Time to grasp the nettle on bog conservation

Opinion: Turf-cutting derogations prevent biodiversity protection

‘It is a shameful fact that at least 30 per cent of these Special Areas of Conservation have already lost their core biodiversity value, thanks to continued turf-cutting during the two decades that politicians have refused to grasp this nettle.’

‘It is a shameful fact that at least 30 per cent of these Special Areas of Conservation have already lost their core biodiversity value, thanks to continued turf-cutting during the two decades that politicians have refused to grasp this nettle.’

Thu, Mar 27, 2014, 00:01

The National Peatlands Strategy, which is open for further public submissions until mid-April, ring-fences the 53 Special Areas of Conservation, designated for total conservation under the EU Habitats Directive. This will not please turf-cutters on these sites. But the prospect of EU fines of €25,000 a day for continuing to breach the directive has finally concentrated minds in Government Buildings.

The final draft is a substantial document from the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), overseen by the Peatlands Council, with inputs from a range of stakeholders; it presents a cleverly balanced series of policy shifts.

Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan is making a serious effort to bring the conflict about our bogs towards a satisfactory close. Whether he has done enough, or done it right, is a different matter.

It is a shameful fact that at least 30 per cent of these Special Areas of Conservation have already lost their core biodiversity value, thanks to continued turf-cutting during the two decades that politicians have refused to grasp this nettle. Despite Deenihan’s fighting words, back in 2011, that “we cannot tolerate people breaking the law”, the Government, like its predecessors, has often done just that.

Many more turf-cutters have been affected by the subsequent designation of a further 75 sites as National Heritage Areas (NHAs) under Irish, not EU, legislation. In a “radical reconfiguration” the new strategy hands a big gain to this lobby: continued turf extraction will now be permitted on 46 sites “de-designated” sites. This is a cute move in an election year.

Such a concession might have been expected to provoke fury across the whole conservation camp. But this is where the clever balancing act kicks in: the strategy also designates 25 entirely new NHAs. These sites cover a slightly greater area than the 46 they replace, and are also probably of rather higher quality.

Some groups, mostly notably An Taisce, remain fiercely critical, arguing that all turf extraction impacts negatively on climate change. Other environmentalists feel these proposals represent valuable gains for biodiversity.

The new NHAs, while not officially announced yet, are understood to be mostly on Bord na Móna (BNM) property. The BNM locations tick two further boxes for the Minister. Private turf-cutters will not be a problem there. And a complaint from their sector, that BNM has paid no price for its destruction of our bogs over many years, loses some sting.

A win-win outcome, then, for most domestic turf cutters, most private turf contractors and most conservationists? Not really, or not yet.

Our bogs contribute much more than turf to the nation. These benefits include water and air quality; flood and erosion control; benefits to fisheries, and tourism; diverse recreational activities; our landscapes’ beauty; archaeology and cultural heritage; wildlife and biodiversity; and climate change mitigation through carbon storage.


Sharp conflicts
The trouble is that sharp conflicts have arisen between those who want to exploit different goods and services, at least in their more extreme expressions.

The most radical turf-cutters – a minority – want to continue extraction wherever traditional rights exist, despite the compensation and relocation currently on offer. But such unregulated extraction will destroy the resource it exploits and its benefits to us.

Conversely, some conservationists fail to recognise the needs and traditions of the communities associated with our bogs. The NPWS simply did not have the vision, skills and resources necessary to engage positively and creatively with local stakeholders at the outset in the 1990s. Failure to do so has created the mess this strategy tries to address.

Democratic politics is supposed to resolve such conflicts in the common good. But our politicians mostly prefer to fudge, pretending to please everybody while serving very few people well. Síle de Valera’s notorious 1999 “derogation” from the habitats directive, which permitted extraction for 10 years after the SACs were designated, was a classic, and ecologically disastrous, example.

There is a danger that the new strategy may be repeating the same mistake. Continued private extraction will be permitted until 2017 at the 36 “original” NHAs still so designated. That is, until European, local and national elections are all over. Deenihan’s own further “derogation” could critically degrade the very qualities that made these sites worth designating.

After 20 years of great damage to local communities and to rare and precious landscapes we should not be taking further risks like this. Revisions will be considered up to April 18th, so it’s not too late to make your voice heard, on any side of this debate.

Paddy Woodworth is the author of Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century

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