Between 1997 and 2002, Ireland nominated a total of 53 raised bog sites for designation as Special Areas of Conservation.
In area, these sites make up less than 2 per cent of peatlands in the State where turf-extraction is feasible.
Ireland has over 1400 raised bogs that are not designated for nature conservation purposes and turf-cutting can continue on the vast majority of raised bogs.
The SAC bogs are extremely rare in global terms and are the last functioning remnants of the great bogs that once covered much of the midlands.
What makes them so rare is that they still have areas where the conditions are right for peat to continue to form and where the typical species of plants and animals can thrive.
This is known as active raised bog. Land reclamation and peat extraction over time has left Ireland with less than 1% of the area of active raised bog we once had.
Ireland, through successive Governments, has decided that for the benefit of all its citizens, a proportion of our remaining raised bogs should be protected. It signed up to do this through the EU Habitats Directive.
Turf-cutting and its associated drainage is steadily, but without doubt, destroying these bogs.
At the most obvious level, turf cutting involves digging away part of the bog.
The impact of one family’s turf harvest for one year may seem small, but together with the impact of their neighbours’ cutting and the activity being repeated year-after-year, turf extraction is gradually consuming these bogs.
Less obviously, the drainage associated with turf-cutting lowers the levels of water to below those needed by the bog to continue to function and to form peat.
This can dramatically reduce the “active” area of the bog and its impacts can be seen considerable distances from the turf-banks. Active raised bog is marked for priority protection under the Habitats Directive and it cannot be protected or restored while turf-cutting is continuing on the site.
Aside from losing such a distinctive part of Ireland’s natural heritage, if Ireland fails to provide the protection required, it will be held to account in the European Court of Justice with a distinct possibility of fines running to tens of millions of Euro being imposed.
The European Commission has commenced legal proceedings against Ireland for its failure to protect these sites to date. For these reasons, the Government has decided that it cannot allow further turf-cutting in these raised bog SACs.
A significant proportion of land in these sites is owned by private individuals and others have rights to cut turf on these bogs.
Many people have been legitimately sourcing their turf from these bogs for many years and in some cases for generations. These people are unarguably being adversely affected by the requirement to cease turf extraction
They have legal rights and justifiable concerns that must be addressed.
Turf-cutters on these sites are being asked to accept alternative arrangements to source their fuel, in the interests of the wider community, in order for us not to lose the best remaining Irish examples of this near-extinct habitat.
The Government has put in place a scheme of redress to meet the needs of affected turf-cutters.
The scheme provides for €1000, index linked, to be paid to affected turf-cutters each year for a period of fifteen years or, if they prefer, for them to be relocated to suitable alternative bogs where they can continue to cut turf.
While waiting on a suitable relocation bog to be made available, participants in the scheme can avail of an annual €1000 payment or an annual delivery of turf to their homes.
To date, almost 500 turf-cutters have applied to participate in the scheme from the 31 sites on which turf-cutting ceased this year.
Further applications for these sites will be accepted up to 31 December.
Applications from turf-cutters on the remaining raised bog SACs will be invited in the coming weeks.
The Peatlands Council, which includes representatives of turf-cutters, land-owners and environmental groups has also been asked to examine the redress arrangements and to make recommendations to the Minister if changes are needed. The Peatlands Council has also agreed to explore options relating to the small number of the 53 raised bog SACs where the possibilities for relocation to alternative undesignated sites in the vicinity is limited. The Department is also engaging directly with groups of cutters from various bogs to seek to find acceptable solutions.