FOUR turf cutters are to be prosecuted for unlawfully cutting turf on protected bogs. The cases are the first of their kind.
The Co Galway men were issued with court summonses this week and face charges of using machinery on peat bogs in defiance of European Union designations.
One of the four is Michael Darcy, whose machinery was seized during a stand-off with gardai and National Parks and Wildlife (NPWS) rangers in June. His digger was destroyed in the incident after it went on fire while in the possession of the NPWS.
The men will appear before Loughrea District Court next month. They could face a fine of up to €1,500 or a six-month jail sentence.
Supporters of the men have vowed to stage a picket outside the court during the trial in protest.
Dermot Moran of the Bog Action Group said: "People are very angry at this move. If there was another stand-off like last year, I could really see it blowing up at this point.
"We plan to have a huge number of people protesting outside the court. We want people to join us.
"This isn't just standing up for the 53 bogs, it's for people's property. It effects everyone."
Gardai called to the homes of the four men on Tuesday night to deliver the summonses.
They relate to using machinery without lawful authority, contrary to section 35 and section 67 of the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011.
The incidents are alleged to have occurred on Clonmoylan bog in June and August of last year.
Mr Moran said none of the four men being prosecuted could afford to pay such a fine if found guilty.
"These are all local men cutting on their own bog. They can't afford any fine, never mind consider a jail sentence," said Mr Moran.
"Michael Darcy hasn't been able to work since his machinery was destroyed. The other lads are farmers and do what they can to make a living."
Mr Moran said turf-cutters would not be put off by the move to prosecute the men and insisted that they would return to the bogs within weeks.
"We will be back on our bogs in about 10 weeks, depending on the weather. We're determined to continue with this and we made that clear to the minister."
An EU directive requires member states to conserve peatland habitats on raised bogs, leading to the closure of 53 designated bogs in Ireland.