Prohibition on Turf Cutting: Discussion.

Members will recall the impact of prohibition of the cutting of turf in certain areas around the country and I now welcome a delegation from the National Parks and Wildlife Service at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which will discuss the issue. We are joined by Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh and Dr. Ciarán O'Keeffe, both of whom are directors with the designated areas and legislation divisions of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Mr. James O'Connell is from the site protection unit and Mr. Jim Ryan is from the wetlands unit in the Department.

The format of today's meeting will involve a brief presentation from the delegation followed by a question and answer session from members of the committee. Before beginning the presentation, I remind witnesses that members of this committee have absolute privilege in respect of comments made but the same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

I welcome the opportunity afforded by the committee's invitiation to discuss today the EU habitats directive and in particular the designation of bogs, the proposed cessation of turf cutting on designated raised bogs and the bog compensation scheme. I am a director of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, and have particular responsibility for site designation, designated areas and legislation.

My colleagues include Dr. Ciarán O'Keeffe, a fellow director of the NPWS responsible for scientific and biodiversity matters; Mr. James O'Connell, who heads up the site protection unit and is responsible for administering the voluntary bog compensation scheme; and Mr. Jim Ryan, who is a specialist on wetlands and raised bogs in particular.

Blanket bogs and raised bogs are very important natural habitats and are home to unique ecosystems containing rare flora and fauna. Both are protected habitats under European and Irish law and representative samples have been designated as special areas of conservation under the habitats directive or natural heritage areas under the wildlife Acts. Ireland is home to some of the most ecologically important bogs in the European Union and it was required to designate further bogs following reviews of the Irish special area of conservation list in 1999 and 2002 to reflect properly the importance the EU places on Irish bogs.

Ireland has two main types of bog, blanket bogs and raised bogs. Blanket bogs cover a much larger area than raised bogs and occur predominantly on the western seaboard but also in mountain areas throughout the country. Blanket bogs can tolerate a certain amount of turf extraction without compromising their value as habitats and it is proposed that cutting on these blanket bog special areas of conservation can continue, except in very sensitive areas, under the current restrictions introduced a decade ago. There should be no commercial extraction on these designated sites and the use of sausage machines is prohibited.

Raised bogs occur predominantly in the midlands. There are more than 1,500 raised bogs in the State and of these, only 139 are designated for nature protection. These are within 55 special areas of conservation and 75 natural heritage areas. The continued cutting of turf, by hand or machine, and the associated drainage on these protected raised bogs, is incompatible with their preservation. Even with the restricted cutting regime in place for the past decade, over a third of the active bog habitat on these sites has been lost in that time. All raised bogs special areas of conservation and national heritage areas are listed in a table provided to the committee.

Under the 1997 European Communities habitats regulations, which transposed the habitats directive into Irish law, peat extraction was proposed to be ended on all designated bogs. In 1999, however, a derogation period of up to ten years was allowed by the Minister in respect of domestic turf cutting on the 32 bogs designated in or before 1999. A similar ten-year derogation period currently applies to any bog, special area of conservation or natural heritage area designated after 1999. Further designation of SACs occurred in 2002, and designation of natural heritage areas was undertaken in 2004.

In the agreement between the Government and the farming representative organisations of 2004, it was provided that after the ten-year derogation period the Department would review whether there were particular circumstances in which domestic turf cutting could continue without damaging the bogs. Recent scientific reports on bog monitoring and turf cutting assessment of raised bogs found that damage was continuing, almost all due to domestic turf cutting and associated drainage. My colleague Dr. O'Keeffe will go into this in more detail shortly.

In light of the scientific evidence, it is clear that continued drainage to facilitate cutting is not compatible with halting or reversing this rate of loss. Ireland has a high proportion of western Europe's remaining active raised bog, but it is estimated that less than 1% of our original stock remains. If we are to preserve what remains, co-ordinated actions above and beyond current efforts are essential. To this end, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, has established an interdepartmental working group to consider the administrative, legal and financial arrangements to implement the protective measures necessary to protect and restore these bogs. This group comprises representatives from the Departments of Finance, Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, the Office of Public Works, the Office of the Attorney General, and the Office of the Chief State Solicitor. The group is chaired by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and is due to report back to the Minister in late autumn, which will be the end of October.

In June, this group placed advertisements in national and local newspapers seeking submissions from interested parties regarding the ending of turf cutting on a limited number of raised bogs. The deadline for receipt of these submissions was Friday last, 17 July. We received more than 200 submissions and were pleased with the response. We have not had a chance to analyse them all but we will do so and they will all be considered by the group as it considers the recommendations it drafts for the Minister.

It might be useful for me to outline the scale of what is envisaged regarding the need for further restriction of turf cutting. It is envisaged that cutting will cease only on the 139 designated raised bogs, and this will be done on a phased basis over the coming years. Cutting on 32 raised bog SACs is due to cease this year, along with a further 23 SACs in 2012 and 75 natural heritage areas in 2014. To put this in context, the total area of bogland in the State with the potential for peat extraction is about 850,000 hectares which includes all blanket bog and raised bog areas with the potential to extract turf, but the maximum total area for which it is proposed to end turf cutting now or in the future is 35,000 hectares, or just over 4% of the total.

The Department has already acquired a certain amount of this land through the voluntary bog purchase scheme, which has operated since 1999. Under the scheme, owners of turbary rights and landowners can voluntarily sell their interests in designated raised bogs to the State at prescribed rates per acre. The scheme has been moderately successful and, in combination with agreements reached with commercial turf cutters, has resulted in the transfer to the State of about a third of the area of the 32 raised bogs designated in 1999 or before. However, the scheme has not attracted enough turf cutters to prevent a significant deterioration in the ecological health of these bogs. The scheme is ongoing and the limited funds available are being focused on completing the sale of turf plots on the 32 bog sites where the cessation of cutting is imminent.

I will now hand over to Dr. Ciarán O'Keeffe, who will focus on the more scientific aspects of turf cutting.

Dr. Ciarán O’Keeffe

Some years ago, the National Parks and Wildlife Service commissioned detailed studies of the impact of turf cutting on designated bogs. The study mapped and assessed the condition of all parts of each of the large number of bogs it looked at. It also mapped all potentially damaging activities on a large number of bogs, including drains, active and inactive banks, forestry plantations, which are on some bogs, and so on. It concluded that turf cutting and raised bog conservation are incompatible and recommended that peat cutting on all designated raised bogs should be phased out by 2014, at the very latest. I stress that this concerned designated raised bogs only, so that there is no confusion with regard to continuation of cutting on the 90% of bogs which are not designated.

Since completion of that study we had to report, as required under the law of the EU Habitats Directive, on the status of all the habitats and species which require protection under that directive. This is the report which has been circulated. For the first time, Ireland was asked to provide a national assessment of the conservation status of all of the habitats and species listed in the directive which occur here. We carried out the assessment according to strict guidelines, which were laid down by the Commission. The report was published a little more than a year ago. It covers approximately 60 habitats in Ireland and approximately 100 species of plants and animals.

Each assessment included an evaluation of the range of the species or habitat across the country. It looked at the condition and future prospects of the habitat or species in question. Considerable scientific data went into the process and we were required to categorise each species and habitat as: good, inadequate or bad. There were strict guidelines in the template as to how one reached a conclusion of "good, inadequate or bad". For species, we concluded that approximately 50% are in good status, 20% are inadequate, 10% bad and 20% unknown. However, on the habitats front, we got a much worse position, with approximately 45% in bad condition.

