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Peat was cut at 280 plots in protected bogs last year without State consent

Noteworthy analysis reveals cutting has frequently taken place at 30 protected sites over the past decade despite clear prohibitions since 2011.

PEAT WAS EXTRACTED from over 280 plots on EU protected active raised bog sites in 2021 without any consent from State authorities, new data released to Noteworthy reveals. 

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. 

Unlike bogs degraded from decades of peat extraction, drainage and land use change, active raised bog – mainly found in the Midlands – is wet and acts as a carbon sink. They also support a range of rare species and plants, help improve water quality and storage, and offer amenity and tourism options.

From our original 310,000 hectares of active raised bog, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) estimated in 2019 that the entire raised bog network comprised just under 11,000 hectares, of which just 1,195 hectares was active raised bog. 

Although our peatlands are in trouble, Ireland is still estimated to hold 60% of Europe’s remaining active raised bog network, presenting the State with a special responsibility to conserve these sites and ensure that unlawful cutting does not occur. 

Speaking in the Dail last May, the Minister for State with responsibility for peatlands Malcolm Noonan said his Department – under which the NPWS sits – routinely carry out patrols and site visits to monitor for signs of extraction. 

Despite these efforts, NPWS data released under Freedom of the Information (FOI) paints a different picture of continued widespread cutting in the protected sites.

Following a deep analysis of the NPWS data and dozens of State files on individual protected bogs, the latest article in Noteworthy’s PEAT SAKE series, reveals how:

  • Peat-cutting continues to be a widespread issue across the raised bog network, with cutting frequently taking place in 30 protected sites since 2012
  • No ministerial consents have been granted by the State to allow for peat extraction in any of the protected raised bog network sites
  • NPWS records show that limited restoration work was undertaken until the late 2010s, with decades of peat cutting threatening the future prospects of various bogs
  • There was a 12- to 18-year gap between sites being designated for protection and detailed conservation objectives being drawn up to ensure raised bogs are protected.

As part of its PEAT SAKE series, Noteworthy has examined continued  peat extraction for horticultural use and revealed 500,000 tons of peat products were exported in 2021, despite the industry stating that stockpiles are running out. You can read these articles here.  

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Peat_Harvesting_Connamara-13 Rows of mechanically cut peat in Connemara, Co Galway Source: Niall Sargent/Noteworthy

The cutting of peat has very much been a mainstay of rural life in Ireland, acting as a stable and cheap fuel in stoves and open fireplaces the country over for generations. 

While the National Peatlands Strategy – published in 2015 – recognises the traditional right to cut peat, it states that this right must be balanced with the State’s legal obligations to protect our active raised bog network listed as a priority habitat under the Habitats Directive.

Priority status is only granted to habitats under threat of disappearing within the EU, and the data suggests that this is certainly true in Ireland. Over 37% of our active raised bog network has been lost in the past two decades and the EU estimates that just 1% of Ireland’s active raised bogs now remain after years of land reclamation and peat-cutting. 

Despite these findings, the position to balance the State’s legal obligations with the traditional right to cut peat for domestic purposes outlined in the National Peatlands Strategy was recently reinforced by Malcolm Noonan when asked about efforts to prevent cutting in the raised bog network.

“This balanced approach is based on a respect for and understanding of that [peat-cutting] tradition, and has been carefully nurtured to build trust and work with stakeholders to save the natural heritage of Ireland’s bogs,” he said. 

For example, significant resources have been used since 2012 to try and control cutting on protected sites, including financial compensation for 15 years for those who agree to stop all cutting. Just over 2,800 cutters have signed up to date.

The Department of Housing did not provide data on the total amount of compensation paid on each designated bog to date, with the latest publicly available figures indicating that €47 million was paid out as of May 2021

As an alternative to payments, cutters may be relocated to non-designated sites where they can extract peat for potentially up to 65 years. To date, 1,108 peat cutters have been relocated.

Cutting continues unabated

Despite these efforts to bring cutters onside and restore the bogs in recent years, Noteworthy’s analysis of the released NPWS data points to little to no change in the level of cutting activity in recent years, with plots cut on 30 protected sites since 2012.

