Devastating the Bogs
In the end for a while even Ming the Merciless, TD, zipped his mouth, allowing the under-informed media to report a ‘cessation’ of immemorial turf-cutting in designated conservation areas – affecting “6,500” turf-cutters and an estimated “17,000” turf-users. The turf-cutters, the IFA and conservationists on the recently-formed and government-appointed Peatlands Council (PC) all ostensibly went along with an open-ended fudge. This evolved under pressure from Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan and his man on earth, academic Conor Skehan, who chairs the PC, which was set up to resolve this intractable issue. Illegal turf-cutting of ‘raised bogs’ in EU-designated Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) will cease (except in exceptional cases where the EU will be asked to allow a little bit of ‘small-scale, domestic’ illegal cutting) but past illegal turf-cutting will be ignored and those who have cut illegally can take home their drying turf.
Alternatives for bog-cutters will be agreed, including relocation and compensation. The agreement will close 31 of these raised bogs around the country immediately and 24 at the end of 2011. The government is being asked to prioritise reviewing the domestically-designated Natural Heritage Area (NHA) raised bogs (a portion of the total), though it is not clear if it can review the overlapping, but less-easily reviewed, EU ‘SAC’ designation which applies to all of the bogs covered by the agreement. Elsewhere, the PC press release recites as fact the turf cutters’ view that designation and management of SACs should take account of the “economic, social and cultural requirements of local communities”, under the science-driven Habitats Directive even though the Habitats Directive (according to EU Case C-371/98) does not elevate such human ‘requirements’ over the protection imperative. But within a few days Ming was describing the agreement as “purely academic”, buying “breathing space”; and the European Commission was reported to be “wary and cautious”. In short it is clear that the turf cutters are merely regrouping, reserving their position until the bog-cutting season starts again, traditonally on Patrick’s Day. The agreement came after the EU lost the European equivalent of a temper after years of prevarication by Irish ministers and publication of a graphic and damning report by Friends of the Irish Environment exposing continuing despoliation.
The Turf Cutter and Contractors Association (TCCA) and their spokesman, Ming Flanagan, had been painting to the public a picture of families returning on fine spring days to their bogs to cut nuggets of turf for the winter. Presented as ‘domestic’, countless TV shots featured old grannies in rocking chairs by flickering peat fires under threat from gnomes in Brussels and spoilt environmentalists. In fact, a 2005 report to the government’s National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) notes that the “mechanisation of the cutting and the use of contractors to carry out this work make it difficult in many cases to distinguish between domestic and semi-commercial cutting”.
Ming is a demagogue – his rhetoric normally embraces a vision of shivering God-fearers and before the election he told a cheering crowd of 700 at a meeting of the TCCA, “we must succeed because if not it will be more than turf at stake when they next come calling for your land”.
From 12 – 21 May this year, a small band of environmentalists fanned out from a rented holiday home on the Shannon’s Lough Ree and visited 33 of Ireland’s 55 most protected raised bogs to try to inform the fractious and anecdotal debate that had been raging in the media.
Irish raised bogs are one of Europe’s most treasured eco-systems, attracting the highest level of protection under EU law. Raised bogs were formed by decaying vegetation on shallow glacial lakes.
They build up over ground level. Blanket bogs on the other hand cover undulating ground. While – mainly through turf-cutting – 45% of Irish blanket bogs have been lost, 99% of more-easily-cut raised bogs have been destroyed.
Aside from the damage to the protected habitat, the loss of carbon sequestered in these bogs is extraordinary. Peat bogs account for approximately one-quarter of the carbon stored in land plants and soils worldwide. When destroyed, the rotting or burnt vegetation is a source of CO2 and methane comparable in magnitude to the amount of carbon released by a fossil-fuel powered plant of equivalent power.
Drainage of peat soils also releases silt that smothers the river and lake-bed vegetation on which fish and birds rely. It releases organic carbons and suspended solids – the peaty colour in water – which when treated with chlorine creates trihalomethanes – cancer-causing agents.
What the environmentalists found and photographed was utter devastation. That last remaining 1% of raised bogs was being savagely destroyed by mechanical turf-harvesting for short-term gain, with no effective action whatsoever being taken by the Government to enforce restrictions.