The Commission has taken the reports from each of the 25 member states and produced a synthesis report on the status of habitats and species across the EU. It has found a pattern across the EU broadly similar to what occurs in Ireland. It is interesting to note that the synthesis report, which is available on the web, notes that the habitats in the worst condition across the EU are bogs and mires. Each country now must work towards an improvement in the situation in time for the next report, which will be placed in 2013.

The main raised bog habitats we are concerned about here are dealt with on pages 47 and 48 of the report. These are active raised bog and what is called degraded raised bog. An active raised bog is where the bog is still wet enough for peat formation to occur. I draw a distinction between active raised bog, which is a scientific definition of a habitat, and high bog. There is much more high bog in the country than active raised bog. This, to some extent, causes difficulties in communication. The terms "degraded raised bog" and "active raised bog" are defined in the interpretation manual which goes with the Habitats Directive. Degraded raised bog is bog which has been damaged and is no longer forming peat but which is capable of restoration over a period of time if the damage, which in our case is mostly drainage, is halted. Active raised bog is a priority habitat under the Habitats Directive. Therefore, we are obliged to give it particular protection.

In our study we assessed each habitat and species under four headings and then gave an overall rating. Under every one of the headings the assessment for active raised bog was bad. Only two other habitats, which are quite small, had such bad ratings. Less than 1% of the original area of actively growing raised bog is left and we are losing this tiny amount at a rate of between 2% and 5% per annum. In other words, there is a real possibility that this habitat, which we are obliged under European law to protect and we are given priority in that protection, will have disappeared in a few years under our watch.

Degraded raised bog fared better in this assessment because active raised bog when it is cut or drained or damaged, by definition, becomes degraded. The bog has not disappeared, it has changed in form and the species composition on the bog has gone. If active raised bog is disappearing, we may reasonably expect that degraded raised bog is actually appearing in parts of the bog where it was not before and so the overall range and area of degraded bog was not substantially reduced. If this is managed by us as we need to manage it, it can be restored and peat formation would start again.

The nub of the problem is that we have to restore bog habitats in these designated areas and the only way we can do this is to stop the water draining off the bogs which are effectively bleeding themselves dry or dry enough to change for the long term in their composition. The problem is that drainage is an essential prerequisite to cutting turf.

At this stage most of our bogs are harvested to such an extent that restoration is not possible. As Mr. Ó Raghallaigh mentioned there are 1,500 to 1,600 different raised bogs in the midlands, most of which have been heavily harvested. A total of 55 bogs remain which are candidate SAC, special area of conservation. None of them is undamaged but they are the best remaining examples and this is the reason their protection is so urgently required.

I thank our guests for their most interesting and informative presentation on this topical and controversial issue particularly in the midlands. I come from the midlands and I have had many representations on this issue in recent years. It is not the small turf cutters who are damaging our bogs. People have a right to cut and save turf on local bogs for their personal use. There can be areas of special conservation within bogs without a blanket ban being imposed on turf cutting in those bogs. I am annoyed because there are omissions in the report. There is a reference on the back page to SACs 1999, raised bogs and SAC 2002, raised bogs and also the raised bogs in the NHA areas. People are being intimidated. They are being given notice from different personnel in the National Parks and Wildlife Service who are very active in their jobs.

I refer to a letter about a person and an alleged offence under the 1976 Wildlife Act. This person was carrying out a little bit of drainage and was cutting turf in the traditional fashion solely for his own use. I made representation on his behalf and the letter is addressed to me and signed by the conservation ranger.

Dear Mr. Bannon,

Thank you for your telephone call on behalf of your constituent... As I informed you on the telephone, the person is required to contact myself to arrange an interview in relation to this alleged offence. Please could you advise your constituent to contact...a conservation ranger in the district office. This is in relation to an alleged offence under the 1976 Wildlife Act occurring...during the prohibited period in 2009. A report is being prepared in relation to this incident and an interview will be carried out to determine the course of events leading up to the alleged offence. You may advise...that failure to respond to this reasonable request in itself is an offence.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

The letter in question was signed by the conservation ranger. The person in question was trying to drain a bit of bank. He wanted to use an existing drain to allow himself and his family to cut turf.

I have read from one of the many letters that have been sent to various people. People are annoyed and intimidated by the letters being sent by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. This is a sensitive and topical issue across the midlands where people believe they have a right to cut and save turf on locally owned bogs for their personal use. It is part of Irish cultural rural and family life to go to the bog every spring to cut turf for our own use. People feel the situation has got out of hand somewhat.

Very few bogs in County Longford are mentioned in the report. A number of bogs in County Westmeath are mentioned. People believe turf cutting for domestic use is an essential part of our heritage. It should not be stopped. The Department needs to improve its public relations work on this issue. There needs to be a balance between environmental prudence and concern for the tradition of turf cutting, which has survived over many centuries. People have been emotional at the public meetings I have attended. They emphasised that the rural way of life is not up for grabs. Many generations of Irish people have cut turf for their own use. The bogs have continued to grow, particularly over recent years when there has been a great deal of rain. It is important for the departmental officials to get out there and talk to people, rather than sending threatening letters to them. The Minister must concede that there is a small window of opportunity for enabling the rural way of life, which has been driven by the centuries-old tradition of cutting turf for domestic use, to be preserved. I would like to hear the officials' comments on that.

According to the presentation made earlier, owners were not notified when the list of designated bogs was extended following the review of Ireland's list of special areas of conservation in 1999 and 2000. People were annoyed about that. The officials also referred to the agreement on this issue that was drawn up by the Government and representatives of the farming organisations in 2004. The farming bodies dispute that they reached agreement with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on this issue. Perhaps a copy of the agreement could be made available. I requested it in the past but I have not received it to date. The IFA and the other farming organisations have organised meetings in certain areas to discuss this matter, which is mentioned time and again.

Rather than going back and forward all day, I will take comments from a couple of members. Everyone will get a chance.

Although I now live in a town, I am a country man who has spent many a hard summer in the bog. There has to be a meeting of minds on this matter. Most fair-minded people accept that some form of conservation has to be implemented. It must be borne in mind that we are talking about people who have been involved in turf cutting for a very long time. Several of the bogs being harvested are not special areas of conservation, nor are they national heritage areas. There is a PR problem to be addressed.

I proposed to the committee that it hear the views of representatives of the turf cutters at a future meeting of this committee. The delegates will have to talk to those representatives because cutting turf has been a way of life for them and their ancestors. Turf cutting is part of rural development and rural activity and we must respect that. If common sense, which is not always common, prevails, I am sure an agreement can be reached between the turf cutters, the Department and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. This could and should be achieved.

The only way the problem will be resolved will be by having people talk to one another rather than at each other. I ask that dialogue commence between this committee and the turf cutters' representatives, as the committee has agreed. Thereafter, perhaps, officials from the Department and the National Parks and Wildlife Service could meet them to iron out an agreement. I am sure progress can be made. I ask that a meeting be arranged with the turf cutters to clear the decks. If there are problems, let us determine what they are. We will not solve any of them by not talking to each other.

I welcome the delegation. I have two separate issues to raise, the first of which concerns the purchasing by the Department of turf banks. I do not believe the gentlemen present will be able to satisfy me on this issue. Advertisements were placed in newspapers asking owners to sell their plots in bogs in my area. I own a turf bank or two. Some people agreed to sell the banks to the Department in good faith and employed solicitors to carry out the transactions. Although they now owe the solicitors up to €2,000, they recently received letters stating they will not be paid by the Department until 2014. This is very unfair. Many of those concerned are small farmers going through a difficult time. They might have decided to sell two plots for a certain amount. The sums concerned might not break the bank but are important to the individuals concerned. It was bad enough requiring them to sell their plots, perhaps against their will in some circumstances.

