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Your guide to: The turf cutting restrictions

Hundreds of turf cutters have stepped up their protesting this week. But what are they protesting about? We bring you both sides in this contentious issue.

Turf being stacked for drying for domestic use on the Broken Bottles Bog (part of the Bog of Allen) in County Offaly.
Turf being stacked for drying for domestic use on the Broken Bottles Bog (part of the Bog of Allen) in County Offaly.
Image: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

HUNDREDS OF TURF cutters have been using the upcoming presidential election as a means of  showing the candidates how disappointed they are about the current turf-cutting restrictions.

But what are these restrictions, and why are turf cutters up in arms about them?

TheJournal.ie takes a look at this contentious issue from both sides.

The current state of our bogs

The government funded a four-year report, Boglands, by the European Protection Agency into Ireland’s peatland areas.

It found that though peat soils cover 20 per cent of the national land area, there are no more intact raised bogs in Ireland while very few peatlands remain in their natural state.

The current area of active raised bog stands at 2,000 ha, less than 6 per cent of the protected raised bog area.

It is estimated that between 2 per cent and 4 per cent (40–80 ha) of this active area is being lost every year mainly as a result of turf cutting.

Even if turf cutting was stopped, peat oxidation would continue (due to drainage) unless measures were employed to stop and revert this.

According to the document, peatlands are “Ireland’s last great area of wilderness” and the management of the peatlands was not sustainable in either past or present time.

It also says that disturbances in the form of industrial and domestic peat extraction, private afforestation, overgrazing, wind farms and recreational activities “have had and are having major negative impacts on the hydrology and ecology of these habitats”.

It says that people attach a social value to the domestic cutting of peat and “do not always recognise a contradiction with peatland preservation”.

The study identified:

considerable ambiguity and lack of  understanding as to the significance of the peatland resource and, in particular, its role in provision of ecosystem services.

It suggests it is time to open the debate and actively involve the public; to form a Peatland Strategy Group and peatland awareness programmes.

It also believes the creation of a National Peatland Park deserves serious consideration and support from the Government.

EU Habitats Directive

The Habitats Directive forms the cornerstone of Europe’s nature conservation policy.

It is built around the Natura 2000 network of protected sites and the strict system of species protection.

There are over 1500 raised bogs in Ireland and only 139 of these have been designated for nature protection within 130 sites.

The European Commission has been critical of Ireland’s approach to the protection of peatland habitat and first initiated infringement proceedings against Ireland in 1999. It again began proceedings in January this year.

The Government took decisive action, in relation to the cessation of turf cutting on 53 designated Special Area of Conservation (SAC) raised bogs, to ensure that Ireland would not be subject to legal action and potentially serious fines in the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan has twice met with EU Environment Commissioner Potočnik to discuss the matter.

The Government has held a consistent line on this issue since taking office – that all cutting must cease on Ireland’s 53 designated raised bog SACs.

This was also what all members of the Peatlands Council (see below) agreed to in their statement of 1 June this year.

Biodiversity and the environment

The bogs support rare and threatened species and Boglands says the ongoing degradation of Irish peatlands “equates to a loss of biodiversity at regional, national and international levels”.

Natural peatlands act as a long-term carbon store, which means it helps actively remove carbon from the atmosphere.

However, this is reversed and carbon is actually released when the peatland is damaged.

The vast majority of Irish peatlands are critically at risk of future disturbances, such as climate change.

Half of Ireland’s raised bogs were destroyed (at a rate of 800,000 tons per year) between 1814 and 1946.

After World War 2, the government set up Bord na Móna to cut peat by mechanical means. In 1969, there were just 100,000 hectares of raised-bog left in Ireland, of which Bord na Móna owned 45,000 hectares.

The restrictions

In 1999, The Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Sile de Valera TD, and the Minister of State at her department, Eamon O Cuiv TD, held a series of consultations with representatives of the farm organisations and turf cutters.

That year, they announced the arrangements for the cessation of turf cutting on raised bogs which are proposed as SACs.

In 2009, bog cutting was reversed by the then Minister for the Environment, John Gormley.

In May 2010, the Government confirmed the ending of the derogation which allowed a 10-year continuation of turf-cutting for domestic purposes on raised bog SACs and NHAs.

Cutting is no longer permitted on the first 31 of these sites without the express consent of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

The Government has also decided that cutting will cease on a further 24 raised bog SACs from the end of this year and on 75 raised bog NHAs in 2013.

The Government decision related to domestic cutting applies on selected raised bog protected sites – not blanket bogs, which are much more extensive in area. However, restrictions introduced in 1999 relating to turf-cutting on designated blanket bogs continue to apply.

It is not possible to reconsider this matter as Ireland has a clear legal obligation to protect these sites and to fail to do so would render the State liable to significant financial sanctions imposed by the European Court of Justice, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht told TheJournal.ie.

Turf cutters

But what do the turf cutters think?

Turbary, or the right of private individuals to cut turf for domestic use, has taken place in Ireland since the 15th century.

The Irish Turf Cutters’ and Contractors’ Association was founded in 1998 by Paddy Concannon. Its members oppose the ban and have protested numerous times around Ireland about the situation.

The government has offered turf cutters compensation of €1000 per year for 15 years.

Just under €200,000 was paid out in 2010 to ensure those affected had the means to provide alternative winter fuel.

The ITCCA members are not happy with this compensation offer and say that some members have not yet been paid compensation they were promised under previous schemes.

The EPA Boglands report says that in the case of ongoing turf cutting on protected sites, acquisition would be a better option and better value for money than compensation.

Some members have said they are willing to go to jail in their fight for their land.

For them, turf cutting is a tradition handed down over centuries from family member to family member, and preventing people from cutting turf on their own land, for domestic use, is unfair and leaves people without fuel.

The TCCA proposes the following solution:

  • Relocation to a nearby good quality bog.
  • Full or part de-designation of bogs where relocation is not a possibility.
  • Compensation where this is acceptable to the turf cutter.

The Peatlands Council

In April of this year, the government established an independent Peatlands Council.

The Peatland Council is tasked with advising the Government on drawing up a national strategy on Peatlands conservation and management  in consultation with bog owners and other stakeholders.

It is also drawing up an agreed national code of environmental practice in regard to turf-extraction in designated sites.

Turf cutters continue to protest the ban.

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