'Rangers and gardaí chased us off the bog' - turf cutters on tenterhooks ahead of possible ban
North Kerry turf cutters are on tenterhooks ahead of the results of tests on Moanveanlagh Bog that should determine whether they can continue to cut there. Lorraine Courtney reports on efforts to reconcile acute environmental concerns and what many regard as a key rural tradition
Lots of us remember long summers of blistered hands and broken backs. The rest of us have internalised sepia postcards of small donkeys hauling home baskets of dark sods to small cottages.
But for several years now, the EU has been trying to ban turf cutting in Ireland. The issue rages every summer; a stand-off between conservationists upset by the extinction of a very unique ecosystem that has taken more than 10,000 years to form, and turf cutters defending their turbary rights and traditions.
As another turf-cutting season approaches, tests are being carried out in North Kerry's Moanveanlagh Bog to resolve the issues there.
Moanveanlagh, close to the town of Listowel, has been designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) site, a category defined as "prime wildlife conservation areas in the country, considered to be important on a European as well as Irish level".
Last month, local turf cutters met with Heritage Minister Josepha Madigan on the future of turf cutting in their bog.
Denis Scannell's bog is part of his working farm. "It's affecting five or six of us very badly. We've reclaimed part of the bog down through the years and we won't be able to put out manure. It's a bigger problem than just the turf cutting. There are farmers around driven demented from it."
An ancient tradition
"The Minister told us the tests will be finished by the end of April. The next stage will see if turf cutting can recommence at one end of the bog," Mick Looney says.
"Sure the amount we're cutting is only like a daisy in a bull's mouth. People have been cutting turf in Moanveanlagh for hundreds of years and the bog hasn't been destroyed. Turf cutting can exist hand-in-hand with the environment.
"There won't be any heritage to be maintained here anyway if the turf-cutting ban doesn't change. Back when I was a young lad, there was nine houses on my road. Now there are only two. It's the same story in all the parishes around us. That's what the Heritage Department is doing for us."
Surveys were carried out by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in the late 1990s, and 139 of our 1,500-plus raised bogs were designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) or Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs). The bog owners were told that from 2008 they would no longer be allowed cut the turf on their land.
They hadn't seen it coming.
'Rangers and gardaí chased us off the bog'
Case study: Mick Looney (82) Moanveanlagh Bog, Listowel, Co Kerry
Mick's ancestors have been retuwrning to the bog in Moanveanlagh since 1911.
"I remember going to school 70 years ago and I used to meet 24 men coming down different fields on our way to school. They'd be saving and drawing turf. It kept them going.
"Then the machine came and in a week it'd cut turf for everyone. It wasn't doing damage to anyone.
"We were cutting away until, out of the blue, an ad appeared in the Kerryman newspaper on December 19, 2002 saying that turf cutting in Moanveanlagh Bog was to stop. We'd a few meetings with the IFA and with Duchas (who were in charge of it at the time). The outcome of all this was that people that wanted to cut turf for themselves could continue and people who wanted to take compensation could take it."
Compensation was €500 a year or €15,000 if you wanted to sell your rights outright. "Some people took compensation but I didn't on principle. I didn't trust the people we were dealing with."
In late December 2012, another notice appeared in the Kerryman that turf cutting was to cease.
"We started to cut turf anyway in 2012 in breach of everything. Wildlife service rangers and gardaí raided the bog and chased us turf cutters across the bog. It was 91 years to the week, the very week, that Con Dee had escaped across the bog."
(In 1921 the barracks in Listowel was burnt down. A troop of Black and Tans arrested four young unarmed men and decided to execute them. One of the four, Dee, decided, as he was going to be shot anyway, to make a run for it. He did, and almost immediately took a bullet in the thigh but kept running and was never recaptured.)
"Our contractor was summonsed, and he's been before the courts ever since. There have been engineers appointed to carry out tests and further tests. Nothing has happened for us cutters though.
"The experts in early days said Moanveanlagh was only selected because it is in pristine condition. And we've been cutting it since 1911 without damaging it. I don't see where there's any environmental damage. In the last few years it's become a wilderness, all the boreens leading in to the bog are overgrown."
The Moanveanlagh men met Minister for Culture, Heritage and The Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan on March 20 and were promised that tests would be completed by the end of this month. "I've been fighting with this thing for six long years and I asked the Minister, is it going to be another six years? At that stage it'll be too late for a lot of us."
The biodiversity question
The original plan was part of an EU commitment to reverse biodiversity loss by 2020, but turf cutting continued. In 2011, the European Commission issued a Reasoned Opinion - basically, a final warning - to Ireland to enforce the ban and warned that the state that it would face fines of up to €25,000 per day if turf cutting on the designated bogs didn't stop immediately. Cutters mobilised around the country; a few defied the ban and cut their bogs as usual.