The owners of the plots would not have bothered selling them only they were told that if they did not do so, they would be bought at the Department's price in years to come. Consequently, they decided to sell them at that time only to find they incurred legal fees of up to €2,000 but will not be paid by the Department. This is very unfair. The least the Department should do is adhere to a signed agreement that the Department would purchase those plots. Perhaps the delegates cannot answer my questions. If not, perhaps the matter can be referred to the Minister.

Consider the position of those who want to continue cutting turf. Senator Glynn spoke nostalgically about how in our young days we used to harvest the turf and draw it home and we had some great days on the bog.

The prohibitions are unfair. While departmental officials speak about the damage being done to the bogs, I do no hear them speak of the damage Bord na Móna and other large commercial operators do. Damage was not done by cutting turf on the banks used by the small contractors, which were rotated every year. I accept that years ago many people were cutting and spreading turf over large areas but there are only a few at it now. I cannot see what damage they are doing. North Meath, Westmeath, Longford, Roscommon all have large Bord na Móna operations with large swathes of bogland used compared to the ordinary landowner who cuts three or four tractor loads of turf per year. The prohibition is unfair and keeping people from having a livelihood. It is the ordinary cottiers, small farmers and business people not the wealthy person who is at this type of cutting. They are the ordinary workers of the country who cannot afford oil, which as we all know, is getting costly and people are inclined to go back to using their banks of turf.

This prohibition should be re-examined carefully. As Senator Glynn said, the least the Department can do is talk to those affected to resolve this issue.

I welcome the Department's presentation on this issue. Although I come from an area without raised bogs, I recognise their importance as unique ecological features. We must be seen to do everything in our power to protect them. That said; the people who used them as part of their livelihood over many generations and as a fuel source for the winter must be properly compensated. From what I have heard from this meeting that is not the case.

When the importance of protecting raised bogs is explained to the parties in question, all of them will understand it. Their compensation, however, must not leave them out of pocket because this is a right they have had for many years. It is important this matter is resolved by agreement in a manner in which both sides can feel comfortable.

Like me, most of the committee members were raised on the edge of the bog. Agus mé ag éisteacht, tá mé cinnte go bhfuil an seanfhocal ceart — is féidir an fear a thógáil as an bportach ach ní féidir an portach a bhaint as an bhfear. I was raised in County Longford on the edge of a large bog. I recall my father selling 200 acres or 300 acres of bog to Bord na Móna in the mid-1950s at £1 an acre, which was developed into a peat moss bog. That happened throughout the midlands. As a young boy I remember watching the Brent geese grazing on those bogs in the winter but they were no longer in the bogs after Bord na Móna drained them and got involved in harvesting peat moss. In the early 1960s most of our young football teams worked in Bord na Móna. All of their older brothers and sisters had emigrated in the 1950s. Was it more important to keep those people in their own areas in useful employment, which still continues, or preserve the environmental aspect of the bog? I pose that as a general question rather than dealing with the specifics of the rights of people to cut turf on their own bogs. I accept there were no European Union directives or anything else when Bord na Móna developed the large tracts of raised bogs in the midlands but what is more important in the long term? Is it the environmental aspect of the bog or keeping people in their own areas and preserving the traditional method of harvesting turf for their own use? I recognise we are only talking about designated bogs. I live in County Galway, not County Longford, and I notice the list in County Galway is greater than that in County Longford, where there was much more bog than there ever was in County Galway. I have not gone through the list to see how it is affecting some of my constituents in Galway. There was only a small amount of Bord na Móna production in Galway. It was turf production rather than peat moss production in County Galway. Is the benefit of local employment and keeping people working in their own areas greater than the environmental aspect in terms of habitants of the bogs?

I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to speak at this meeting. I listened with interest to the submission made by the officials and would like to address a number of the points raised.

All of the focus has been on the issue of domestic turf cutting and the associated drainage. Mr. Ó Raghallaigh spoke about that in his contribution but several issues arise. On the agreement or disagreement, as the case may be, with the farming representative organisations, in 2004 a commitment was given that an assessment would be done of the bogs to determine if it was possible to retain the derogation on some of those bogs in the future. I am aware the evidence as outlined was presented to the Minister in that respect. Mr. Ó Raghallaigh is also aware that the turf cutters in east Galway have given a submission to the Minister which disputes the conclusions drawn from that. I raised some of those points on the floor of the House in March this year. Mr. Ó Raghallaigh is aware also of what the Minister said at the time, namely, that he felt those claims needed to be examined by the interdepartmental group but the terms of reference of the interdepartmental group do not allow for that. I have yet to see a satisfactory response to the claims made by the turf cutters at that time.

The submission being made here is that the active bog is being degraded by between 2% and 5% per annum. Over a ten year period in which domestic turf cutting was allowed, therefore, a degradation of between 20% and 50% of the active bog has occurred. I find it difficult to understand how 50% of the active bog could have disappeared in that time when we are talking about 1% of the total bogs designated that are in private ownership. Turf cutting is taking place on the maximum of 1%. In fact, as we all know it is a small percentage of that. The turf cutting taking place is having a detrimental effect on bogs. I cannot understand how it can have such a impact. Some 1% of the turf bogs are in private ownership while 99% are already in State ownership, yet the bogs seem to be evaporating at a great extent.

I will refer briefly to two bogs. Ratheenmore bog in County Offaly, which is under the management of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, was acquired by Dúchas from Bord na Móna. It was one of the bogs it did not get around to developing or ploughing. Based on scientific assessment, although turf is not being cut on that bog, it is estimated there has been a 45% reduction in the area of active bog in the period in question. The National Parks and Wildlife Service is in charge of that bog.

Some 150 hoppers of turf have been taken off Lisnageeragh bog in County Galway every year for the past ten years. That approximates to the amount of turf used by ten to 12 families as their sole source of energy for that period. I am aware that many more families use turf as a source of fuel but I am referring to families who use turf as their sole source of fuel. The active bog area on that bog has increased by one third in the same period. This bog was flooded and a plastic lining was put in place. That procedure did not involve any additional cost for the taxpayer. However, if the owners of these bogs are to be properly compensated, Bord na Móna figures indicate the cost involved would be €285,000 per acre. Therefore, the taxpayer would have to pay €26 billion to properly compensate the householders involved for the 100 to 150 years of fuel that remains in those half acre plots around the country. That is a significant amount of money in the current economic climate when alternatives have been proposed.

Deputy Bannon spoke about a bog that is not designated. What has happened in this area has been an unmitigated PR disaster. A very small amount of bog area is involved around the country, yet the public believe that the Department is closing down turf cutting on every bog in the country. The practice on the bog Deputy Bannon mentioned is facilitating such belief. The bog rangers should have enough to focus on in terms of the bogs they oversee without looking for trouble in respect of other bogs.

The objective of the habitats directive is to promote the maintenance of biodiversity, taking into account the economic, social, cultural and regional requirements. The maintenance of such biodiversity may in certain cases require maintenance or encouragement of human activities. We are talking about people who have been cutting turf for generations. Domestic turf cutting has not impacted negatively on bogs until recently. It now appears that major damage has occurred. I accept the point regarding commercial turf cutting, but I do not accept the argument about domestic turf cutting when a very small percentage of bogs are in private ownership, and the majority are already in State ownership.