In April 2020, the European Commission also outlined its concern, stating that it believed the ban on peat cutting introduced in 2011 has “not been met with an effective response”.

Our analysis found that cutting was still taking place at 282 plots in 2021, with peat extraction carried out at 320 plots per year on average in protected areas since 2012.

Half of all the documented cases have taken place at a handful of protected areas. The key trouble spots where significant cutting continues are Monivea Bog and Barraoughter Bog in Co Galway, Mouds Bog in Co Kildare, and Callow Bog in Co Roscommon.

At the end of June 2013, for example, up to 150 bog owners and supporters gathered at Monivea Bog in Co Galway in open defiance of the ban on cutting. According to The Irish Times, 12 machines moved on to the bog, cutting 70 banks of peat.

According to the NPWS data, cutting was still taking place at 51 plots in 2021, despite the wildlife service calling  for the cessation of cutting at Monivea Bog in 2006 due to its importance as one of the most westerly examples of a relatively intact raised bog.

According to a 2013 survey of the large 286 hectare site just north of Athenry, almost 8% of the high bog was lost to peat cutting in the previous 15 years. The survey found that restoration works “cannot be employed until such activities stop”. 

Cutting preventing bog recovery

Mouds Bog in Co Kildare – the site with the second highest number of plots cut since 2012 – was also identified for immediate cessation of cutting in a landmark 2006 NPWS assessment of impacts of peat cutting on protected raised bogs. 

Yet, in 2021, cutting was identified at 38 plots at the large bog complex close to Newbridge. The latest site synopsis, updated in 2014, said that land use on the site consisted of extensive industrial peat moss production, as well as domestic peat cutting along the margins of the bog.

Callow Bog in Co Roscommon has also seen significant cutting since 2012, with 22 plots cut last year. A 2012 survey found that peat cutting on the bog had “already had a serious negative impact over a long period” and that “continuation of cutting activities will prevent the recovery of the high bog”.

The survey recommended the cessation of cutting that it said had reduced the area of high bog by almost 3.5 hectares between 2004 and 2010.

The Irish Wildlife Trust’s Pádraic Fogarty said that the NPWS data, released to the conservation group and analysed by Noteworthy, shows there is more focus on protecting those cutting peat rather than the internationally important peatlands themselves.

“The battle to save the bogs has been traumatic for many involved but we at least thought that issues had been resolved with the prohibition on peat-cutting in raised bog. Now we learn that these have been meaningless exercises and that we’re continuing to lose even these tiny fragments.”

He said it is “bizarre” that, while EU and State funding is used to actively block drains and rewet bogs, “elsewhere authorities are turning a blind eye to the use of heavy machinery cutting the bogs away”. “So far, we’ve been doing a spectacular job of monitoring the disappearance of nature in Ireland,” he said. 

In a statement to Noteworthy, the Department of Housing said that fcutting has “significantly decreased” since restrictions was introduced. It said that it continues to monitor for potential illegal cutting through aerial monitoring and use of satellite imagery.

“The Department has investigated and taken a number of prosecutions in the last number of years, some of which are ongoing, as well as seek[ing] High Court injunctive relief to prevent illegal turf cutting,” it said. 

No consents granted for cutting

Peat cutting may take place within defined areas in protected raised bog, but only with Ministerial consent where it has been shown that there are no suitable alternative sites or insufficient plot spaces within a relocation site for those who wish to continue peat-cutting.

According to the raised bog network management plan, consent cannot be granted unless it is proven that cutting will not have an adverse effect following a detailed environmental assessment as per strict EU law. ”In the interim, no cutting should take place on these sites,” the plan states. 

According to Malcolm Noonan, as of July 2020, his Department was examining parts of 14 protected sites where domestic turf cutting may continue. This includes Monivea Bog and Mouds Bog.

No consents have been granted to date, however, with the Department of Housing telling the investigative team that it is “currently considering whether or not some turf cutting on certain [protected bogs] could be permitted in a limited number of cases”.

