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Military aircraft get bogged down in turf-cutting spy games

Defence Forces aircraft have been deployed to spy on turf cutters illegally working on protected bogs.

But the military mobilisation in the 'bog war' has failed to stop individuals defying the Government's ban on cutting turf.

In recent weeks turf has been cut on as many as 12 of the 53 protected areas, the Sunday Independent understands, although the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht disputes this, saying "enforcement activities" have taken place in just five locations.

Military fixed-wing aircraft have been carrying out reconnaissance on bogs, leading to alarm and anger among landowners.

Cessna FR172H aircraft, which boast excellent slow-flight characteristics, have been seen flying low over bogs -- an alteration of regular military operations, which involve aerial surveillance and monitoring of escorts carrying cash, prisoners or explosives.

The Air Corps squadron is also carrying rangers from the Parks and Wildlife Service, who are inspecting raised bogs and the activities of turf cutters.

Heritage Minister Jimmy Deenihan has also sanctioned the use of private contractors to fly rangers around the country at an undisclosed cost.

The Turf Cutters and Contractors' Association (TCCA) has broken off talks with the department. At the same time the issues of water charges and septic tanks has increased resentment over the Government's 'get-tough' stance in pushing through EU- and troika-enforced regulation.

But farmers caught cutting turf risk heavy fines and the loss of their Single Farm Payment -- the vital EU cash which keeps many smallholders' heads above water.

Anger over the turf is a possible game-changer which may provoke a protest 'No' vote in the fiscal treaty referendum.

The Irish Defence Forces confirmed that 45 separate 'missions' over bogs have been flown by them since the beginning of the year.

A spokesman told the Sunday Independent: "The Defence Forces have an agreement with the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and carry out flights over requested areas with a member of the NPWS on board the aircraft. The role of the NPWS staff member on board is a matter for the NPWS.

"The Air Corps has completed 45 missions for the NPWS in 2012."

Some relocation bogs will be ready this year, but where they are not available turf-cutters can choose between financial compensation of ¿1,500 or 15 tonnes of turf as well as a one-off payment of ¿500 for this year.

Those who give up cutting turf completely can apply for compensation for the next 15 years -- a tax-free, index-linked package worth ¿23,000. More than 1,500 applications for compensation have been received.

Minister Deenihan said: "Coming from rural Ireland, I understand the depth of feeling on the issue. The bog on which my own family cut turf for more than 100 years is one of the bogs which is now being preserved.

"However, if we lose these raised bogs -- which are already vastly diminished -- they will be gone forever and we will face very significant fines. The taxpayer simply cannot afford this."