At the time of the 1999 agreement, a ten-year grace period was given, but it was given by the Department on the basis of allowing people to find alternative fuel sources. The Department has made no effort in the intervening period to provide alternative fuel sources. It is only at the eleventh hour in the past 12 months that the Department has referred to the provision of alternative plots for turf cutters. Approximately one third of the 32 bogs in private ownership have been or are in the process of being sold to the Department. They were sold by people who had alternative turf banks, but no effort has been made to assist the people, who rely solely on the turfs banks within those designated bogs, in finding alternative fuel sources. If we are to fully compensate the people involved for the replacement of a domestic fuel source for the next 100 to 150 years, based on Bord na Móna figures, the potential cost involved would be €26 billion. That could not be justified in the current economic climate.

Proposals have been put forward by the turf cutters that would address the issue of flooding and damage by drainage, by banking up the existing bog in State ownership along the log spit, which is the dividing line between the privately-owned and State-owned bogs. It can address it but, to date, the Department has not been prepared to look at that or entertain it. I cannot see how we can have such a significant fall-off in the active raised bog when the Department is managing it, yet we can have an increase in the raised bog when local people are managing it.

It is a very interesting debate. I was a little bit disappointed that Cork, as the biggest county, does not have some raised bog.

County Cork has too much good land, that is the problem.

There is too much good land there.

I see the odd bit of turf cutting across the county, especially in north Cork and down to Deputy Christy O'Sullivan's area. Can Mr. Ó Raghallaigh explain how we escaped, because in Cork we have every misfortune that is identified in the regulations? Is there an embargo on building wind farms on bogland? What is the up-to-date position on that? We are in the green era now and wind is an energy source. Are there designated areas for wind farms or can they just be built subject to planning permission? I hope Mr. Ó Raghallaigh will come to Cork and give us a further designation.

As many the questions are similar in theme, I will now ask Mr. Ó Raghallaigh to address them as best he can. We will take it from there then.

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

I thank members of the joint committee for their questions. They might forgive me for not addressing specific cases because I do not have the background. Deputy Bannon mentioned an incident in Ardgullion bog, but suffice it to say that the NPWS is not confined to advising the Minister on policy. It also has a function to enforce the Wildlife Acts and the habitat regulations. Therefore we have a role in ensuring that Irish and European legislative provisions in this area are complied with. In some cases that leads us into enforcement actions and taking prosecutions.

I take Deputy Bannon's point, which was echoed by some of his colleagues, about communication on this issue. Maybe we have not been as good, in terms of PR on this issue, as we could have been. There is a great deal of confusion over the scale of this cessation, as well as what it does or does not imply. Many people genuinely think the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is trying to bring an end to turf cutting everywhere when that is not the case. Less than 4% of the country's bogland is designated for protection. Most turf cutters will not be affected by any of this, but it is obviously an important issue for those who are. I take the point that the Department may not have been forward enough in talking to turf cutters in these areas. I agree with Deputy Fitzpatrick and Deputy Christy O'Sullivan who said we have to sit down with them and explain the position more clearly. There is an opportunity to do this with the interdepartmental group that has been established. We have started that process by inviting submissions from these turf cutters and their representative groups. We will look at those carefully. It is open to the group to decide to meet some of these representatives, as well. We will discuss that within the group and if it is willing to do so, that is what will happen. We have engaged with the organisations which represent farmers — the IFA and the ICMSA — for years on this issue. Many turf cutters are members of these organisations which are putting themselves forward as representing a certain number of the former.

Deputy Bannon referred to the farmers' agreement concluded with the farming organisations. It is not the case that the IFA or the ICMSA are party to agreeing to the cessation, in principle. However, they worked with us to reach an agreement on compensation rates under the voluntary compensation scheme. We have a copy of the agreement in our possession and can share it with the committee subsequently.

Senator Glynn referred, in the main, to the issue of communication which I have addressed. Deputy Johnny Brady referred to the priority of sites and mentioned a person who had applied and gone to the expense of engaging a solicitor. The position is that for a number of years there has been so much interest in the voluntary purchase scheme that we have lacked both the administrative and legal services capacity — the latter is provided by the Chief State Solicitor's office — and the necessary funding to allow us to meet demand. However, the amount spent by the Department in the area of purchasing has been increasing. Last year we spent €6.4 million — the highest amount we have ever spent. In addition, some 230 or 240 agreements were completed last year. This means we purchased 230 or 240 separate plots from various people who wanted to become part of the scheme.

The difficulty we now face relates to the imminent cessation of activity on 32 bogs, cessation on another 23 SACs in 2012 and a possible cessation on 75 natural heritage areas in 2014. We have decided, therefore, to prioritise the applications of those who will be the first to be obliged to stop cutting. Those to whom Deputy Johnny Brady refers retain the option of availing of their turf cutting rights in the interim. As a result, they will not be out of pocket in the context of the turf harvest.

The individuals in question would not have harvested turf for many years. However, they have paid €2,000 in legal expenses and will not receive compensation.

Is that under the voluntary scheme?

They retain their rights until they are paid, and so on. However, I am aware of an individual in the area in which I live who is allowed to cut turf but who is prevented from transporting it off the bog by the Department. That is silly.

They could do it during the long summer evenings.

I am stating the facts of the matter which is worthy of investigation.

It could be done at 5 a.m.

Information such as that which I am imparting travels far and wide. It does the Department no good——

They received bad advice from the Deputy who represents them.

——when one of its officials overreacts.

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

Absolutely.

Mr. Ó Raghallaigh should ensure to advise those involved on how they can transport the turf home.

Deputy McCormack has already spoken and will be allowed to intervene again later. However, I am concerned about the constituents who live in my area.

Is Mr. Ó Raghallaigh referring to the voluntary bog purchase scheme?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

Yes.

When will those who have gone through the application process be paid?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

As stated, we are prioritising applications relating to the 32 raised bogs. If we have entered into a contractual agreement to go through with the sale of the land, we will honour it. They could be in NHAs or the 23 SACs where turf cutting is not due to cease until 2012.

Are some of the voluntary bog purchase schemes not included in this schedule?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

No, they are all in the schedule.

What is available for the current year?

A sum of €6.4 million was available last year.

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

We have had cuts because of the economic environment and have €4.6 million available to us this year. We could easily spend twice that amount based on the applications received.

That is very little.

Do owners have the option to transfer to another bog?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

Yes, the interdepartmental group is dealing with the idea that rather than giving financial compensation for a plot, if people want to continue cutting turf but have no opportunity to do so outside a designated bog, the State might provide alterative land for them to cut turf. This was done to a limited extent in the late 1990s after the voluntary compensation scheme was established. The State purchased a number of bogs not designated for nature protection, of which the NPWS still owns a number. They could be available for bog swaps. Therefore, somebody could cut on them in return for not continuing to cut on other bogs.

They were not getting like for like, which was the problem.

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

There are many issues. People like their own plot where they cut. It might be closer to where they live.

The quality of turf is completely different.

Must turf cutting cease on the 32 bogs listed in the pre-1999 SAC designations? Does the NPWS not have the funds to compensate those affected? What interest rate will they be paid if the NPWS will not make a payment?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

The interdepartmental group is examining how we would effect a cessation on the scale about which we are talking. The scheme, as it has operated to date, is not designed to address all turf cutters in all designated bogs. We have to try to put together a system under which we can both administratively deal with and, in terms of the legal and financial resources available, compensate these turf cutters. That is what the interdepartmental group is considering and it will make recommendations to the Minister on the extent of financial resources that will be required. This will be a new financial demand above and beyond anything provided for the voluntary scheme.

What about those who are working their way through the voluntary scheme? Mr. Ó Raghallaigh hinted at signed contractual agreements. Will they be left swinging in the wind because they may have ceased cutting turf in recent years under the voluntary scheme? Will they be informed in writing that they can cut turf again? What will happen to those who are in the system but have not been processed?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

It depends. There will be some new arrangement for compensating turf cutters because the context will change.

