Chairman and members of the committee, Councillor Paschal Fitzmaurice, Roscommon County Council, Councillor Michael Connelly, Galway County Council and fellow turf cutters, I thank the committee for allowing us this opportunity to address it on behalf of the domestic turfcutters of Creggan, Crosswood, Carn Park, Annaghorta and Moydrum bogs and the wider south Westmeath areas. On a national domestic turfcutting platform, we are delighted to be supported and represented by the IFA.
In terms of location, Crosswood bog is situated approximately 5 km east of Athlone, County Westmeath, mainly in the townlands of Crosswood, Glenaghanoveen and Creggan Lower. The site comprises a raised bog that includes both areas of high bog and cutover bog. The northern margin of the bog lies along the southern side of the Dublin-Galway railway line. Adjoining this bog are the Moydrum, Annaghorta and Carn Park bogs.
I will give a brief background in this respect. In 2006 Coillte blocked the drains on its land, which neighbours our bog in Creggan/Crosswood. This caused floods on our bog and Coillte told us it was instructed to do so by officials of the national parks and wildlife service. We then organised our group and subsequently contacted the national parks and wildlife service and were told that our bog was a special area of conversation, SAC, and we would have to stop turf cutting in 2008, even though Coillte had used bullyboy tactics in 2006 by arranging to have the drains blocked way in advance. After identifying the error of its actions the national parks and wildlife service instructed Coillte to re-open the drains.
Following further investigation we found that a notice appeared in theWestmeath Examiner between 21 and 28 of December 2002 stating that our bog was now a designated SAC. Members should note that this was Christmas week. As this newspaper circulates predominantly in the Mullingar area, which is 30 miles from where the bog is situated, we question the transparency in informing the public of such matters. No consultation notices were placed on our bog prior to 2002 and since then none of us was informed of the bog being an SAC. Now we are sure that in the eyes of Dúchas, the heritage service, appropriate notification was put in place concerning the process of designating this bog as an SAC. However, it is important that adequate, proper and prompt information is disseminated to the affected persons in advance of decision dates.
The bottom line is that the Department is trying to force us to comply with a designation that we were never informed of and to tie us into the terms of an agreement that we were not invited to partake in and which affects our property and rights. This agreement states:
1. Full regard to the need for consultation with the landowners. [We were never consulted on this]
2. The individual farmer/landowner must be notified in writing by the Department. [We never received any letters]
3. Designated areas can only be conserved with the active involvement of their owners. [We were never involved]
4. Landowners may appeal designation. [How could we do so when we did not know we were being designated?]
The national parks and wildlife service was to show draft conservation plans to landowners through liaison with committees, clinic style meetings and one-to-one meetings, but this never happened.
When we contacted the IFA's representatives they told us that they negotiated a deal with the then Government in 1999 on the implementation of the habitats regulation 1997 and re-negotiated it in 2004. Since we were designated in 2002, we were included in the 2004 agreement and therefore can cut turf up to and including 2014. It was also agreed that after the ten-year derogation period the Department would review whether domestic turf cutting for those who wanted to continue to cut turf could continue on raised bogs without damaging the bogs. While this process is under way, it is important to examine all avenues to identify where our bogs are being damaged and not just focus on domestic turf cutters.
Another interesting point was clarified through a question raised in 2007 with the European Commission. Even though the directive is in place, it is a matter for the Irish authorities to make decisions in accordance with the directive on particular peat extraction proposals and activities. The Commission admitted that large-scale commercial peat extraction, together with associated drainage works, could cause serious disruption to the hydrological and ecological function of bogs. There was no mention of domestic turf cutting causing harm. Therefore, the Department has room to manoeuvre in implementing this directive.
The people have rights on these lands that date back to the Land Acts of the 1870s. Our Irish culture and traditions are constantly under attack and are being eroded in today's world. Traditional hay making, cow milking by hand, threshing and the old way of harvesting potatoes have all disappeared. While the method of taking turf, not peat, from the bog has changed and is more environmentally friendly, turning, footing, drying and transporting have remained the same.
