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What's the deal with turf-cutting?

Wednesday, 14th December, 2011 9:30am

Story by Tom Kelly

Between 1997 and 2002, Ireland nominated a total of 53 raised bog sites for designation as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC). In area, these sites make up less than 2% of peatlands in the state where turf-extraction is feasible.

Ireland has more than 1,400 raised bogs that are not designated for nature conservation purposes and turf-cutting can continue on the vast majority of raised bogs.

The SAC bogs are extremely rare in global terms and are the last functioning remnants of the great bogs that once covered much of the midlands. What makes them so rare is that they still have areas where the conditions are right for peat to continue to form and where the typical species of plants and animals can thrive. This is known as active raised bog. Land reclamation and peat extraction over time has left Ireland with less than 1% of the area of active raised bog we once had.

Ireland, through successive governments, has decided that for the benefit of all its citizens, a proportion of our remaining raised bogs should be protected. It signed up to do this through the EU Habitats Directive.

Turf-cutting and its associated drainage is steadily, but without doubt, destroying these bogs. At the most obvious level, turf cutting involves digging away part of the bog. The impact of one family's turf harvest for one year may seem small, but together with the impact of their neighbours' cutting and the activity being repeated year after year, turf extraction is gradually consuming these bogs.

Less obviously, the drainage associated with turf-cutting lowers the levels of water to below those needed by the bog to continue to function and to form peat. This can dramatically reduce the 'active' area of the bog and its impacts can be seen considerable distances from the turf-banks.

Active raised bog is marked for priority protection under the Habitats Directive and it cannot be protected or restored while turf-cutting continues on the site. Aside from losing such a distinctive part of Ireland's natural heritage, if we fail to provide the protection required, it will be held to account in the European Court of Justice, and there is a distinct possibility of fines running to tens of millions of euro being imposed.

The European Commission has commenced legal proceedings against Ireland for its failure to protect these sites to date. For these reasons, the government has decided that it cannot allow further turf-cutting in these raised bog SACs.

Property Rights

A significant proportion of land in these sites is owned by private individuals and others have rights to cut turf on the bogs. Many people have been legitimately sourcing their turf from these bogs for years, in some cases for generations.

These people are unarguably being adversely affected by the requirement to cease turf extraction. They have legal rights and justifiable concerns that have to be addressed.

Turf-cutters on these sites are being asked to accept alternative arrangements to source their fuel, in the interests of the wider community, in order for us not to lose the best remaining Irish examples of this near-extinct habitat.

The government has put in place a scheme of redress to meet the needs of affected turf-cutters. The scheme provides for €1,000, index linked, to be paid to affected turf-cutters each year for 15 years or, if they prefer, for them to be relocated to suitable alternative bogs where they can continue to cut turf.

While waiting on a suitable relocation bog to be made available, participants in the scheme can avail of an annual €1,000 payment or an annual delivery of turf to their homes.

To date, almost 500 turf-cutters have applied to participate in the scheme from the 31 sites on which turf-cutting ceased this year. Further applications for these sites will be accepted up to 31 December. Applications from turf-cutters on the remaining raised bog SACs will be invited in the coming weeks.

The Peatlands Council, which includes representatives of turf-cutters, land-owners and environmental groups has also been asked to examine the redress arrangements and to make recommendations to the minister if changes are needed.

The council has also agreed to explore options relating to the small number of the 53 raised bog SACs where the possibilities for relocation to alternative undesignated sites in the vicinity is limited. The department is also engaging directly with groups of cutters from various bogs to find acceptable solutions.

Concerns about the schemes are addressed below.

What proportion of bogs are affected by the cessation?

53 raised bog sites are closed for turf cutting from this year. This represents less than 2% of the peatlands in the state where turf-cutting is feasible. The position regarding future turf-cutting on raised bog Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs) is being reviewed in accordance with the Programme for Government.

When is the deadline for making applications under the scheme?

The closing date for applications from cutters on the raised bog SACs that were closed this year has been extended by Minister Deenihan to December 31 to allow people the time to gather the necessary legal documents. Turf cutters on the remaining raised bog SACs which are closing at the end of this year will be written to in the coming weeks in regard to arrangements for them to apply for relocation or compensation.

What is the position regarding compensation for individuals who cut turf this year?

Individuals who undertook unauthorised turf cutting this year will not be eligible for a compensation payment for 2011. However, in order to qualify for compensation from 2012, they are still required to submit an application in advance of the December 31 deadline. They will receive compensation from 2012 providing they meet the qualifying criteria.

The minister announced that he will provide a supply of turf to cutters who must stop cutting. Will this be an alternative to the Annual Payment Scheme?