Until the FIE report was published Phil Hogan, the Minister for the Environment, continued the pretence of assiduous legal compliance to the European Commission. Cutting on the closed bogs was not an issue. On the 22nd of March 2011 he told Maureen O’Sullivan, TD, in a written parliamentary reply that: “My department continued to monitor bogs in designated areas following the Government decision ending the derogation. In a number of cases contractors coming onto bogs to begin turf cutting discontinued their activities on having the situation explained to them”.
The site visits recorded that even where cutting had apparently been discontinued, bogs were still being burnt. Burning was considered the main reason for the decline in Active Raised Bog habitat at five raised bogs in the 2006 NPWS reports. In all 33 random site visits to SAC-designated raised bogs, not a single instance of hand-cutting was observed. The final report contains more than 700 damning photographs. Cutting, burning, draining, and adjacent extraction were photographed on 22 of the 33 bogs visited.
The reaction was immediate. Minister Jimmy Deenihan issued a press release within days warning those who were continuing to cut on the protected sites that they would be prosecuted. The press release, Deenihan said was the result of ’daily communications’ with the European Commission.
In fact Paul Cullen reported what happened in The Irish Times: “The Minister’s get-tough approach represents a significant change from Fine Gael’s pre-election stance, when its manifesto stated that a ban on cutting in 2011 would be ‘”premature”. The bogs are being monitored by National Parks and Wildlife Service staff, but there have been no prosecutions this year and the Government had not previously informed the Commission of infringement before the report was sent to Brussels. A Commission spokesman described the evidence of illegal turf-cutting as a “serious new development” and expressed concern at the failure of the Government itself, through its inspectors, to report any breaches”.
Debating with Minister Deenihan on Morning Ireland, an as-always articulate and assertive Ming pronounced that he would not let the people “go cold”. Later, on Today FM, the angry and “betrayed” TD claimed “virtually every bog in Mayo and Roscommon’ was affected [in fact there is widespread extraction throughout the midlands on undesignated sites] and that a total of “up to 18,000 people are affected by the ban”.
Flanagan said the press release endangered further co-operation. He asked the Minister to “show a bit of balls” and threatened the end of co-operation if there were any prosecutions.
7 of the 11 sites visited that have been in receipt of EU LIFE funding for restoration showed continuing damage. The site visits showed that on six of the bogs which were ‘closed’ last year vast mechanical cutting was still scything the land. The ‘closed’ bog cut by Ming Flanagan at Cloonchambers showed the extent of the pillage.
[Please note: Pictures only appear in print article. The Report includes more than 700 photographs which can be accessed HERE
The full Report is available from the website of the Friends of the Irish Environment:
Turf Wars: the history
Attempts to close the bogs have been a long time coming. Ireland’s bogs were designated as Special Areas of Conservation [SACs] in the late 1990s after Ireland’s implementation of the Habitats Directive in 1997. From the outset, the ‘turf-cutters’ formed ‘SAC Alliances’ and lobbied against any ‘cessation of turf cutting’.
Minister Síle De Valera began by telling the Dáil in February of 1998 that “There are some 200,000 hectares of blanket bogs proposed for SAC status and the objective is to phase out turf-cutting over five to ten years, although on sensitive or ecologically important areas a shorter time frame may apply. Raised bogs are very much rarer both in Ireland and in Europe. Some 8,000 hectares are being proposed for inclusion in SACs in Ireland. The imperative to take prompt action is very much more pressing in the case of raised bogs, therefore, and, consequently, it is intended that turf cutting should now cease in these particular areas”.
By June of 1998 her position began to weaken: “A as the European Commission has not yet agreed to an enhanced REP scheme for protected areas, and as it has not been possible to finalise compensation, relocation and other arrangements before the 1998 cutting season, I decided that cutting would be allowed for the 1998 season only”.
By February 1999, the Minister’s position had again shifted, following “a series of consultations…..with representatives of the farm organisations and turf cutters”:
“In respect of raised bog SACs: I am conscious of the social and economic impacts immediate cessation would have on small communities and have decided to make exceptional arrangements in the case of cutters for domestic use. Cutters will be given a period of up to ten years to make new arrangements”.
