Turf-cutting ban partially lifted
The controversial turf-cutting ban will be lifted on the country's most heavily cut sites under new plans unveiled by the Government.
Heritage minister Jimmy Deenihan confirmed the lifting of the ban would ensure around 2,500 active turf-cutters were allowed to cut in the affected areas.
"Most of our peatlands have been altered by human activity over the centuries, but there still exist areas of unique, but threatened, habitats," Mr Deenihan said.
"For all our benefit, we need to protect and preserve a sample of these for ourselves and future generations, whilst also working with communities that are affected by conservation requirements."
In a review of Ireland's Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs), which make up the country's raised bog network where targets for conservation have been imposed, the minister's department revealed that 45 areas would be affected.
Of those 45, the ban would be completely lifted on 38 sites, while the remaining seven would be split with the sites partially exempt from the ban.
The turf-cutting ban, issued under a European Union directive and enforced from 2010, prohibited 3,000 active turf-cutters from cutting in the country's 75 NHAs.
These changes now mean that only 500 turf-cutters will be affected by the ban.
Turf-cutting on a remaining 36 NHAs, which include sites that had been split, will be completely banned after 2017.
People will be able to continue cutting on the bogs until then - but only with a permit.
Meanwhile, a further 25 bogs are to be considered for addition to the NHAs with the ban in force.
This, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht said, was to compensate for the heavily cut bogs where the ban is now completely lifted.
A department spokesman confirmed the Government ensured the EU was fully informed of its planned changes.
He said while aspects of the legislation underpinning the NHAs were related to EU law, the 75 areas had been agreed upon by the Irish Government under the Wildlife Act.
An outright ban on 53 so-called Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), determined by the EU, remains in place.
The European Commission and Ireland have worked together over the last 20 years to help conserve raised bogs, which are protected under EU directives.
The Government has been dogged by protesting turf-cutters since the ban was enforced three years ago.
While compensation has been offered to turf-cutters, many have rejected it, insisting it was their age-old right to harvest the peat.
Some have appeared before court in connection with illegal turf-cutting and faced fines to the tune of thousands of euro.
Today, publishing documents outlining the Government's long-term strategic plan for the country's peatlands, Mr Deenihan said a coherent long-term vision had been lacking until now.
"This package of documents now sets out that vision," he said.
"These documents clearly recognise that turf-cutting is a valued traditional activity that will continue, but that the State must also meet conservation obligations."
The European Commission is to check the documents published by the Government to ensure its plans "are in line with EU legislation".
But a spokesman said the commission welcomed Ireland's strategic approach in tackling the issue - regarding both Special Areas of Conservation and the NHAs.
"It very much welcomes the development by the Irish Government of a national peatlands strategy, which sets out a long term vision for the entire national peatland resource, aimed at ensuring its conservation and sustainable use and identifying the role of different authorities and stakeholders in ensuring that this is achieved," the spokesman said.
"The Commission takes note of the Irish authorities' decision to make changes to the nationally designated network of raised bog Natural Heritage Areas, while ensuring that the overall level of area to be conserved is enhanced."
Environmental group Friends of the Irish Environment (FoIE) insisted it was in the public interest to stop turf cutting on bogs.
"Turf cutting is wrong not only because we have an international responsibly to preserve increasingly rare raised bogs, but because cutting turf destroys our best carbon store and releases greenhouse gases," said FoIE director Tony Lowes.
"Turf is a fossil fuel, even dirtier than coal.
"If ever there was an example of non-joined-up climate change thinking, Ireland's love affair with the smell of turf is one."