The supply of turf to turf-cutters affected by the cessation on the 53 Raised Bog SACs was proposed by the Peatlands Council and offered by the minister as an additional interim option for turf-cutters who are awaiting relocation to non-designated bogs. People awaiting relocation can choose to avail of the delivery of turf (10 tonnes per annum) or the payment of €1,000 per annum, index linked, until the relocation bog is ready.

If people prefer not to relocate, but to avail of the financial payment, they can receive €1,000 per annum, index linked, for 15 years.

Work is continuing at the Peatlands Council on reviewing the compensation arrangements and further options may be proposed, including variations to the existing options. Nobody will be disadvantaged by signing up to any particular scheme if a more suitable option later emerges, and provision will be made for people to swap over to another scheme in such an eventuality.

Will payments under this Scheme be deducted from Farm Plan, AEOS, REPS or Single Farm Payments?

Payments under the Cessation of Turf Cutting Scheme will not be deducted from payments under these other schemes. It is also not proposed to deduct any Single Farm, REPS, AEOS payments etc. from the Cessation of Turf Cutting Compensation Payment.

Are there any tax implications with regard to compensation payments?

Minister Deenihan is in discussion with the finance minister with a view to ensuring that compensation payments under this scheme do not attract a tax liability.

Does this scheme involve the transfer of Carbon Credit Rights from owners?

The Cessation of Turf Cutting Compensation Scheme does not provide for the transfer of ownership of any land/rights to the state from individuals and the issue of carbon credits or their ownership is not part of the legal agreements.

What is the Position with Regard to Plots where More than One Person is Sourcing their Fuel Needs?

The scheme is designed to compensate the legal owner of the right to cut turf. People cutting on someone else's plot can apply to the Department outlining their situation and their circumstances will be considered. Where an applicant is refused compensation, they will have an opportunity to have their case considered by the Peatlands Council. The Peatlands Council can also make recommendations to the Minister regarding eligibility criteria in general. People should contact the representative groups on the Peatlands Council in regard to this issue.

Why does the government Put a Maximum Valuation on Bog Plots of €15,000 when Other Sources Suggest a Much Higher Valuation?

The Scheme is designed to compensate individuals for not being able to continue to cut turf for domestic purposes. The market price for acre plots of bog for domestic turf-cutting is considerably less than €15,000 and rates of €3,500 per acre are paid under the voluntary bog purchase scheme, which has concluded purchases with over 1000 individuals. In addition, the compensation scheme does not entail the transfer of property rights to the Minister. Landowners will continue to own their bogs while receiving compensation. They will also be given the option of relocating to continue cutting turf in an alternative bog while maintaining their property right in the SAC bog.

The Compensation Scheme has not been put on a Statutory Footing, what Guarantees do Turf Cutters have that Payments will be honoured into the Future?

When compensation is payable or relocation is provided, the applicants and the Minister will enter into a legal agreement. Both the Minister and the individuals can be held to the terms of this agreement. While this provides sufficient legal protection for both the applicants and the state, the Minister is currently considering putting the scheme on a statutory footing in order to further allay any fears in this regard.

What is the Position Regarding Previous Compensation Schemes?

For over 10 years the Department had operated a voluntary land purchase scheme under which applicants could sell their land/rights within designated raised bogs to the Department at fixed, per acre rates. This scheme closed in 2010 in advance of the new more responsive arrangements which have since been put in place. There are outstanding applications under this scheme, the vast majority of which are at a stage were contracts have not been signed by either the Department or the vendor.

The Department will soon be writing to landowners in the 53 SACs who had applied for the purchase scheme but have to date not entered into a contract with the Department and are awaiting completion of their application to sell their bog. These applicants will be provided with the opportunity to migrate to the new Annuity Payment Scheme or to continue with their application to sell their bog. The issue of purchase of land/rights in Natural Heritage Area bogs is being kept under review in the light of the decision to review the approach to these areas more generally.

It should be noted that the Department has completed sales for over 1050 applicants under this scheme, which is the vast majority of applications.

Why do applicants have to have been cutting in the past 5 Years in order to qualify for Compensation?

The purpose of the Compensation Scheme is to compensate those individuals who are at an actual loss because they have been actively sourcing their fuel from their bog which is now longer possible. This is in keeping with the general compensation provisions arising from restrictions due to SAC designation that have been in place since 1997.

What will the position be in regard to restoration and the potential impact on surrounding lands?

Restoration will be a major undertaking, will take many years and will be undertaken in consultation with affected landowners. The development of a National Peatlands Strategy is being commenced and a period of public consultation will be undertaken in the coming weeks. The approach to restoration of these sites will be a significant undertaking and will be considered as part of the Strategy.

In considering a national approach to restoration the issue of ensuring that mitigation measures are put in place so that there is no significant negative impact on adjoining lands will be a high priority.

It is also expected that the Strategy will explore the potential for local communities and landowners to take a major role in restoration projects with potential to receive funding to undertake these.

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