Bitter dispute over turf-cutting on raised bogs has gone on now for far too long
Message sent out that Ireland only accepts conservation directives through gritted teeth
These elements are easily manipulated by populist politicians. They are also used on the bogs to cloak the real interests of commercial private contractors, who persist in extracting far more turf than they need for their own domestic uses.
But these facts do not invalidate the arguments of the traditional turf-cutters. And some of them have a good right to feel aggrieved by the shabby treatment they have sometimes received from the authorities in this sorry saga, which has dragged on for far, far too long.
It was in 2002 that the NPWS designated the last of 53 raised bogs as special areas of conservation (SACs), where turf-cutting would have to cease, under the terms of the EU habitats directive.
But the chronically overstretched NPWS had neither the resources nor the professional capacity to engage the affected communities in discussions about why this major change in their lives was necessary, or to seriously consider their alternative proposals. Its many committed professionals know this, and it breaks their hearts. Meanwhile, the relevant minister of the day, Síle de Valera, had gravely undermined the NPWS position throughout the designation process. She granted “derogations”, of dubious status under EU law, whereby people could continue cutting turf on many of these sites for another decade.
The depressing message she sent out, echoed by far too many other local and national politicians since then, is that Ireland only accepts EU conservation directives with gritted teeth, instead of welcoming them as an opportunity to cherish our own heritage. The result has been rapidly increasing degradation of the vulnerable bog sites, for which the European Court of Justice has made adverse judgments against Ireland.
The Minister responsible, Jimmy Deenihan, has made a much clearer commitment to bog conservation than his predecessors did, while remaining sensitive to the turf-cutters’ concerns. He has taken a series of initiatives to resolve the dispute. The latest is the Scientific Study for Raised Bog Conservation, which aims to produce agreed conservation plans for every designated site – by March 2015.
Digging for a solution
That’s right: it will have taken more than 15 years, in most cases, to move from deciding to conserve a bog to deciding, in agreement with the affected parties, how this should be done. The lesson is clear: when conservation measures are needed, resources must be found to ensure that a full engagement with stakeholders takes place at the beginning of the process, and not at the bitter end.
Paddy Woodworth’s forthcoming book for University of Chicago Press, Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century, has a chapter on bog restoration in Ireland