Analysis of the NPWS data shows that cutting was identified at 77 plots in 2021 – over 25% of the total – on protected bog that have not been considered for consent. This includes Ardgraigue Bog in Co Galway, a small bog of “excellent quality” that has large amounts of a nationally rare sphagnum moss

Twenty-two plots were cut in 2021 at Cloonchambers Bog in Co Roscommon, another site that has not been considered for small-scale cutting. Located 6km west of Castlerea, the large bog is described by the NPWS as a “large and important western raised bog site”. 

At Corbo Bog in Co Roscommon, a remnant of a much larger bog now mostly cutover, 11 plots were cut in 2021, the same number as in 2012 when an NPWS survey estimated that the area of active raised bog decreased slightly since 2004.

“Peat cutting and associated drainage in the east and southeast of the bog are likely to have directly caused the decline in Active Raised Bog,” the survey found. 

Management of sites overdue

Over time, rehabilitation works – such as blocking drains and rewetting bogs – can turn degraded parts of the bogs from carbon sources into carbon sinks, actively taking in and storing carbon in the underlying peat layers. 

According to the NPWS, positive results can be achieved over a 10-year timeframe on favourable areas of the bog by blocking drains. Restoration measures are currently being undertaken in 12 protected bogs, with funding set aside for further works up to 2027.

Such work is long overdue as, despite the designation of the raised bog sites as protected areas between 1997 and 2003, it was not until 2017 that a national management plan was launched setting out how they should be managed, conserved and restored. 

The plan was prepared in response to an on-going infringement action against Ireland for failure to fully protect bogs in line with requirements under the Habitats Directive. There are also concerns over the extent to which restoration actions have been implemented to date.

The NPWS reported to the EU in 2019 that, “based on the level of implementation of management actions within the reporting period [2013-2019], and the persistence of negatively impacting activities” such as peat extraction, the status of the network is “bad and deteriorating”. 

In a statement, the Department of Housing said the NPWS has accelerated works to restore bogs since 2018. This includes restoration measures on 3,200 hectares of raised bogs, with works either completed, commenced or in preparation on over half of the network sites. Further restoration works are also being carried out on 2,700 hectares under an EU-funded project with Bord na Mona.

Peat_Harvesting_Connamara-15 Turf cut from a bog in Co Galway Source: Niall Sargent/Noteworthy

Delay in conservation objectives

There have also been significant gaps between the designation of sites as protected areas and the setting of site specific conservation objectives (SSCOs) for each bog. 

EU states are required to develop conservation objectives specific to each protected site to maximise the protection of the habitat. SSCOs should be established within six years of a site’s designation as a protected area.

Monivea Bog, for example, where the largest number of plots have been cut since 2012 – was designated in April 2003, yet, conservation objectives for the 286 hectare area were not set until December 2015. 

Similarly, Mouds Bog in Co Kildare – that had the second highest number of plots cut last year – was designated in 2003, yet conservation objectives were only issued in November 2015 to restore 105.8 hectares of active raised bog there.

This is an ongoing problem in Ireland’s entire protected network, with a recent Noteworthy investigation finding that it took the State between 15 and 23 years to set SSCOs for over 260 of Ireland’s protected sites. 

The Department of Housing told the investigative team that it is “not in position to comment on the question in relation to SSCO’s and the impacts on the sites at this time having regard to on-going legal proceedings”.

Last year, the European Commission started infringement procedures against Ireland for failure to set site-specific conservation objectives for a number of protected areas.

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As part of its PEAT SAKE series, Noteworthy has already examined extraction of peat for horticultural use and revealed 500,000 tons of peat were exported in 2021 despite industry stating stockpiles are running out. You can read these articles here.  

Noteworthy will publish more articles over the coming months as it delves into enforcement issues around large-scale extraction of peat in the Midlands.

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This article was written by Niall Sargent of Noteworthy. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers. 

Noteworthy is the investigative journalism platform from The Journal. You can support our work by helping to fund one of our other investigation proposals or submitting an idea for a story. Click here to find out more >>

We also have a number of climate and biodiversity-themed investigation proposals which you can view here.  

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