Further derogations followed for all blanket-bog SACs and NHAs in 1999, and later on the 23 raised-bog SACs proposed in 2002 and the 75 raised bog NHAs designated in 2004.
Green Minister John Gormley, speaking in 2008, noted that “it would not be appropriate to extend the ten year derogation and turf cutting on the 32 raised bogs designated prior to 1999 should therefore cease at the end of the current  season as scheduled”.
By March of 2009, Gormley too gave way, announcing that “cutting on all bogs during 2009 will be allowed to continue as before”. In 2010, a ‘cabinet decision’ was made to end cutting in the first 31 SACs in 2010 and the remaining 24 in 2011. The plans for blanket bogs, 45% of which have been destroyed by turf cutting, remain unclear. The law and EU judgments were systematically flouted until 1 June when – a decade too late – Phil Hogan’s Department of the Environment engineered a badly-worded and ill-grounded fudge, whose implications will play out over the course of the next year until the EU, armed with heretofore implausible threats of €26,000 daily fines, insists that the case of the environment, as elsewhere, the law is the law.
Tony Lowes is a Director of Friends of the Irish Environment
Ming the Mendacious
Unfortunately, despite a veneer of modernity,
Luke Flanagan is an old-time populist liar
Some dishonest Mingisms
“Ming Flanagan’s bog” is Cloonchambers which, following a 2010 cabinet decision, should have been closed to turf-cutting at the end of last year. He dishonestly told a Deutsche Welle TV documentary-maker that it wasn’t due to be closed until next year. He also dishonestly said that, “if it was the case that cutting turf was going to irreparably damage the bogs, I would stop it – but the NPWS figures tell me that my bog has grown”. But countless scientific reports demonstrate that the extraction of peat is indeed doing irreparable damage to Ireland’s bogs. There is no doubt he is familiar with these reports, the most important of which is the 2006 Report to the Research Section of the NPWS ‘Raised Bog Monitoring Project 2003 – 2006’.
On a recent Prime Time television programme, Ming read from notes, with figures from these reports down to the second decimal point. They frame his dishonesty. He claimed that in spite of all the cutting, “My bog” – Cloonchambers – “has grown by 10.63%”. But this is because of the very restoration work which he accuses the Government of not undertaking. At Cloonchambers, a European Union Cohesion funded Raised Bog Restoration Project ran from 1994-99. By 2006 the same scientific report where Ming’s 10.63% figure was given pointed out that nevertheless its ‘habitat quality’ had “slightly deteriorated as the loss of central ecotope indicates”.
It is dishonest to state: “We have gone a long long way to proving that conservation and domestic turf cutting can go hand in hand”. Countless reports make it clear that turf cutting is not compatible with conservation of raised bogs. Ming claims that “We were going a long way to convincing the [NPWS] scientist that our solutions would actually work. We were discussing the possibility of re-designating and de-designating very small areas – and also employing a technology called a liner or a dam which we would be able to put down to stop water leaching out of the bogs”. ‘Hydrological isolation’ – the term used by the lobbyists on the Peatland’s Council – is not a scientific term. To stop water leaching out of a bog you would have to build and seal a wall from above the surface of the vegetation to the bedrock below.
The Report Ming read on Prime Time states clearly that “All domestic [turf] cutting is for fuel peat. This activity has been going on for centuries and is the main cause for the reduction in the original raised bog area [in Ireland] from 311,000 hectares to a current area of around 18,000 hectares”. The TCCA claim that their members are responsible for cutting only a small proportion of ‘what they own’. In fact, the 2006 Report that Ming read found that domestic turf cutting was taking place at 117 of the 139 raised bogs designated for nature conservation, including state-owned designated bogs. At Clara Bog, in spite of warning notices, 71 such sites were found to be being actively cut on the part of bog in state ownership – hardly ‘what they own’.
Ming’s claims that the tradition of turf cutting is purely ‘domestic’ – i.e. not ‘commercial’ is contradicted by his folksy claim to The Irish Times that “When we didn’t have much money at home it was the turf that my father took in on his Ferguson tractor that kept us in clothes and insured the Hillman Hunter”.
Typographical edits were made to this article on 19 June, 2011