Turf continues to be illegally extracted from protected areas
Our relationship with peatlands is constantly evolving. In the Bronze Age, bogs were considered sacred. As a fusion of water, earth and sky, bogs were where the veil between this world and the “other world” was considered thinnest. This moisture that characterizes peatlands is the reason why living and active bog plant matter accumulates as peat.
The conditions are so humid and stagnant that there is no oxygen, and the normal processes of decomposition do not work. It’s the same reason why 10,000-year-old tree stumps and the sacrificed bodies of kings from over 2,000 years ago are so well preserved in bogs.
Specialized plants have adapted to the constantly moist, slightly acidic, nutrient-poor environment. Sundews are plants that catch insects on small sticky tentacles, digest them and absorb their nutrients. Butterwort is another insectivorous plant found in Irish bogs. It has sticky leaves to catch gnats. Animal-eating plants are not in the normal order of things, but in a bog, the unique conditions have resulted in the evolution of many rare and unusual species. Everyone has earned their place in these unique habitats.
Since colonial clearings eliminated most forests, people have turned to peatlands for fuel. Grass cutting during the summer months has become part of our culture. Then, in the 1950s, industrial-scale peat mining began to seriously engulf the raised bogs of the Midlands, creating jobs where they were needed. Large tracts of bogs have since been drained, harvested and burned for electricity. Today, less than 50,000 ha of the original 310,000 ha of raised bog in Ireland remain relatively undisturbed.
I have spoken before in this column about the role of peatlands in climate change mitigation and biodiversity and the many communities across the country proactively engaged in peatland restoration. But this week, in light of recent news, the focus is on the legal protection of peatlands.
In 1992, the Habitats Directive introduced measures to protect biodiversity across the EU. The backbone of the Directive has been the creation of the “Natura 2000” network of protected areas, comprising both Special Protection Areas (SPAs) under the Birds Directive and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) under of the Habitats Directive. Each protected area has been scientifically selected as a representative sample of threatened habitats and species in the EU. Without the Nature 2000 Network, the biodiversity crisis we face would be even worse than it is.
In Ireland, as throughout the EU, the best remaining examples of dozens of habitat types are included in the Natura 2000 network, including several different types of peatland habitats. Exploited peatlands, already industrially exploited, where peatland flora and fauna no longer exist, have rightly not been included in the network. There are 53 raised bogs designated as SACs – a small fraction of all the bogs here.
Activities that damage rare species and the habitats of these sites are illegal. These laws have been in place for over 20 years and do not apply to the majority of peatlands, but only to the sample of peatlands included in the network. This means that grass cutting has been illegal in these bogs for over 20 years. Despite this, there is still grass cutting, with heavy machinery, for commercial purposes, in protected areas.
In 2005, a European Court action against Ireland over peatland conservation was dropped, a settlement reached on the basis of the state’s promise to implement a range of habitat protection measures. Then, in 2011, based on evidence that drainage and grass cutting were still taking place in the protected area network, Ireland was officially warned of ongoing legal action for “willful neglect” of the duties of protection of peatlands. The State has been asked to take urgent and concerted action to protect these Natura 2000 network peatlands.
In response, the Peatland Council was created in 2011 with the stated goal of finding agreement between turf cutters, the state and other stakeholders. The battle lines had been drawn. I attended several early meetings, and despite high levels of tension and hostility, some progress was eventually made. Compensation packages were agreed for the cessation of turf cutting in protected areas and alternative (unprotected) locations were provided to many who wished to continue turf cutting. Much of the turf cutting has stopped and restoration has since begun on some of the protected bogs.
However, last week, with the news that legal action against Ireland is once again underway, it seems we are stuck in a time lag. The issues debated over the past 20 years are the same as those debated today, and turf continues to be illegally taken from protected areas.
The latest warning from the European Commission comes after decades of failures here to implement pan-European conservation laws, decades of failure to protect and restore the rarest priority habitats. This political hot potato has been deemed too hot to be handled by successive governments. Instead, the state managed to buy time by creating the Peatlands Council, developing a national peatlands strategy, and promising to protect an additional slice of National Heritage Areas (NHAs).
The latest controversy is that the European Commission is challenging Ireland’s continued failure to uphold democratically established conservation laws, while some contractors and others want to continue actively mowing these protected peatlands, even though this activity is directly within counter to the need to safeguard and restore even a small sample of these fragile ecosystems.
The real news here is that as a country, we are still failing to value and protect such a precious resource, after being given so much latitude by European courts for decades. The outrage is that even in the throes of a biodiversity crisis, we cannot agree on concrete actions to effectively implement our collective conservation responsibilities.
In a bog, where nothing collapses, time has the gift of stopping. However, our relationship with peatlands is constantly evolving and a breakthrough is now long overdue. Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change has called for extensive restoration of peatlands, courts are pushing too. In the future, today’s youth will not thank us for not leaving a single sample of untouched raised bogs for posterity.