For many urban dwellers the image of turf-cutting comes straight out of a John Hinde postcard – a slane, a donkey, two wicker creels loaded with sods and two cute red-headed children.
There are still some aspects of saving turf that still require back-breaking manual work such as footing the sods. But the reality is that for everything else turf-cutting has long been mechanised. That applies to families cutting the banks of their own plots and for the big commercial operators, some of which operate on an industrial scale.
The row over Eamon Ryan's decision to ban the commercial sale of turf runs along the same division lines as just about every other dispute the Greens have been involved in over the past 20 years. It is portrayed as an attack on rural Ireland and its way of life by middle-class city types who don't encounter the same obstacles and deficits when it come to heating, transport, homes and reducing emissions.
Turf is as harmful to human health as bituminous coal
The first smoky-coal ban was introduced in Dublin in 1990. That ban resulted in air pollution levels falling by 70 per cent in Dublin and prevented 8,000 premature deaths in the past 32 years.
It has made a difference. Extending it nation-wide has been fitful. It took two decades until 2020 before the ban applied to all towns of 10,000 people or more. The final furlong has been problematic.
Unfortunately non-dried wood and turf are as harmful to human health as bituminous coal. There is no getting away from it.
The European Environment Agency reported there were 1,180 premature deaths in Ireland from air pollution in 2016, most from respiratory disease caused by smoky fuels.
High Court case
So legally if the State is to introduce bans on bituminous coal, it will also have to do the same with smoky woods and turf. And that’s where the rub is.
There was a High Court case three years ago that essentially caused Bord na Móna to cease all extraction and harvesting of its bogs. An outcome of the case was that planning permission would be required for any plot over 30 hectares in size. That should have stopped most extraction in Ireland but the evidence points to the other way. Peat extraction still happens on a big scale in Ireland.
There was a lot of media interest last year when a shipment of peat was imported into the country. However, it’s only a tiny fraction of the peat that is exported each year. In 2020, 10,000 tonnes were imported. In contrast almost 1 million tonnes of peat were exported.
So the ban on commercial harvesting may be in place but peat is still being harvested extensively for garden products, but also to heat homes. Only about 5 per cent of households nationally use peat briquettes or turf but in counties with extensive bog systems the percentage is much higher. Almost 40 per cent of households in Offaly use peat: it’s 27 per cent in Roscommon; 23 per cent in Galway and 20 per cent in Longford.
In those counties many people have turbary rights. It is a constitutionally-protected right to cut turf in your own bog but not to sell it. Some 1,600 people have rights on Bord na Móna land alone, and thousands elsewhere. But there is also evidence of big commercial operations selling turf on the “grey market” in urban centres.
Fianna Fáil TDs like Barry Cowen have talked, with justification, about the hardship that will be caused with the "cliff-edge" nature of the ban. In his own county where so many people rely on turf for home heating, it will cause problems especially as renewables – and retrofit – can never be immediate replacements.
The germ of the compromise may be in his suggestion on an immediate ban on obvious commercial selling – on the roadside and in service stations – but a more gradual easing out for those households wholly reliant on it.