Illegal turfcutters to be monitored by aircraft

 

PRIVATE AIRCRAFT contractors are being hired by the State to work alongside the Defence Forces in gathering evidence against illegal turfcutters.

A total of 10 separate flights have been flown by a private company over boglands this year costing €13,148 with more flights expected over the coming month.

Some €27,226 has been spent on 19 private flights over bogs by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) since surveillance began in 2009, according to figures released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Separately, the Department of Defence has spent an additional €13,875 on about 75 flight hours of bog surveillance so far this year.

Usually, two enforcement officers aboard the flights gather photographic evidence of any illegal turf cutting seen from the aircraft.

If suspected illegal activity is discovered personnel on the ground are notified and investigate on the ground level, often accompanied by the Garda.

Independent TD Luke Flanagan, a spokesman for the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, said that the surveillance of bogs was a poor use of public funds. “I think it is a complete and utter waste of money, turfcutters aren’t exactly going around murdering people.

“There is no need for this surveillance. This Government went off to the European Union and didn’t even ask them if we could have a solution whereby people would still be able to cut their turf. If you don’t ask then you will never get anything at all,” he said.

The private contractor is used only when Department of Defence equipment is unavailable, according to the NPWS, and all private flights are provided by the National Flight Centre based in Kildare.

The Defence Forces flights also act as training missions for pilots whose usual flight duties involve aerial surveillance and monitoring of escorts carrying cash, explosives, munitions and prisoners.

Speaking last week, Minister for Heritage Jimmy Deenihan said he was taking a keen interest in the review of the Common Agricultural Policy to provide for farmers to maintain natural habitats.

“I am sure we will succeed in this effort only if we have the trust and commitment of the men and women who work the land. For that reason my department puts a lot of effort into working with land owners as well as the conservation community, as we seek the best outcome for nature,” he said.

Turf cutting is banned on 53 raised bogs under EU conservation regulations announced in 2010. The Government may face penalties from the European Commission if turfcutters fail to abide by the rules.

Turfcutters who stop cutting on affected bogs are entitled to a concession worth €23,000, spread over 15 years, with an initial once-off payment of €500.

In surveillance operations the Department of Defence primarily uses the Cessna F172, which is a small propeller aircraft that can fly slowly at low altitudes.