Turf cutters warn of confrontational scenes after EU Commission move

Several court cases pending against industrial peat harvesters, says Environmental Protection Agency

Turf cutters have warned of a return to confrontational scenes between gardaí and land owners, if the State follows up on a call from the EU Commission to take action “within two months” to close down turf cutting in Special Areas of Conservation (Sacs).

Michael Fitzmaurice, chairman of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association and an Independent Roscommon TD, said an EU statement calling for enforcement of the Habitat Directive issued on Thursday could lead to “a return to the trenches” and stand-offs between “hundreds” of turf cutters and gardaí not seen for almost a decade.

Mr Fitzmaurice said since the confrontation between turf cutters, land owners and gardaí, which took place between 2011 and 2013, methods had been agreed upon to preserve bogs on most of the 57 bogs listed for preservation at that time. He said turf cutters had been working through the list — “the Government said it was only 53 bogs, but it was 57″ — and solutions had been achieved in all but “12 to 14 bogs” on which work remained.

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Some of the larger bogs, he said, were more than 3,000 hectares, and turf cutters had restricted themselves to “about five acres of those, it was like the toe of the elephant”. He said the Turf Cutters and Contractors’ Association had been bringing farmers on board with environmental regulations while working with the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) to implement agreements.

He praised the NPWS for its “partnership approach” over the last decade but warned the EU action “could drive the whole process back and we will go down the trenches”.

“In the past we have seen 400 to 500 turf cutters inside a fence with the gardaí outside. Do they want to go back to that or will we resolve this in a spirit of partnership?” he asked. “The EU don’t understand they are dealing with private property and they need to think about whether they are bringing people on board or putting people against them”.

Mr Fitzmaurice said the issue would “hit loyalty to the EU commission very hard”.

He said co-operation was required from landowners to restore bogs and NPWS officers required the permission of private landowners to go in and carry out restoration work. “They won’t be going in anymore if the EU proceeds with this threat.” Mr Fitzmaurice said he would be “looking for a meeting with the EU [environment] commissioner [Virginijus Sinkevičius] and would criticise the “faceless bureaucrat” who had issued Thursday’s warning.

Laois-Offaly Fine Gael TD Charlie Flanagan also said the commission’s warning to Ireland is “curious” at a time when “Germany is ramping up coal burning power generation stations.”

He said: “It smacks of pettiness on the part of the EU. Ireland has steadily been working towards compliance. It’s a relatively trivial matter in the context of a European energy crisis where families in Ireland and across Europe face a winter of hardship and fuel poverty.”

Another Laois-Offaly TD, Barry Cowen of Fianna Fáil said the EU move should not be mixed up with the controversy that arose about cutting turf-cutting earlier this year ahead of the ban on sales.

He said Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) were designated in the 1990s with compensation packages put in place for people who cut turf in those areas.

Mr Cowen said that people who defy the rules are in a “small minority” and the issue “should not be used as a tool to beat those who have every right to continue to cut turf [elsewhere] “.

Kerry TD Brendan Griffin said: “I await the Government’s response but would be confident that the State’s position will be vindicated.

“This latest intervention seems to be another technocratic overkill that undermines co-operative conservation efforts on the ground.”

Industrial operators

Separately, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it has a number of cases coming before the courts in the coming months against large-scale industrial peat harvesters.

The authority said its primary role in relation to turf cutting was dealing with industrial harvesting on sites of more than 50 hectares and it had successfully sought an injunction against one operator, requiring it to cease extraction while another operator signed an undertaking not to extract peat in specified areas. “Several other proceedings have been initiated and will be before the courts in the coming months,” said the agency.

“The EPA has been engaging with the relevant local authorities and NPWS regarding enforcement actions,” said the agency.

Friends of the Irish Environment director Tony Lowes repeated his assertion that the EU “had pressed pause” on enforcement after its initial “reasoned opinion” in mid-2011. Friends of the Irish Environment has taken several cases in relation to the preservation of bogs. Mr Lowes said the organisation had been formed on the introduction of the Habitats Directive by the EU, but that the Republic had immediately announced a 10-year derogation from its measures. He said a further 11 years had elapsed since the EU’s initial action and it was beyond time to get resolution.

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien is an Irish Times journalist

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times