What about the agreement which has not been finalised?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

There has not been an agreement. Therefore, a new package may be on offer that may be more attractive to those in the system. We have not come to a determination as to what will happen to outstanding, unsatisfied applicants for the voluntary scheme or on the future of the scheme following a cessation.

Where do people with whom compensation has been agreed under the scheme but who have not concluded a contract stand? They have received a figure from the NPWS, but Mr. Ó Raghallaigh mentioned the delays in the Chief State Solicitor's office. What will happen to those who stopped cutting turf a few years ago and with whom compensation was agreed but whose files are in the Chief State Solicitor's office? It puts the frighteners on every Member of the Oireachtas to hear about that office. The recipe for delay is endless. What is to happen to those who are in the system but who have not come out the far end?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

The Department can only enter into contractual arrangements where we have the financial resources to meet them.

In those cases, the applicant can send in a digger, clean up the bank, drain it and go back to cutting turf with a hopper. Is that what the Department is saying?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

No.

It is either one or the other. The Department cannot have it both ways.

How many individuals are included in the voluntary purchase scheme whose applications have not been processed? How many cases are a "work in progress"? If Mr. Ó Raghallaigh does not have the information today, will he send it to the committee? That is a valid question. How many are caught in the system?

Does one not need a permit to cut turf at present?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

No.

In that case, who needs a permit?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

There is a permit system in the eastern division of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. In some areas a permit is required. There is considerable communication between our rangers and turf cutters in these areas. That is to try to keep some element of control on turf cutting and limit the damage caused. There is no permit system for blanket bogs in the west.

Does Mr. Ó Raghallaigh have any idea how many cases are in the system?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

I am looking at figures my colleague has just given me. There are about 1,000 active files on our books. That represents 1,000 applications.

Are they from individuals?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

Yes.

From my knowledge of my part of the country, applications tend to be for €7,000 or €8,000 apiece. That adds up to between €7 million and €8 million, although funding for the scheme amounts to only €4.6 million. The applications cannot be satisfied.

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

The Department would not have the capacity to undertake the administration or have the contracts completed. Like selling any piece of land, it is an onerous conveyancing exercise, sometimes involving a title search.

I understand that. However, there are 1,000 cases in hand that cannot be processed. How can 32 new bogs be taken on this year when the Department cannot deal with the cases in hand? Is Mr. Ó Raghallaigh beginning to understand why we asked him to attend the committee?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

Absolutely. This is the issue the interdepartmental group is considering. We know we do not have the current financial or human resources to have a cessation on the scale necessary to protect the bogs. The group will make recommendations to the Minister on the extent of resources necessary to do so.

Deputy McCormack raised a number of issues. It is undeniable that much damage was done by Bord na Móna and commercial peat cutters in the past. Many raised bogs were destroyed by commercial turf cutting. It may have been for good reason such as generating employment. The Deputy observed that this happened before we had specific legislation to protect some of these areas. Ireland has now agreed to implement the habitats directive.

Mr. Ó Raghallaigh has said there is approximately 850,000 ha of bog with potential for peat extraction. Does that include the Bord na Móna bogs?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

It does.

That distorts the point he makes. He stresses that the area where turf cutting is to be ended is 35,000 ha, or only 4% of the total. However, it is not 4% of the potential figure. Several thousand hectares, perhaps hundreds of thousands, have been lost as a result of Bord na Móna production.

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

I have just received clarification from a colleague. Apparently, the land owned by Bord na Móna was taken out; therefore, the figure of 850,000 ha excludes the Bord na Móna land.

However, it includes State-owned land not in Bord na Móna control. I have made the point on numerous occasions that roughly between 95% and 99% of bogs are in State ownership. In many cases the Land Commission allocated plots between the edge of the bog and the log spit; they were usually plots of one acre given to individuals who were given the turbary rights. Are we only talking about non-State-owned bog in private hands?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

I am not sure our analysis concurs with that of the Deputy, that only 1% is in private ownership.

The Minister acknowledged it when he announced the interdepartmental group. He stated 1% of the 32 bogs in question were in private ownership.

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

No, I think what he said at the time was that 1% of Ireland's resource of active raised bog remained.

He referred to a proposal to bring to an end turf cutting on an estimated 7,774 ha or less than 1%.

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

That area of raised bog is what the Department has purchased through the voluntary purchase scheme and it is about one third of the 32 raised bogs.

The reality is that a significant proportion of those raised bogs are already in the hands of the State.

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

Yes.

We can dispute the percentage, but a substantial percentage is in State ownership. This has been acknowledged by Mr. Ó Raghallaigh and was acknowledged by the Minister in the Dáil. We can argue about the proportion, whether it is 80% to 95% or 99%, but what we are talking about is the proportion in private hands which is relatively small when compared to the total mass designated.

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

The point is, regardless of whether the 850,000 ha is in State or private ownership, it still amounts to 4% of the total area of land where turf cutting is possible. When we talk about land swaps or the potential to exchange bog plots or turn banks from one bog to another, if it is owned by the State, it might facilitate this. If the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government owns some that could be used for that purpose, it could help to resolve the issue we are trying to resolve.

Perhaps Mr. Ó Raghallaigh might like to respond to the other questions asked. He has addressed one of my questions.

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

The Deputy referred to a Galway group which made an assessment. We have not seen that report but would be happy to look at it if the group presented it to us. l will ask my colleague, Dr. O'Keeffe, to respond to some of the issues raised by the Deputy which are of a more scientific nature.

What about wind farms?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

I can address the wind farm issue if the committee wishes. My understanding is that raised bogs do not lend themselves to the construction of wind farms as the peat is very soft and deep. One will see a lot of wind farm development on upland blanket bog. There have been issues to do with bog stability, including at Derrybrien where it has caused difficulty. A lot of upland blanket bogs have been designated for nature protection; they are either SACs or areas designated for the protection of birds, particularly hen harriers. As the industry has grown, there has been a significant increase in the number of applications for planning permission for wind farms. We are coming to terms with how to deal with the increase, while complying with the provisions of the habitats directive in this area. There is no blanket prohibition on many things, including wind farms, in designated areas. Each application for a wind farm development has to be the subject of an ecological assessment. Under the habitats directive, the impact a proposal for a specific site will have on the species or habitat for which the site is designated needs to be fully understood before consent for the proposal can be given by the planning authorities. We are working with the wind farm industry to try to come to an understanding of how that requirement will be applied. We are also working with the planning authorities to that end.

How many approvals have been granted? How many rejections have been issued?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

I do not have those figures to hand.

Is it not becoming an issue?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

It is an issue in some parts of the country, where there has been a substantial increase in the number of applications for wind farm developments. We will reach a stage at which it will be difficult to accommodate such a large number of applications in special areas of conservation or special protection areas. We have not yet reached that point, but it will happen. The provisions of the habitats directive require us to consider whether each proposed wind farm can be as easily accommodated at an alternative site, outside the protected area.

Mr. Ó Raghallaigh mentioned ecology. What species are being protected?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

It depends on the actual site. Each site is designated for a different species. In some cases, the active blanket bog itself is protected. In other cases, the site in question might be a habitat for a particular bird species, such as the hen harrier or the red grouse.

I assume badgers are not protected.

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

Badgers are not protected under the habitats directive — they are protected under the Wildlife Acts.

I would like to ask about the acquisition of bogs. Is a distinction drawn between a person who owns a bog for his or her own turf cutting and a person who owns a commercial bog and gets a contractor to develop it? I refer in the latter case to someone who, like Bord na Móna, takes a great deal of turf off the bog every year and sells it on a commercial basis. Is the owner of a commercial bog compensated at the same rate per bog as the small household user, or is he or she compensated at a different rate?

