Turf wars


When the word “compensation” is mentioned in Ireland, a queue forms automatically. That is happening at the moment in connection with a ban on turf-cutting on a number of important and ecologically sensitive raised bogs in the midlands and the western counties. Some farmers and domestic turf-cutting contractors are being denied access to sources of fuel and income. But others, who had given up turf-saving years ago because of the hard work involved, are also demanding restitution.

This issue has been festering for 12 years, ever since the government sought and received a derogation from the European Commission to allow turf-cutting to continue for a limited period on special bog habitats. Time and EU patience ran out in 2010 and the last government was pressurised into banning turf-cutting on 32 bogs, with a further 23 to be added this year. In all, about 5 per cent of our raised bogs, which are regarded as the best examples of such habitats left in Europe, are to be protected under EU law. Unfortunately, issues of compensation were not resolved before the ban on turf-cutting was introduced. People broke the law and continued to cut turf. Now the EU is threatening to impose fines that may amount to tens of millions of euro.

In opposition, Fine Gael offered comfort to those affected and criticised the amount of compensation offered. Its programme for government promised to allow turf-cutting on a further 75 natural heritage bog sites, provided a national code of environmental practices could be agreed. As for the 55 special areas of conservation where a total ban will apply, it offered compensation, access to alternative sources of turf and an independent commission to resolve disputes. The political sensitivity of the issue has been reflected by the early appointment of a Peatlands Council to negotiate with stakeholders and a new offer of up to €15,000 for those affected.

Forget about those nostalgic John Hinde photographs of a donkey on a bog and men cutting turf by hand. Think instead of the mechanical methods used by some large-scale operators who are causing serious damage to water quality and wildlife. Small-scale, domestic turf users and contractors deserve recognition and reasonable compensation. It is a difficult and complicated issue. In the end, however, the greater public good must prevail. That means protecting our heritage and, specifically, upholding the law.