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Big bogs bags begs question

Who won – Ming, Deenihan, Hogan, the EU or environmentalists (certainly not the climate)?

The Programme for Government’s commitment to review the policy-banning turf-cutting climaxed last month. And no one is sure who won. This is hardly surprising when Minister Deenihan’s full house was revealed to be more than 600 pages of documents – a draft National Peatlands Strategy, draft National Raised Bog Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) Management Plan, and a Review of Raised Bog Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs).

Of course the first question to be answered was the one that Jonathan Clinch put to him on the ‘World at One’ radio news. Were the SACs where we had seen stand-off s between turf-cutters and the Guards to be protected or not? His hands were tied, the Minister explained, by European law. The prohibition would remain.

Ming Flanagan, the TD who has baited the Minister on this subject since his election, delivered another of his endless clichés: the “devil was in the detail”. Of course the cliché is right. On page 119 of the SAC Management Plan we find that ‘further exhaustive engagement with turf-cutters and representative groups will continue’, explaining ‘this engagement process will also provide opportunities for continued turf-cutting proposals to be considered where relocation solutions prove elusive’ (and where the €23,000 in staged tax-free payments have been refused).

The Government already owes the EU for SAC designated bogs lost to turf cutters since their listing in the 1990s. These new reports show that of 1,990 hectares in 1994, more than 730 hectares had been destroyed by 2012. These must be replaced by habitat of equal value and at least equal extent.

So too will 48 of the 75 National NHAs raised bogs where the turf-cutting ban announced by John Gormley in 2010 is to be lifted to allow for continued cutting by contractors acting on behalf of several thousand people. Those 75 bogs covered 17,000 hectares.

The Minister suggested that he could do this as the EU rules for SACs do not apply to (national) NHAs. But he omitted to mention that in 2005 Ireland had designated these 75 sites as NHAS in the first place only in exchange for the Commission withdrawing proceedings seeking daily fines against Ireland for allowing turf-cutting to continue without assessment, after a 1999 judgment of the European Court of Justice.

Worthy of conservation in 2005 to avoid daily fines, eight years later they only have ‘some ecological value’ and their ‘contribution to the attainment of the national conservation objective is expected to be marginal and/or restoration would be prohibitively expensive for the conservation benefits achieved.’

Further ecological concern is being expressed that the selection of bogs for the chop took more account of their turf-cutting value than of their critical position as stepping stones required, under the EU Directive, for protected species – such as the red grouse and the white fronted goose.

Like electronic systems, ecological systems must have redundancy built in. It may seem from the turf-cutters point of view that two nearby small bogs is one too many, but a fire on one could lead to local extinctions without a nearby refuge.

And at this stage it has to be asked: where are all these replacement bogs coming from? What magic supply of pristine bogs did we not reveal in 2005?

Just as it appears Ireland has been exposed as insincerely recognising the conservation value of the 75 bogs designated as NHAs in a desperate, and successful, attempt to end the threat of daily fines, so it now appears that Bord na Móna was less than fully transparent when Dutch influence and the Irish Peatland Conservation Council forced the transfer to the OPW of their raised bogs of high conservation value in the 1990s. Consequently, they were left alone until these recent revaluations unearthed them. But if this is the case, they should have been protected anyway instead of stored up for future destruction, as Bord na Móna is committed to opening no further bogs.

We may expect that Ireland has not quite heard the last of this from the EU Commission, though even there an indulgence of national sensitivities to the detriment of environmental science and a conservation imperative has set in with the transfer of key personnel out of the Environment Directorate.
To top it all off, the recent decision of An Bord Pleanála that industrial extraction by international corporations like Westlands and Bulrush requires planning permission has been stayed by the High Court. It accepted the companies’ pleas that to cease production while waiting for the Irish Court system would be an unfair competitive bind on their businesses.

And the elephant out on the wetland? Greenhouse gas emissions. Bogs are our Amazon. Draining them releases greenhouses gasses. Burning turf releases even more. If there was ever a case of non-joined up thinking in a climate-change world, destroying our bogs is it.

Tony Lowes