‘The recovery of the raised bog starts precisely with the traces of its destruction’

‘The recovery of the raised bog starts precisely with the traces of its destruction’

As a child he came to the High Fens – “an hour’s drive from our house in Limburg. I loved it there, that vast rolling landscape with its deeply incised stream valleys and swamps, like a kind of natural sponge filled with rainwater.”

And later Maurice Paulissen (1973) remained a peat man. During his biology studies, he did fieldwork in Wallonia, in the raised bog areas of his youth. As a PhD student in ecology at Utrecht University, about twenty years ago, he made a trip to fens: ecosystems that are nourished not only by rainwater but also by groundwater or surface water. “I then conducted research into the nitrogen problem in quaking bogs, very biodiverse peat vegetation that float on a layer of water.”

But eventually Paulissen returned to those sponges from his youth. This summer he received his PhD a second time, this time as a landscape historian at Wageningen University. “I noticed that I was more interested in historical and human relationships with the landscape, beyond purely ecological relationships.” Cultural sponges is the title of his dissertation, in which he writes about the past and present of the raised bog areas in the Low Countries. He spent many hours among old maps and writings, gaining insight into the history of human relationships with raised bogs: for example, how they were appropriated as a resource, or functioned as a natural border area.

This cultural history has great emotional value for local residents

“High fens once covered large parts of the Netherlands – think of the Peel in Brabant or the Bourtangerveen in Drenthe. But within a few centuries the entire landscape has been transformed. Since the Middle Ages, the raised bog areas have largely disappeared due to peat extraction and cultivation; Nowadays all kinds of ecological restoration projects are taking place. Biodiversity goals, and increasingly also climate goals, are often the priority. But the rich collection of cultural-historical traces in raised bog landscapes also deserves attention. Moreover, these cultural traces can be – directly and indirectly – important for raised bog restoration.”

Cultural and natural sponges. How do they hang together?

“Within raised bog remnants, cultural remains such as peat pits and old drainage ditches are often the wet and sheltered places where new peat moss growth ensures the start of raised peat recovery. Even where the peat has been almost completely excavated, you can still find such traces. Paradoxically enough, raised bog restoration begins precisely with the traces of raised peat destruction.

“For local residents, this cultural history has great emotional value, and you notice that they sometimes feel sidelined when others start to interfere with ‘their’ area in the context of ecological restoration. Now that the peat restoration task is only increasing based on climate and biodiversity goals, my proposal is to involve residents more directly in management, and thus maintain and increase support for the interventions. Ecologists value ecosystems but too often see humans as an opponent, as a major disruptor – I hope that can change.”

Yes, it is a swamp landscape, but its accessibility varies in space and time

For a long time, the focus was not so much on the ecological but on the economic value of raised bogs.

“Yes, from the Late Middle Ages peat replaced wood as the main fuel in the Low Countries. Over the centuries, this extraction became increasingly large-scale, and this could lead to conflicts – for example because neighboring village communities both wanted to use the same peat area. In my research I also looked at this tension in the appropriation of peat.

“But trade certainly did not always cause problems. Before the rise of the commercial peat colonies, the peat areas were still so-called common lands, known in English as commons. Villages made their own regulations, and although the peat was in principle intended for their own use, small-scale trade was turned a blind eye. In Peel, Brabant, for example, peat trading was a source of income born out of necessity in the seventeenth century, during the Eighty Years’ War, and also later.”

De Peel is located on the border of North Brabant and Limburg, the Bourtangerveen bordered Germany… To what extent did raised bogs previously form natural barriers?

“If you look at old maps from, for example, the sixteenth century, you will see that those raised bog areas are very clearly drawn on them. You see that without exception they function as a border area: first of counties and duchies, later of provinces and countries. Initially I thought: logical, because those unforested and difficult-to-traverse landscapes were naturally clearly demarcated.

“But the more I looked into it, the better I understood that the raised bog landscape was in fact much more dynamic. Yes, it is a swamp landscape, but its accessibility varies in space and time. Sand ridges run through it that functioned as paths, and in winter the peat could freeze, making it possible to cross it even with a horse and cart. The same applied in extreme drought. That cliché of an absolute barrier therefore deserves nuance.”

All legislation and financing now comes from ecological goals

Speaking of clichés: you also conducted research into the image of raised bogs. For example, the stereotypical image of a mysterious and dangerous area.

“That is a persistent image that you often see emerging, for example in fictional stories and popular scientific literature. But in fact, for centuries the image was both positive and negative. Yes, the nocturnal raised bogs were considered dangerous – you could get lost there and see mysterious ‘will-o’-the-wisps’. But during the day, functionality was paramount. After all, the raised bog was also a place for peat extraction and other uses, a source of energy and income.”

And now the picture is different again: a vulnerable landscape form, a hotspot for biodiversity.

“Yes, and cultural history must play a greater role in this. All legislation and financing now comes from ecological goals. The locals are really not against nature restoration, but sometimes find it a bit strange that the landscape that their ancestors have created with blood, sweat and tears is now being radically changed. That is why I advocate a management form in which local communities and nature organizations jointly manage raised bog landscapes.”

Do you still like going to Fens?

“Certainly. This summer we were with our family on the German side of the High Fens. Our eldest is just ten, the youngest is six, and of course I hope that they will now also appreciate the beauty and the heritage.”