Business Farming

Thursday 29 September 2016

The battle for the bogs

The clock is ticking on the new Government's commitment to resolve the long-running dispute between turf cutters and officialdom

Ken Whelan

Published 07/06/2016 | 02:30

Gerry Gearty on his bog in Bornacoola on the Leitrim/Longford border where the family have been cutting turf for four generations.
Gerry Gearty on his bog in Bornacoola on the Leitrim/Longford border where the family have been cutting turf for four generations.
Joe and Kathleen Duggan, Annaghdown, County Galway with their dog Alfie who took shelter in the bog while they turned the turf last week. Photo: Ray Ryan

Pressure is mounting on the Government to follow through on policy pledges to bring closure to the long-running turf cutting controversy.

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Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice, who played a key role in negotiating the turf cutting issue during the negotiations of the new Government's programme, warned that a failure to clinch a deal would have a real impact as the Government is dependent on the support of TDs who had demanded action on the turf cutting.

In the Programme of Government there is a commitment to bring forward legislation within "100 days" to "de-designate" 46 National Heritage Areas which are at the centre of the dispute.

There is also a commitment on relocation within the Special Areas of Conservation scheme which would see some turf cutters offered alternative locations to cut their turf. This will be done in consultation with the European Union.

There is an additional commitment to review the planning code as it applies to turf cutters.

Mr Fitzmaurice stressed that the deal only applied to traditional farmer/turf cutters who lift an average of 10 hoppers of turf from the raised and blanket bogs every year and not to the big commercial operators like Bord na Mona.

He expected good progress to be made on resolving the turf cutting controversy within the stipulated 100 day period outlined in the new Government's Programme but said a final definitive deal would probably take between "a year and eighteen months.

"There is a real willingness on the part of the National Parks and Wildlife Service and officials at Heritage to negotiate positively on the issue and I am hopeful that the problem will be sorted out through these talks," he said.

Asked why he pulled out of Government formation at a time when he was being tipped for a potential ministerial portfolio, Mr Fitzmaurice replied: "I don't need a Mercedes under me to do the work I have been elected to do".

A spokesman for the Dept of Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht, which oversees the turf cutting issue, told the Farming Independent that there have been no prosecutions for illegal turf cutting so far this year or last year. The Department had no statistics on the tonnage of turf which might have been illegally lifted from the designated bogs, added the spokesperson.

The softening in attitude represents a big change as up to now relations between officialdom and the farmer/turf cutters have been fraught with farmer leaders like the IFA's Padraig Divilly dubbing the administrators of the bog conservation schemes as the "No People West of the Shannon" department.

"We are now making good progress and there is a willingness on both sides to solve the problem," said Mr Fitzmaurice stressed.

There are an estimated 2,500 turf cutters affected by the EU's conservation and heritage designations and they have been availing of the compensation scheme put in place in 2011 for these designations at a cost of €15m to the Exchequer so far.

This scheme gives them a payment of €1,500 a year over 15 years in compensation money and was extended to cover conservation at raised bogs mainly in East Galway and the Midlands and blanket bogs, mainly on the western seaboard and in uplands, in 2014.

"The programme for Government includes a commitment to publish new legislation to de-designate natural heritage sites within 100 days. Potential relocation sites have been identified for designated raised bog and the Department in consultation with the turf cutters' representatives is considering the available options," said the Department's spokesperson.

"Consent could only be given to cut turf on raised areas of special conservation where it can be shown that such cutting would not have an adverse effective on the conservation area."

'I am not going to put up with some official banning me from cutting turf'

Just under a third of Gerry Gearty's 90 acre farm at  Bornacoola on the Leitrim/Longford border has been affected by EU conservation and habitat directives and he is not happy man.

Twenty acres has been designated as a Special Conservation Area (SAC) and his five-acre turf bank is also off limits and this has put him on a collision course with the authorities.

"I was charged with obstructing the gardai around the time the Department and the NPWS were flying small planes and helicopters over the bogs in this area on an almost daily basis," he says.

"I have no problem with the gardai and I explained to them that I had constitutional rights to my property and they charged me with obstruction not illegal turf cutting," he stressed.

The case has been adjourned pending the outcome of a High Court review on the constitutional issues involved in the turf cutters' battle with the authorities.

"My turf bank is my property. I have full title on it and I am not going to put up with some official in Dublin drawing a circle around it and banning me from cutting," says Mr Gearty.

He cut 30 hoppers of turf on the bank last year and says this rate of extraction is negligible.

"With everyone who is entitled to use the bog cutting an average of 10 hoppers a year it would take well over 200 years before the bog was affected.

"We have been cutting turf in this family back to my great-grandfather's time.

"My grandfather cut turf at Clooneen for the Dublin market during World War II and I expect my son Shane to be drawing turf from the bog when he grows up."

He is not interested in the turf cutters' compensation scheme.

He is only interested in changing what he describes as the "pick and choose attitude": of the heritage authorities to the traditional property rights of the turf cutters and farmers generally.

"They simply draw a circle around your property which immediately renders it valueless and useless. It has to stop', he says.

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