Tuff cutters protest in Galway over bogland ban
Turf cutters have staged protests against a European law barring them from digging protected boglands to obtain fuel.
More than 100 people gathered in County Galway in the west of the country and machinery was brought in to cut peat from an area earmarked for conservation. Police confirmed they were attending but have made no arrests so far.
An entry on the Turf Cutters and Contractors' Association Facebook site said: "While the bankers who cut our throats sleep in their cosy five star beds the turf cutters of Monivea near Athenry are being threatened with five years in prison for vindicating their rights.
"Please come to Monivea to support us. Your bog will be next."
Ireland risks daily fines of €25,000 from the European Commission if it does not comply with the Habitats Directive, a law which protects the environment from destruction.
But a bitter battle has raged between rural families who cherish the traditional right to dig peat to burn as fuel for their homes and those who argue the environmental cost of extracting it is too high.
The directive protects the special habitats of 53 of the country's raised bogs and the turf cutters have been told they are breaking the law.
But they own the turf and use it as fuel in their own homes, arguing this is a tradition that goes back for generations and should not be ended.
The squelching, sponge-like land covered in moss and heather is a rich pasture for all sorts of creatures and supports diverse plant life and environmentalists believe the cost of extracting it is huge.
Irish police confirmed they were present at Lenamore Bog, Newcastle, in Co Galway, near Athenry
State broadcaster RTE said more than 30 people also arrived at Kilteevan, near Roscommon, in protest against the law which protects threatened habitats.
The Government has offered those affected compensation and access to other turf.
In January 2011, Ireland received a formal letter from the European Commission stating that due to a lack of action in enforcing the Habitats Directive the State faced legal proceedings in the European Court of Justice.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, said: "A flexible package of compensation for turf cutters affected by the designations is in place. This package includes a number of options for turf cutters including financial compensation, or the provision of a relocation bog for cutting turf where that is possible with the option of the financial payment or the delivery of turf (15 tonnes per annum) while awaiting relocation.
"Turf-cutters can apply for a payment of €1,500 - each year for 15 years - along with a sign up payment of €500 when legal agreements are signed. This brings the total available financial compensation package to 23,000 euro (£19,000), index linked and tax free.
"Compensation payments and turf delivery costs made under the scheme total approximately 4 million euro (£3.4m). More than 2,700 payments of €1,500 each have been made to applicants under the scheme and approximately 2,500 tonnes of turf have also been delivered to turf cutters at a cost of €316,000."
Luke Flanagan, an independent member of the Irish Parliament for Roscommon-South Leitrim, defended the protesters and said earlier attempts at a compromise had failed.
"When is the last time an environmentalist has given up his land, house and life for conservation?" he asked.
"I don't see too many of them around. The turf cutters were willing to do that and no one else would be willing to do that."
He added: "I certainly would not create a law in the morning that says you are damaging the land, you are not allowed to do this.
"You consult people, you don't try to ram it down their throats."