It has been mentioned on several occasions that this has been a public relations disaster. Are farmers and householders co-operating with what the National Parks and Wildlife Service is trying to do? The acquisition of so many pieces of bog throughout the country is a huge undertaking. Farmers and householders are very adaptable people. If they were offered five acres of cutaway bog in lieu of a specific price of bog, or if some other deal was put on the table, I would have thought they would consider it. Does the National Parks and Wildlife Service have any suggestions for getting them to co-operate, other than offering them compensation or moving them from one bog to another?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

It is possible to compensate them in many ways. They could be offered a land swap, for example, or some financial compensation in lieu of their annual supply of turf. The interdepartmental group is considering many possibilities, including outright purchase. I expect that many more ideas will be proposed in the submissions being made by those who cut turf. When I looked through some submissions this morning, I came across a suggestion that wind turbines and solar panels should be provided and shared between clusters of houses. Not only would that represent a form of recompense, but it would meet the energy needs of the people in question. Such ideas are quite interesting. They will be considered by the group. I remind the Deputy that commercial cutting has been prohibited on these bogs for the past ten years. There has not been or should not have been any commercial operation during that time. The commercial operators were compensated through an arbitration scheme. Most have been satisfied at this stage but there are one or two cases outstanding. The rates paid were probably different in each case.

To correct the record, a problem arose regarding the compensation of contractors and it has not been addressed properly.

I raised a question on reviews of special areas of conservation. I am very much aware that a large number of owners were not notified of the further extensions to the special areas of conservation in 2002 and 2003. I can verify that as an owner of bog.

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

The issue of notification has caused difficulty for some time. It is particularly problematic where one has a turbary right pertaining to land one does not own. The registration of many turbary rights has been inconsistent and many people's rights are not registered. It is very difficult for the State to notify those concerned directly.

I am talking about cases involving farmers in the REP scheme. They may have had eight to ten acres, for example, in a special area of conservation and suddenly discovered, without having been officially notified, that 50 acres were included. This is a problem right across the midlands.

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

There were problems with notification. Our system for notifying people has improved vastly. We have access to the system of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and we therefore have the details of anybody with a herd number and know what land he owns. Owners are notified directly as a matter of course. The small percentage we cannot notify directly are generally notified through local newspapers and by radio.

Are many court cases pending with regard to the implementation of protective measures on bogs?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

Is the Deputy referring to prosecutions by us?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

I do not know. I know there was one or two but the cases are not numerous. It is a very small number.

It is a very grey area. One is the rightful owner of the land until one is paid. People still have rights in this country.

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

Absolutely. The cutters have enjoyed the derogation for the past ten years. They have Government-given sanction to continue cutting.

On the naming of bogs, a raised bog is a blanket bog covering thousands of acres. A blanket bog is generally between rocks on a hilly area.

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

I will refer that to the scientists.

Dr. Ciarán O’Keeffe

A raised bog is dome shaped and is mostly found in the midlands. They are not very big. A blanket bog is formed when bog forms over the landscape owing to a very wet climate. It is like a carpet on the landscape whereas a raised bog develops on what originally would have been a pond or lake that filled up over thousands of years.

Quite a few members expressed concern that the measures are so hard on a few people who only remove a handful or few lorry loads of turf per year. The issue is that we must stop the drainage of the bogs. The removal of a bit of turf is a much less significant issue than the constant drainage of water from the bogs. If one blocks the drains, people will not be able to cut turf. The key issue at this stage is drainage.

I want to clarify the point made on the communications front. There were many negotiations on the compensation scheme ten years ago. Although I was on the periphery at the time, the expectation then was that in ten years no one would cut bogs for domestic fuel anymore. However, oil crises and various other fuel source problems occurred and we are not at that position now. Part of the costing for the scheme ten years ago was that it would allow people to have a fuel supply for ten years during which time they could make alternative fuel source arrangements. At the time, everyone was going for oil fired central heating.

On the question of moving to other bogs, when I was working in the north west some years ago a bog in County Mayo was purchased. While we did get people to move their cutting to this site, it was not a large number. One way or the other, people will dispute whether the quality of turf is better or whatever. Many people also have a cutting right close to their property and which is very often associated with it. Turf cutting five miles away which may have to be drawn by tractor can be less attractive. This was a hot issue in east Galway and Roscommon ten years ago. It was difficult for us to purchase bogs although substantial efforts were made at the time to get compensatory areas of bog within the networks of bogs affected by the prohibition. However, because it was suddenly landed on everyone concerned, it did not turn out to be a simple solution. It may be now that we will see further progress on this.

Will Dr. O'Keeffe agree that while efforts were made ten years ago to compensate those affected, after the derogation was gained on the ten-year right to turf cutting for domestic purposes the ball was dropped by the State? Efforts were not made to assist in the transition to alternative fuel sources or plots. This is part of the reason why we are back to square one.

I accept the scheme will only deal with a proportion of the individuals involved. As Dr. O'Keeffe will note from the evidence given by other members, many of those who went down the road of the voluntary compensation scheme had alternative bog sites. However, some could not follow that course because they did not have an available alternative fuel source. The State slipped up by not recognising this issue and dealing with it in the intervening period.

Dr. Ciarán O’Keeffe

The bog compensation scheme set up ten years ago was costed on the basis of providing ten years during which time people would get paid the equivalent of a load of turf for ten years. The view at the time was that this would give people an ample period to get their fuel arrangements sorted out. It was generally believed that it would be attractive enough to pull many people into the scheme.

Many of those who went into it may not have been actively cutting on the bogs in question at the time. During the 2004 review, in which I was involved, the prices were adjusted accordingly so as to keep this ten-year source of fuel a possibility. That was the lynchpin of the scheme which succeeded to a certain extent. A lot of money was spent on it over the years but it certainly has not solved every issue.

Mr. Jim Ryan

Deputy Naughten referred to Raheenmore bog, County Offaly, which was protected by Bord na Móna. Eventually, it was given to the National Parks and Wildlife Service in the 1980s. Unfortunately, before it was given to the service, it was surrounded by an arterial drainage ditch courtesy of the Office of Public Works. That has had an ongoing impact on the site. It must be remembered that once one starts to drain the edge of a bog, it is an ongoing process that can take decades to reach full impact. While we have been working trying to protect the bog, on top, on the high bog, the edges have been drying out and that is, essentially, the reason, even though we own the bog we do not own the whole basin it was in originally. The drainage on the edge of the basin has resulted in the loss of active bog on the top of the high bog.

We tried to build three dams, as mentioned by the Deputy as part of a question, and I was involved in that. We looked on this as being part of the solution. We built three large dams. They cost the equivalent of around €700 per linear metre, and two out of the three fell down. That meant a massive amount of money was spent which did not achieve what we were trying to do. By continuing down that route one is creating dams around these bogs which have to be serviced and looked after indefinitely. Therefore it is probably not a very good use of public money and the bogs will not redevelop properly under those circumstances.

Correct me if I am wrong, but will a certain amount of maintenance not have to be carried out in these bogs in the long term? The Burren in County Clare is a prime example. Turf cutting on these bogs cannot just be abandoned, left to their own devices, even if it is just a matter of cutting away the weeds, etc. that grow up on the low bank because they could threaten, in the long run, the habitat on the high bank. Some maintenance will have to be carried out over a long period of time. To say that the alternative to removing turf cutters will require no maintenance as compared to installing dams which will, is not reasonable. There will have to be some maintenance, even if it is just the removal of the drainage that has taken place to date.

