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.