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Commission warns Ireland over ‘stalled’ action to halt extraction in protected peatlands

The State has two months to act or potentially face legal action before the European Court of Justice.

Freshly cut peat in the protected Sliabh Beagh
Freshly cut peat in the protected Sliabh Beagh
Image: Niall Sargent/Noteworthy

THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION has resumed action against Ireland for continued failure to stop peat extraction in protected nature zones across the country. 

The Commission can take legal action – an infringement procedure – against an EU country that fails to implement EU law. It may also refer the issue to the Court of Justice (ECJ), which in certain cases, can impose financial penalties.

Over a decade ago, in June 2011, the Commission issued a reasoned opinion – the last stage before taking a case to the ECJ – against Ireland for failing to halt cutting activities in protected peatlands. 

In its latest infringement package release yesterday, the Commission said that, after a “long dialogue” with the State, it was issuing an additional reasoned opinion as “cutting activities are still ongoing and enforcement action appears to have stalled”.

The cutting of peat in Ireland’s active raised bog network was banned in 2011 to protect the internationally important sites listed as priority habitat for protection under EU law.

Despite attempts by Irish authorities to stop cutting, including compensating turf cutters and peatland restoration activities on some bogs, the Commission said that action is “too slow given the importance of this priority habitat and its precarious state”.

The State now has two months to respond to the Commission and take necessary measures to halt peat cutting on protected sites. If satisfactory action is not taken, the Commission then has the option to refer Ireland to the ECJ

  • As part of its PEAT’S SAKE series, Noteworthy has also examined the peat trade and unauthorised large-scale peat extraction. You can read these articles here.

Protected areas under pressure

As revealed by Noteworthy in January as part of the team’s PEAT SAKE investigation, peat was extracted from over 280 plots on EU protected active raised bog sites in 2021 without any consent from State authorities. 

The findings – based on data released to the Irish Wildlife Trust via Freedom of Information – found that, on average, peat had been extracted at 320 plots per year in protected areas since 2012. 

Almost half of all the documented cases have taken place at just four protected areas. The key trouble spots where significant cutting still continues are Monivea and Barraoughter bogs in Co Galway, Mouds bog in Co Kildare, and Callow bog in Co Roscommon.

From our original 310,000 hectares of active raised bog, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) estimated in 2017 that just 50,000 hectares remain, much in “poor ecological condition”. 

The ‘low hanging fruit’

Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), an environmental group that first lodged a complaint to European authorities about cutting in protected areas in June 2010, welcomed the resumption of the Commission’s case.

FIE Director Tony Lowes said that ending all peat extraction was the low hanging fruit of emission reductions. “The comparisons with the continuing destruction of the Amazon rainforests are increasingly accurate,” he said.

Peatlands are one of the world’s most vital ecosystems, supporting a range of rare plants and species, cleaning and filtering water, and mitigating flooding. While covering just 3% of the planet, they store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests combined.

Ireland has near perfect conditions for peat soils that cover 20% of our land mass yet contain 75% of all our soil organic carbon. Despite their vital role in tackling the dual biodiversity and climate crises, our peatlands are in bad and deteriorating condition and are now a net source of emissions

This is almost exclusively due to human exploitation of this vital natural resource as our bogs have long been seen for their economic value, drained and dug up as a fuel source, as growing material for horticulture or home gardening and reclaimed for agriculture and forestry.

Design for PEAT'S SAKE series - A stack of machine-cut peat

This article was supported by reader contributions to Noteworthy, The Journal’s community-led investigative platform. If you like this and our other work, consider contributing here

It is a follow-up to our PEAT’S SAKE series on the peat trade and unauthorised large-scale peat extraction. You can read these articles here.

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