Mr. Jim Ryan

That is correct, but something like the Burren requires continuous human input to remain the same. If it is growing a bog essentially looks after itself. We would have to do restoration work. When the turf cutting stops, drains will have to be blocked up on the margin. After that, however, almost no maintenance should be required and the system should effectively look after itself. That is a different ball game.

I will note what exactly Mr. Ryan is saying, for somebody who may be around in ten or 15 years time to quote back to the officials who will then be in charge. A similar response was made regarding the Burren at that time. We shall leave it to history to decide on that one.

The point I am making is that I can take different examples of bogs. I have put the example of Carrowbehy bog on the Dáil record where there has been active turf cutting, yet which saw an increase of 13% in the active raised bog. In Cloonshanville bog, however, where there has been very little turf cutting, there was a reduction of 5.25%. The fact that turf cutting is taking place does not tally with the figures that are being presented to the Minister in support of the argument to remove turf cutting. I can give numerous examples with regard to bogs. It does not square up at the moment.

Mr. Jim Ryan

I should like to answer the cases referred to by the Deputy. I shall come back to the two he has just mentioned, but I want to deal with Lisnageeragh bog, which is near Glenamaddy. That is a part of the country where the raised bogs are starting to crawl out of the basins and beginning to encroach on the surrounding hills. The increase in the active area there was 33%, but that was equivalent to an increase of just five hectares. We undertook considerable drain blocking on that bog when we bought it from Bord na Móna. The improvement there was as a result of our actions. Turf cutting is being carried out there and that turf cutting, in the end, will lead to problems. It will be slower because we are dealing more with a blanket type bog here. However, we took active steps and did much work there and it worked out. It does not work out in every case; it depends on the physical conditions.

We bought some of Cloonshanville bog but we do not own at least 50 hectares. Only one turf cutter is active on the bog but in the long term that turf cutter could cause problems. The short-term problem was the fact that a significant part of the bog had been planted with forestry. With EU funding those trees were cut down and they blocked the drains. We hope that the next time the condition of the bog is reviewed it will have improved. Some drainage was done and that will offset it slightly.

We bought Carrowbehy bog from Bord na Mona and we have most of the site there. We blocked many drains and that is why the site recovered. There was no turf cutting. One must examine individual situations and we have done so for these bogs.

The impression is given that the vast majority of these bogs are in private ownership which is not the case and that turf cutting has been the problem. As Mr. Ryan alluded, it is not the case in a number of those bogs that turf cutting has been the problem. There has been drainage associated with the Office of Public Works or forestry. All of this is being put onto the farmer or householder who has a small half-acre plot and who cuts perhaps ten or 12 hoppers of turf on an annual basis. The impression was given in the presentation that this is solely responsible for the matter when there are other issues. The environment is also a contributing factor to the growth and reduction of bogs. My point is that turf cutters are being branded as the sole problem when it is not the case.

Mr. Jim Ryan

We assessed all of the sites where active bog remained and where turf cutting occurred. That was what we examined. We fully accept that other issues can arise but on the bogs that we examined turf cutting was the major issue. In individual cases it is not the major issue but overall it is.

With regard to blanket bogs, the low banks are wetter than the high banks. When one cuts away the high bank the low bank will grow again as a bog. We have seen this happen.

Mr. Jim Ryan

If one has a few hundred to thousands of years for it to occur then yes it will.

What harm. It will take hundreds of thousands of years to cut out the high bank of thousands of acres of bog with a slane and a barrow.

Mr. Jim Ryan

In the meantime all of the active bog will be gone and that is what we are trying to protect.

No, it will not because the vast majority of it is still in State ownership.

The low bank will not be a turf cutting bog, it will be a growing bog.

Mr. Jim Ryan

If it is restored it will in time, as in decades to hundreds to thousands of years——

Nature will look after everything so relax.

Nature means no manual input.

I have seen cases where the low bank has developed into a bog again and people cut cutaway bog as we call it——

Mr. Jim Ryan

Going back in for a second cut——

——because it has developed and grown into a bog again, probably over hundreds of years.

Mr. Jim Ryan

It would need to be thousands of years to get a good bit of turf off it. As the Deputy knows, the good turf is on the bottom of the bog.

It is important to realise the anger and confusion associated with prohibiting people from cutting turf throughout the country for their own use. Unrealistic vetoes are being imposed on farmers, turf cutters and other rural dwellers throughout the country. The Department's activities in this area must be improved rather than having people threatened with court procedures. They should be able to telephone somebody within the Department. There is a balancing act in this regard and common sense should prevail. The people most affected by this issue are those living in rural areas, and farmers and turf cutters down through the years have been acknowledged for maintaining the rural environment. They have done a good job over a greater number of years.

They tell me Mr. Ó Raghallaigh is a very reasonable man.

It was stated in the presentation that there are 1,500 raised bogs in the State, 139 of which are designated for protection. My understanding is that those 139 are not being protected only because we want to protect bogs because there are over 1,350 other bogs not protected in such a way. The 139 bogs in question are to be protected because of the species of wildlife and their habitat in the bogs; we are not trying to protect the turf on those 139 bogs. More than 1,360 other bogs have turf on them and we are not protecting them. The issue has nothing to do with the turf and is concerned with the habitat, wildlife and other environmental issues.

We all accept that and the scientific importance of bogs. The dispute relates to whether it is possible, with a bit of imagination, to allow turf cutting to continue while banking up the centre of the bogs. The engineering aspect may provide challenges but it is physically possible to do this, and this is where the dispute is with many of the turf cutters around the country. Realistic alternatives have not been provided to them.

The provision of compensation for ten years of turf cutting for a family which has worked a plot for generations, and where there is at least 100 years of turf available, is inadequate. This is particularly so for those people who actively use the plots involved. I have stated on numerous occasions that what we are talking about here in the vast majority of cases are half-acre plots. People were given acre plots and half of that has been cut off over a period. The dispute lies along that issue in the vast majority of cases.

I wish to ask one or two other questions arising from today's discussion. Phrases have been used a few times in the debate and perhaps the witnesses will send us a clear note on them. I do not expect them to address them now. The public gets confused about phrases such as special areas of conservation, SACs and national heritage areas, NHAs, which are used interchangeably and almost side by side. We are lay people and there must be a difference between them so will the witnesses provide a note on them? I am told a proposed SAC has the same statutory weight as an actual SAC, and most of these proposed SACs have been proposed for as long as I am around here. They have not got beyond being proposed.

It was mentioned in passing that some protected species — it could be the hen harrier — was not protected under the habitats directive but it is protected under the Wildlife Act. Will the witnesses provide a note on that because it can be confusing when people are told a species is protected? It is only people in the Department who would know the subtle difference between the habitats directive and the Wildlife Act.

The delegation referred to a book and mentioned a species assessment which is on page 131. I am from County Laois and live adjacent to the River Nore. The only species in the entire book that got a bad assessment was the Nore freshwater pearl mussel, in terms of population, suitable habitat, future prospects and the overall assessment. The witnesses have added a nice note on page 82 in which they tell us that in County Laois, which is just down the river from my own area, the species has not successfully reproduced in the River Nore since 1970. What happened around that time? We have motorways and so on there now and one can almost do nothing near the River Nore in County Laois without being told about the pearl mussel. What happened around 30 or 40 years ago that caused that change? The witnesses must have some idea.

Mr. Jim Ryan

The young of the species live in the gravels and if there is a lot of silt coming down or if the bottom of the river becomes covered with algae or similar, there is no oxygen in the gravels and the young simply die.