How can people be compensated for the loss of these traditions? The answer is that they cannot be and do not want to be. Instead they want to preserve their traditions and carry on harvesting turf in the traditional way, as is their right of turbary. Turf cutting is part of our heritage and culture. Therefore, when people say we have to protect our heritage, this is one area where we should put words into action. This practice has been going on for centuries in every small town, village and rural area in Ireland.
We are sure that if every Oireachtas Member went back far enough within their family tree, they would find that turf cutting was a way of life and survival for their predecessors. This is a sensitive and emotive issue for the small number of people who want to protect their turbary rights for domestic use only. While our country is coming under pressure from the EU habitats directive on the protection of species, flora and fauna, we feel there is scope for a sensible and balanced approach to this matter without implementing a total ban on turf cutting in SAC areas.
As for damage to bogs, we all agree it is important to protect our environment and to preserve, within reason, areas under threat of erosion. However, conservationists and scientists must not point the finger of blame for the loss of raised and blanket bogs at the door of domestic turf cutters. If their figures were correct, all domestic turf cutters' bogs would have been cut away years ago. The figure of 2% to 4% cutaway yearly is grossly inaccurate.
In the case of domestic turf cutting the damage done to our bogs is minimal. According to the Fernandez report, it was 1% over the past ten years. The cutaway-cutover bogs that are left after domestic harvesting are full of habitats, as shown later on in this report. The former Minister, Síle de Valera, admitted that damage from domestic turf cutting was very small.
It has been identified that most damage to SACs is caused by industrial and commercial operations where the peat is extracted from the high bank and all that is left is a barren landscape of turf mole. For instance, in our locality, private commercial operators have completely destroyed bogs that were full of biodiversity, including flora and fauna. The irony is that million of tonnes of this peat is exported to other EU countries. Some 80% to 90% of peat and turf has been extracted by a State agency, Bord na Móna, over 60 years of operations. It has been the main agent for extracting peat from Irish bogs and has been responsible for altering at least 80% of bogs.
For those unfamiliar with bogs, it should be explained that there is a clear difference between peat extraction and turf cutting. To harvest peat, the top of the bog must be milled and this immediately destroys all the fauna, growth and feeding grounds for wildlife. Nothing survives on a peat harvesting bog. Turf cutting, on the other hand, is different. Turf is taken by digger from the bottom of the bog. This environmental approach is undeniably the reason we have the only bogs that are suitable for saving.
In our area, those who cut turf for their own use take great care of their bogs by keeping roads in good order. They also tackle the ongoing problem of illegal dumping of rubbish by carrying out regular clean-ups in conjunction with Westmeath County Council. The local community has put in large amounts of voluntary work to keep the area to an environmentally clean standard. Washing machines, fridges, irons and domestic waste are regularly taken out of drains, thereby preventing pollution of main watercourses. This is about local people looking after and taking pride in their local bogs.
We try to encourage the public who do not cut turf to visit the bogs for recreation and tranquility. We are anxious to create an attractive, clean, pleasant environment where the public can come for walks and witness the art of turf harvesting. At the same time, they can enjoy the diverse habitats to be found on the bogs. We are currently working on a project to enhance the bog for such an amenity.
The present compensation offer is derisory for those who want to sell and is an insult to people who cut turf. The Irish Peat Conservation Council sent a submission to the interdepartmental working group which stated that the EU was generous in the past when the national parks and wildlife service was purchasing intact raised bogs from Bord na Móna. As the title of our bogs was transferred to Bord na Móna in 1980 and thereafter to the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands in 2002, we would like to know how much Bord na Móna received and whether the EU paid the costs.
There is an urgent need, especially now in the current economic climate, to be more lenient with domestic turf cutters because the price of oil is rapidly increasing and continued alternative fuel sources are required. The day may yet come when the Government will request people to turn to the bogs for fuel, as happened during the Second World War.
We urge members of the joint committee, as our representatives, to work with us in identifying a solution to this difficult problem facing rural Ireland. It is wrong to force people off SAC bogs if they do not want to leave them. I thank members of the joint committee for their kind attention. I also thank the Chairman for giving me the opportunity to speak on this emotive issue.
The written presentation includes a list of samples of habitats plus species that are available on cutaway-cutover bogs. Members of the committee can consult that list in their own time, as I will not deal with it now.