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Industrial turf cutting has decimated our natural habitats.

Pádraic Fogarty Ireland's bogs are its rainforests — we have failed them

The environmental campaigner says the European legal action against the Irish State over failure to protect bogs has been a long time coming.

THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION has announced that it is finally taking Ireland to court for the State’s failure to stop peat mining in Special Areas of Conservation (SAC).

It comes fully 13 years after issuing its first warning so no one can accuse the EC of moving with undue haste! The SACs form a small fraction of all the bogs in Ireland and are those that are nearest to their original condition.

They are ‘priority habitats’, meaning that they were identified as warranting the strictest level of protection in the EU’s Habitats Directive, which was agreed in 1992.

Broadly speaking, we have two kinds of bogs: raised bogs that started life as lakes at the end of the ice age and are mostly found in the midlands, and blanket bogs which are a product of high rainfall and are mostly found in upland areas and the Atlantic coastline. Both types have been extensively damaged due to drainage for agriculture, afforestation with conifer monocultures, industrial-scale mining by Bord na Móna and private companies, fires, wind farms and grazing by throngs of free-roaming sheep. Protecting the last remnants of these unique habitats in SACs was to have at least provided a barrier to their total destruction.

Failing our bogs

Over a decade ago a National Peatland Strategy was to have signalled a final closing out of all the contentious issues surrounding peat and its uses, including an end to all turf extraction on the raised bog SACs. This didn’t happen, however, and figures in recent years show that illegal use of heavy machinery has continued on anywhere from a third to a quarter of all sites. The State has been monitoring this closely but has done very little about it.

On blanket bogs, the situation is even worse as no regime has been put in place for controlling damaging practices, e.g. by providing compensation schemes for those affected. The scale of the damage on blanket bogs is not known although the last time there was an assessment by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) in 2019, they were labelled as ‘bad status’ and deteriorating.

peat-cutting-for-fuel-roundstone-blanket-bog-connemara-county-galway-ireland Turf cutting on a blanket bog in the west of Ireland. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Decades of can-kicking have forced the European Commission, which has contributed millions of euros towards restoration measures, to take this court action. Although we need to protect and restore peatlands everywhere, this move is only in relation to the SACs.

Unfortunately, the European Court of Justice is a familiar place for the Irish authorities. In recent years the country has been referred there for failing to implement the Water Framework Directive, failure to implement measures to control the spread of alien invasive species as well as for having elevated levels of toxic chemicals in drinking water. Last year, the Court found that Ireland had roundly failed to implement the Habitats Directive generally, not just the bits designed to protect bogs.

Ending peat extraction

Over a decade ago, a serious effort was made to enforce the law and end peat extraction on raised bog SACs. It led to rancorous scenes that are no doubt fresh in the memories of many politicians, few of whom had any interest in peatland conservation. Turf remains a contentious issue and, against a backdrop of farmer protests and a general backlash against the meagre attempts that have been made to address our environmental problems, it seems few politicians today have any appetite to take this issue on.

The vacuum created by State inaction comes at a high price. Criminal activity carried out under the noses of the authorities sends a message that environmental crimes will not be treated as crimes at all, so encouraging other kinds of law breaking. It’s also a slap in the face for local communities who are deprived of healthy natural environments.

When the State has chosen to act in a considered way with local people and ecologists, conservation has been remarkably popular. A new relationship with these bogs has flourished, one that is based on pride in connections with nature and local heritage. This is absent where the State has chosen not to live up to its duties.

Politicians are not afraid of fines from the EU, and there is probably hay to be made from thumbing their noses at Brussels. But it is not Brussels that suffers the remorseless degradation of our natural environment. It is the very people that the same politicians claim they are representing.

Pádraic Fogarty is an environmental campaigner. 

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