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File image of a large scale peat excavation with machinery from a bog in Co Tipperary Alamy Stock Photo
for peat's sake

Ireland could face legal action over failure to protect peat bogs from turf cutting

The European Commission has referred Ireland to the EU Court of Justice over the issue.

LAST UPDATE | 13 Mar

IRELAND IS FACING legal action after the European Commission referred the State to the EU’s Court of Justice over a failure to protect peat bogs from turf cutting.

It called on Ireland to “redouble efforts” to move turf cutting machines away from peat bogs “before the damage done makes restoration impossible”.

The European Commission today said Ireland has “failed to apply the Habitats Directive to protect sites designated for raised bog and blanket bog habitats from turf cutting”.

The Habitats Directive aims to protect over a thousand species, including mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish invertebrates, and plants, and habitat types. The Directive requires EU member states to protect natural habitats from harmful activities.

In a statement this evening, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage said it “stands ready to to defend its position” after engaging with the European Commission and relevant stakeholders.

Peat bogs are a biodiversity hotspot which host important insect and bird species and are categorised as “priority” habitats under the Directive. The European Commission noted that peat bogs are “vital” carbon sinks, meaning it absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases.

The Commission said “Ireland hosts some of the most unique active raised bog sites in the EU, as well as large areas of still active blanket bog”. It’s called on Ireland to keep healthy peat in the ground and to avoid emissions by burning peat.

A recent UN report estimated that Ireland’s degraded peatlands emit 21.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year.

In a statement today, the European Union said peat bogs in Ireland “continue to be degraded through drainage and turf cutting activities” and added that “insufficient action is being taken to restore the sites”.

It’s not the first time Ireland has been reprimanded by the European Commission over this issue.

It sent a letter of formal notice to Ireland in January 2011, and while the Commission acknowledged some progress has been made, it said “Irish authorities have not fully addressed the shortcomings”.

While the Commission noted that some restoration work has been undertaken on raised bog sites, it said no action has been taken “regarding blanket bog sites where Ireland has failed to put in place an effective regulatory regime to protect these unique bog sites”.

As a result, the Commission sent an additional “reasoned opinion” to Ireland September 2022.

A reasoned opinion outlines why the Commission considers a country is breaching EU law and requests that the country informs the Commission of the measures taken to rectify the issue.

The Commission today said that it doesn’t deem Irish effort to date to be sufficient and is therefore referring Ireland to the Court of Justice of the European Union.

While the Commission notes that families traditionally cut peat by hand, it added that “cutting today is done by machine resulting in additional damage to the structure of these sites”.

“Digging and drainage fundamentally undermines their hydrology (movement of water), making restoration challenging.

“Ireland must redouble its efforts to move turf cutting machines away from these sites before the damage done makes restoration impossible.”

This evening the Departement defended Ireland’s efforts to date. A spokesperson said the State has invested significantly in the conservation and restoration of peatlands since 2011 and “additional progress” has been achieved with relevant stakeholders.

The Department argues that the State has taken measures to introduce a “complete cessation” of turf-cutting, on almost 80% of relevant peatlands since 2011.

A spokesperson said this has resulted in a reduction of almost 40% of turf cutting levels in 2023 on raised bogs, compared to 2022.

“Further reductions are expected this year as a result of discussions ongoing presently with turf cutting contractors and their representatives,” the spokesperson added.

More measures include the ramping up of peat restoration and the introduction of further regulations in place against turf cutting. The spokesperson said the Department will “carefully consider” the details of the case once the documents have been filed with the court.

“In the meantime, the Department will continue to implement, prioritise, and advance measures to conserve our protected peatlands in consultation with stakeholders,” they added.

Includes reporting by Muiris O’Cearbhaill

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