martin Bradley, countryside officer for Strabane Council and part-time walking guide, is keen to show me.

'I'm big into bogs,' he says as he strides purposefully through the marshy soil. 'I studied bogs and sedimentology at university, and I just love to come up here and wander around, seeing all the different shapes in the peat hags. I'm in my own world.'

Rather than being some sort of mystical bog inhabitant, peat hags are erosional features of upland blanket bog that are formed when the surrounding peat has been washed or blown away by heavy rain and strong winds. Usually between one and three metres wide, they resemble large, squat mud-mushrooms, topped off with an unruly mix of grass, moss or heather.

TURFED OUT

As we explore this bizarre field of peat pinnacles, leaving deep boot prints in our wake, I can't help wondering if we might be damaging this unusual habitat, which forms a characteristic part of the Sperrins' landscape. Peat--often referred to in Ireland as turf--is a type of soil that contains a large amount of dead organic matter, accumulated over thousands of years. According to the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), it takes about ten years for one centimetre of peat to form; once this happens, it supports a number of rare and unusual plants and animals.

Ireland's cool, wet climate is ideal for peat, and several small areas of protected intact blanket and raised bog are found within the AONB, but in the past century, both types of bog have suffered dramatic decline. But it isn't walkers that are putting them under strain--the Sperrins' five designated footpaths are never crowded ('You'll be lucky if you see another walker,' says Bradley)--it's exploitation for fuel.

According to the NIEA, 46 per cent of the blanket bogs and 77 per cent of the raised bogs in Northern Ireland are believed to have, at some point, been cut and re-cut for fuel. 'You can see the darker areas and the lines on the hills where they've cut the peat or blanket bog in the past and taken it down the hill for their turf fires,' says Bradley.

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And in some areas, it's pretty clear from the muddy scars in the blanket bogs--as well as the lines of plastic bags filled with neatly cut peat--that the practice is ongoing. 'People still have turbary rights [common or historical rights to cut peat], and at the current time, we're finding that they're starting to exploit those again--probably in response to rising oil prices,' says Ciaran Mullan, nature conservation manager at the Ulster Wildlife Trust. …