Ministers stuck between bog and a hard place in 330,000-hectare rewet scheme

Bog rewetting being carried out on Clonwhelan Bog, Edgeworthstown, Co Longford. Photo: Jeff Harvey

John Downing

Up to now, Ireland’s plans to tackle the fallout from climate change have been largely on paper.

But things are about to get real as the European Union pushes towards a final agreement on a huge piece of legislation aimed at “nature restoration”, which is expected to begin taking effect from next year.

Farmer representatives are worried and Independent TDs from affected areas are becoming increasingly loud in their opposition.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael rural backbenchers are beginning to feel the heat, while the Green Party insists there is little room for manoeuvre here.

​Bord na Móna’s role reversal

For the almost eight decades of its existence, Bord na Móna (BnM) was all about draining bogs and cutting turf in vast quantities.

Now it has been given a reparation role as it switches roles to bog restorer and protector.

BnM’s job will be to rewet a vast portion of 330,000 hectares of drained and cutaway bogland, making it a haven for wildlife once more and contributing strongly to cutting Ireland’s carbon emissions.

Ecologists insist this country cannot become carbon-neutral by 2050, as pledged without such big initiatives, but the Government acknowledges that this is among the biggest environmental projects in Europe.

‘A very, very tight timeframe’

The draft European law was produced by the policy-guiding EU Commission last year.

It is now the subject of a bargaining session between the law-making Council of Ministers, representing the 27 governments, and the directly-elected European Parliament. A result is expected within the next few weeks.

It involves what one Irish official described as “a very, very, tight timeframe”, with extremely ambitious targets that farm organisations say will punish farmers.

The proposed targets and the timeframes are: by 2030, rewetting 30pc of drained and farmed peatlands; by 2040, restoring 40pc of drained and farmed peatland, rewetting half of this area; and by 2050, restoring 50pc of bogland, with half of this area rewetted.

Critics say that this timeframe is not realistic, with the early targets being just seven years away. They say the proposals are disrupting farmers’ ability to plan for the medium-term future on reclaimed peatlands.

There is a fear that the “EU stick” could be cuts, or total blocks, on Brussels farm grants for peatlands.

Coalition strains to cool things down

Last Tuesday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil he believed some of the EU proposals went too far, and he hinted that amendments could soften the final text.

Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue also made a very important intervention, saying he believed Ireland could meet its targets via use of state land only – largely the BnM controlled cutaway bogland. That could mean no compulsion for farmers.

That assurance may help defuse a row, but it is not a magic bullet. Farmers with lands adjoining BnM sites currently being rewetted fear a knock-on effect on their own lands, making them wetter and disrupting production.

Full impact studies are pledged, but so far there are no guarantees of compensation for damage to farmland adjoining BnM lands. The body is currently rewetting 80,000 hectares.

Politics of discontent

The Taoiseach said the coalition has so far worked closely together on the issue, especially Environment Minister and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan and Fianna Fáil Agriculture Minister Mr McConalogue.

But the Green Party has publicly stated its determination for an extensive piece of EU law that must be implemented to protect wildlife and tackle climate change.

The gaps between the two bigger parties, and the Green Party, risk seriously widening before summer is much older.