Turf-cutters defy EU law, say monitors

Tue, May 29, 2012, 01:00

MORE THAN 20 per cent of the raised bogs that Ireland are obliged to protect under European legislation are being cut illegally by turf-cutters, according to environmental groups.

Following reports that a bog near Athenry, Co Galway, was cut over the weekend, peat is now being extracted at 11 of the 53 raised bogs that are meant to be conserved for their habitat value under Irish and European law.

An Taisce and Friends of the Irish Environment have called on Taoiseach Enda Kenny to “stand over his pledge that the law would be upheld”, saying the Government’s peatland protection programme “risks being shredded unless the Taoiseach acts quickly and firmly”. The turf contractors “are being emboldened” by the failure, so far, to enforce the law.

Unlawful cutting on one or two protected bogs in April had quickly risen to 11 and, “without a commitment to uphold the law, the situation could spiral out of control”, they said.

Last month, Minister for Heritage Jimmy Deenihan said the EU Commission could impose fines of up to €25,000 a day on Ireland if turf-cutting occurred on bogs designated as special areas of conservation under the European habitats directive.

A spokesman for the Minister said the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) was working in co-operation with the Garda in “responding to a number of incidents of turf-cutting which were detected, through aerial and ground surveillance”.

Contractors suspected of involvement had been identified, files were being prepared and “prosecutions will be pursued”. The Environmental Protection Agency is also investigating breaches with a view to recovering remediation costs.

“Landowners involved are being identified and will be cross-reported to the Department of Agriculture,” the spokesman said, adding that this would allow for payments under the Single Farm Payment scheme to be withheld where recipients contravene EU directives.

He said that landowners and contractors “have been written to, where environmentally damaging activity is suspected, advising them of the penalties which may be applicable”, including “prosecution, the impounding of machinery, and the cost of restoring protected bogs”.

But environmental organisations claim to have reports of gardaí “laughing and joking as they apparently stand by watching”. No names were being taken with a view to prosecutions and no turf-cutting machines were being seized, they said. “Those breaking the law face no sanctions apparently,” they claimed. The 11 bogs being cut have been identified in Co Galway and Co Roscommon.

Members of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association claim they are being “intimidated” by low-flying Air Corps aircraft monitoring activities. Independent Roscommon TD Luke “Ming” Flanagan has colourfully likened the turf-cutters’ activities to the resistance movement of the US black civil rights heroine Rosa Parks. “There are occasions that, during the tyranny of the state, the law needs to be broken,” he said.