Some conflicts do get resolved and, late last year, Minister Madigan published a new conservation management plan to cover the next five years. It includes plans to start restoration work on a number of bogs across the country and commits to further work relocating turf cutters to non-designated bogs.
"The cessation of turf cutting necessary for the protection of our designated raised bogs has had an impact on people's lives," she says. "This plan strikes an appropriate balance between Ireland's legal obligation to protect certain raised bogs and the needs of turf cutters, landowners and other stakeholders within these sites."
A compromise plan
The plan outlines that, where domestic turf cutting has had to cease, financial compensation is being provided and feasible alternatives have been and are being sought.
The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has so far provided in the region of €28.7m in compensation to those impacted by turf-cutting bans on protected raised bogs and is working to relocate turf cutters to suitable non-designated bogs.
It appears to be a workable compromise, at least for the cutters.
However, conservationists are still adamant turf cutting has to end. Full stop. Their point is that the value of our boglands goes beyond them being important wildlife habitats, they also function as carbon sinks. Friends of the Irish Environment, a group that has been extremely vigilant in campaigning for peatland protection, says bogs are vital for offsetting carbon emissions.
Tony Lowes, one of the directors of Friends of the Irish Environment, says that turf's day has long passed. "Turf cutting and environmental concerns cannot co-exist," he says.
The public good
"No one knew this when turf cutting was an annual rural event. It is now settled science that draining wetlands - including bogs - contributes to increased global warming, pollutes our waterways, and when burnt is many times more polluting than even coal - with public health implications. The public good must outweigh even long-held rights."
And while the Green Party welcomed Minister Madigan's new conservation plan, they say that our collective, ongoing reliance on fossil fuels must stop. The party's spokesperson for rural affairs, Malcolm Noonan, says that Government needs to ramp up funding to the National Parks and Wildlife Service to offer more protection to the 53 raised bog sites, and to fund local authority biodiversity officers in each functional area to promote greater awareness within the community of the importance of these unique habitats.
"We think that there is an opportunity for a 'just transition' to take place here, where turf cutters could not just be compensated but rewarded and indeed employed on interpretative sites and in restoration projects," he says.
"Turf cutting is over; it's no longer viable nor feasible in a state that is already way behind on meeting our legally binding climate commitments. Offering alternative rural enterprise and employment based around the bog habitats is a positive way forward for all concerned."
A day in the bog is more than just stacking sods to marinate in the Irish summer, and the Green Party is right to acknowledge that alternative enterprises and supports must be put in place for turf cutters. The fight was never just about fuel. Turf cutting in rural Ireland is about more than having a way of heating your home in winter. If it was, then every turf cutter would happily pocket compensation for not cutting their bog.
Turf cutting is about neighbours coming together and helping each other out. It's a social experience that helps fight rural isolation and loneliness. It's another social outlet like the rural shop, pub or post office that is gradually being lost.
Michael Fitzmaurice, turf-cutting-activist-turned-independent TD for Roscommon-Galway, says the bog is an important social place for rural Ireland where he remembers throwing sods of turf at the "old men" when he was a youngster.
"We'd call them old men, but they probably weren't that old," he says. "At dinner time they'd have a little fire lit and they'd be having a bit of grub. We talk about 'social inclusion' nowadays, but that was real social inclusion back then.
"You'd be there chatting away to the neighbours and having a bit of a meitheal (a gathering) going.
"It's fine for so-called environmentalists who have gas coming out of their backsides in Dublin," adds Fitzmaurice. "They don't always understand rural Ireland."
Fitzmaurice believes the turf wars can be resolved now, provided there is the willingness on both sides. "We've always said that where there was a viable option of a relocation bog two or three miles up or down the road, we'd no problem with that.
"But environmentalists need to see reason and understand the heritage and tradition of the Irish bog. There must be give and take here. It would be sad if environmentalists were the cause of this new plan falling apart. And whether people like it or not, the bogs are our private property."
Histroy of turf cutting
Our oldest bogs date back more than 10,000 years and Ireland's variety of peatlands includes fens, raised bogs, upland blanket bogs and lowland.
In favourable conditions, peat grows at a rate of approximately 1mm per year. It takes 1,000 years to grow one metre.
Traditional cutting of the bogs over the last 400 years has had a serious impact on raised and blanket bogs. Two-thirds of raised bogs and almost half of blanket bogs have been cut.
It's thought that at least 17pc of the country was once covered in peat. Today, less than 1pc of active raised bog remains.
* Between 1997 and 2002, Ireland nominated a total of 53 raised bog sites for designation as Special Areas of Conservation. The raised-bog SACs contain most of the functioning remnants of the extensive raised bog complexes that once covered much of the midlands.
What makes them so rare is that they still have substantial areas of active raised bog where the conditions are right for peat to continue to form and where the typical species of plants and animals can thrive.
75 raised-bog Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs) have also been designated under the wildlife acts to supplement this network.