Is that due to bog water from the Slieve Bloom mountains?

Mr. Jim Ryan

It could be from anything, including bog cutting, as takes place in that catchment area. It could also be due to land drainage, slurry spreading, septic tanks or town sewage. All of those issues may be involved.

Has anyone tried to transplant some of the 500 that are left to somewhere else?

Mr. Jim Ryan

We are trying to breed them in captivity.

It is not working.

Mr. Jim Ryan

We have looked in the catchment area to see whether we can find a place that would be safe to transplant them to but we have not found one yet. We are trying to breed them in captivity.

That was in Roscrea.

Mr. Jim Ryan

We tried in Roscrea and it did not work. However, we are looking in other areas and things are——

Mr. Jim Ryan

Yes.

I ask for one addendum, which relates to the proposed SACs. As the witnesses have stated, the proposed SAC has the same legal basis as an SAC, but it is also the case that the corollary does not apply with regard to REPS or compensation. While the restrictions are in place, payments are not made through the former REPs scheme. For argument's sake, if we had a proposed SAC on a bog — although I do not think there is one — the compensation scheme would not apply to it.

My last question goes to the heart of the definition of SACs, and the witnesses may respond in a note. In my own area — and, I suspect, other areas — there is an SAC all along the banks of the River Nore over a wide stretch of land, and we have been made aware in recent years that it is proposed to reduce the SAC drastically to an area very close to the river bank. I have pursued this. I presume the IFA bullied it out with somebody in the national partnership talks or something similar. We are being told the area of the SAC is being reduced because of better scientific evidence. Given that we have all these SACs from 1997 and 2002, which are listed here, and the national heritage areas of raised bog from previous years, how reliable are these? I raised this with the Minister once at the committee and he was shocked to hear we were reducing the areas of SACs. Is this widespread? I know it is happening in my immediate area. That means such areas were over-designated in the past. How reliable are the designations if somebody can now come along and say the areas are to be reduced? The witnesses are the right people to talk to on this one. I know this was not the specific issue discussed at today's meeting, but they are the experts in this area.

Dr. Ciarán O’Keeffe

The Chairman's description of how it happened was not far off the mark. In the partnership discussions at that time a specific commitment was made that the issue of the river SACs would be reopened. The reason the areas had been wider was that in most cases we went on scientific advice, which was not necessarily to stop things going on next to the river, but that activities within 30 m of the river bank have a substantial impact on what is going on in the water. The counter argument was that if a drain was going off the river a mile away, somebody could fire stuff in there, perhaps not knowing that it would have as big an impact, and because of the difficulties of that issue a decision was taken that the norm would be to reduce the river banks to 2.5 m——

Was that nationwide?

Dr. Ciarán O’Keeffe

——unless there were specific riverside habitats or species that required the addition.

On a previous point, it has been a serious flaw that we did not keep much wider areas for pearl mussels, as we know water quality is the key issue and what goes on next to the river is the problem. That was the reason that decision was taken.

On the general question of whether we designated too much, the answer is "no". When one compares our designation rate with that of other European countries, we are in the middle of the table in terms of how much we have designated and how we have approached sites, at a site level and a national level.

How many hectares will be de-designated? There must be quite a number. How many rivers are involved? Can the delegation send us a report or a simple map of Ireland with the relevant rivers? Is it a nationwide issue? The Minister did not seem to know about it on the day I asked him.

Dr. Ciarán O’Keeffe

We did this work in 2007. Negotiation took place, agreement was reached in 2004 and we put a team on it. I understand the shrinkage was done in 2006. It is all done and dusted.

Can the delegation send us information on the areas that have been de-designated? The delegation may not want to comment, but I suspect it would have been happier with the original designations and the current situation may be a compromise. There are restrictions in every county development plan because of SACs. I now hear that SACs have been changed. The logic of that — which the delegation may not be happy with — is that there should be a variation in every county development plan to take cognisance of the changes to the boundaries of SACs. What has happened to the proposed areas that had legal effect but are now no longer proposed? Can the delegation give us some information on this? We are straying from the issue of bogs, but it is an issue of equal interest to many of us.

On that point, a number of counties have based their county development plans on the original SACs. I know areas in the midlands have been taken out, but I was not made aware of them until I went to investigate the situation. I saw structures going up in the areas I visited and discovered those areas had been taken out of the SACs. We need some clarity on the issue.

Dr. Ciarán O’Keeffe

One other factor which was important in that discussion was that when we drew the boundaries of SACs to protect something, the logical boundary was something that people could see, so we went out to the road or ditch. One of the problems with many rivers was that where there were flood plains the nearest structure could be 300 yards away. In Finn in Donegal it was a major issue because most of the boundaries were 300 yards away and there were major inconsistencies. It was another issue that had to be addressed.

I caution the committee that we are still obliged, under the habitats directive — which the Commission is very strong on — to protect what is in the river from what goes on outside it. Even if the river SAC is reduced, if somebody wanted to develop an area outside the SAC the impact of what he or she did must not affect the river.

The official title is gone, but if it can be enforced the delegation will do so.

Dr. Ciarán O’Keeffe

We still have to look after what is in the river.

The delegation can understand our train of thought. Can it send us a report on what was de-designated because I did not see that information and I do not know if the process is complete? I saw maps for my county several years ago. I seemed to be the only one who knew about it.

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

We could do that. A series of redesignations and de-designations has been ongoing for several years, on foot of a number of adverse court judgments by the European Court of Justice.

It found that we had not sufficiently designated enough SACs and SPAs under the birds directive.

What is an SPA?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

It is a special protection area. That is equivalent to a SAC but operates under the birds directive. Redesignations are going on which will be rolled out over the coming year as SPAs. The boundaries of these areas will change over that time. Our scientific knowledge on these sites improves all the time. Things change on sites. For example, the birds might not like a place now that they liked 20 years ago. It may be necessary to continue to examine site boundaries and to tweak them.

Can Mr. Ó Raghallaigh furnish us with some information about the SACs?

Mr. Conor Ó Raghallaigh

Yes.

We have had a useful discussion.

Wherever I went in Laois last year in the run-up to the referendum on the Lisbon treaty people attacked me saying that we were stopping them from cutting turf. They could not believe it when they discovered that this affected only four bogs in County Laois. Although the Department knew this to be the case the opposite message went out to the public. It was very hard to convince the public that this was wrong. One reason for the concern was that the public got an impression that nobody officially counteracted.

I regularly visit the website for the National Parks and Wildlife Service and have downloaded the ministerial orders on the designations and so forth but a general view of activity in a county is inaccessible. My local authority produced a map which gives a far better explanation of what is happening. A bog may be known locally by one name or parts thereof might have different names but the designation is posted on the website in isolation. I do not think there is a county map of all the designations. I got an interesting map when I wanted to find out what was happening about the designation at Clonmacnoise. That was the first comprehensive map I saw of the Shannon Callows and the designations there. It would be helpful if such comprehensive, consolidated maps were made available with different colours for the SPAs and so on.

Sadly, I am fully aware of the difference between an SPA, an NHA and an SAC——

Some of us are not.

There are examples of each in my area. With the maps we could explain to people what is happening because part of the problem is that people do not know. There have been public meetings about stopping turf cutting in my area yet only one bog is designated. It is difficult to explain that to people. If the information is brought together people will be able to see where the issues arise.

It would be important to have the site codes on any map.

I thank the National Parks and Wildlife Service officials. The meeting was helpful and informative. This is a significant issue affecting a large part of the country.

The joint committee adjourned at 16.25 p.m. until 11 a.m. on Tuesday 28 July, 2009.