Dáil Éireann - Volume 492 - 18 June, 1998

Other Questions. - Turf Cutting.

7. Mr. Wall asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands the progress, if any, made in overcoming the problems of turf cutters in raised bogs in designated areas. [14533/98]

40. Mr. Naughten asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands the study, if any, carried out to investigate the social and economic consequence of prohibiting people cutting turf on the Ballinagare bog in west Roscommon; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [14575/98]

52. Mr. Naughten asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands if she will consider a proposal by west Roscommon turf cutters to allow them to cut part of the Ballinagare bog in County Roscommon; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [14576/98]

Miss de Valera: I propose to take Questions Nos. 7, 40 and 52 together.

The EU habitats directive requires member states to designate their most important natural areas as special areas of conservation and to prevent anything that would damage their ecology. The directive identifies raised bogs, such as those in parts of County Roscommon, as “priority habitats” which means they must be given the highest level of protection. The problem is that the long-term continuation of turf cutting generally cannot be reconciled with the obligation to preserve these areas as cutting physically removes [1326] the protected habitat in the area being cut and can cause a detrimental draining effect over a far wider area.

The original intention was to agree the cessation of cutting before the 1998 cutting season. However, as the European Commission has not yet agreed to an enhanced REP scheme for protected areas, and as it has not been possible to finalise compensation, relocation and other arrangements before the 1998 cutting season, I decided that cutting would be allowed for the 1998 season.

Officials of Dúchas, my Department's Heritage Service, will shortly meet users of SAC raised bogs throughout the country and will examine the bogs in co-operation with them to identify areas where cutting might continue in the longer or shorter term without causing significant ecological damage. My Department is examining all aspects of turf cutting and my intention is that the various issues will be resolved long before the 1999 cutting season approaches.

Deputy Naughten's reference to social and economic consequences of turf cutting restrictions may refer to article 6 of the habitats directive which provides that despite a negative assessment of its ecological consequences, a plan or project may be allowed to proceed for imperative reasons of overriding public interest, including those of a social or economic nature.

This provision is qualified, however, by a further section which provides that where the site concerned hosts a priority habitat such as raised bogs, the only considerations which may be raised in this context are those relating to human health or public safety, beneficial consequences of primary importance to the environment or, further to an opinion from the Commission, to other imperative reasons of overriding public interest. The option of citing social or economic reasons as a justification for not protecting SAC raised bogs is thus not available.

In any event, I will put in place a compensation package which will offset any adverse economic consequences of prohibiting cutting in certain bogs. I am also providing opportunities to relocate to other bogs where possible so that turf cutting may continue.

Mr. M. Higgins: Did the Irish Peatland Conservation Council seek a meeting with the Minister and, if so, when did it take place?

Miss de Valera: A meeting was sought and I met the council. I cannot give the date offhand, but it was a number of weeks ago. When I get the date I will send it to the Deputy.

Mr. M. Higgins: Has the package on turf cutting been substantially changed since it was offered a year ago?

Miss de Valera: Significant changes have been proposed, but there has been no agreement. Further discussions are under way with those [1327] involved and until those negotiations are complete I cannot give the details to the Deputy.

Mr. Naughten: I am disappointed the economic and social aspects of bogs cannot be taken into consideration. Will the Minister agree that, while we must protect our flora and fauna, we must also protect the people who live in those localities? Does she agree it was a mistake for the EU to consider only one side of the story in regard to bogs? It should have taken a balanced view. Almost 2,000 families in the Roscommon area will be affected if a compromise is not reached. Will the Minister agree that in west Roscommon, which has a small industrial base and serious depopulation, turf cutting is as beneficial as a small industry?

Has the Minister conveyed to the EU Commission a list of the bogs that have been designated and, if not, when will she give the Commission that information? Will she include in the report a submission by the West Roscommon Turf Cutters' Association that they will be allowed cut away the fringes of the bog up to the year 2035? We are talking about almost 3,000 acres of bog which have been designated and the proposal put forward by turf cutters would protect more than 2,000 acres of bog.

Will the Minister agree that turf cutting, which has been taken place for hundreds of years, has not seriously damaged high rise bogs, that the real problem has been created by Bord na Mona? Does she agree turf cutting will not affect the flora and fauna of raised bogs? Most plots are only an acre in size and 50 per cent of those plots have been cut out. The people are seeking the opportunity to cut out the remaining part of their plots.

Miss de Valera: Under Article 6 of the Habitats Directive the economic and social aspects cannot be taken into account. I agree turf cutting has been, and continues to be, of extreme importance, not only to people in Roscommon but in other areas. I also agree it is important to take a balanced view and to resolve the problem in the fairest possible way. My responsibility is to ensure conservation takes place and I want to do that in a structured way so that those involved in turf cutting are compensated fairly for losses they incur. Because of concern for people who cut turf, the Minister of State and I decided to allow turf cutting up to the end of this year.

As I explained in my original reply, other structures in regard to turf cutting are not in place and compensation has not been agreed. The turf cutting season for 1998 had begun before this measure was put in place. In those circumstances I believed that there was still room for consultation and negotiation. Agreement should be sought and, I hope, obtained. It is my intention to have that process concluded by the end of this year. I made a clear statement, not only to turf cutters but to conservationists who are concerned [1328] about the matter, that the concession with regard to turf cutters applies only to 1998.

Mr. Naughten: Has the Minister submitted a list of the bogs in question to the EU Commission? Has she put forward the proposal by the West Roscommon Turf Cutters Association that they will be allowed cut out the remaining parts of their plots?

Miss de Valera: It is important that this matter is resolved and the Commission advised of the position. Departmental officials will consult turf cutters about their concerns and they will be taken into account in the negotiations on conservation and fair compensation.

Mr. Naughten: Will the Minister put to the EU the proposal by the West Roscommon Turf Cutters' Association — we are talking about almost 10 per cent of designated bogs — and ask the EU to change the directive because of the social and economic implications that will affect the people of the locality? Up to 53 per cent of designated bogs are in the Roscommon-east Galway area.

Miss de Valera: Ireland has signed the Habitats Directive and the Government is trying to find the fairest way to achieve the goals of that directive. Nothing would be gained by putting forward the views suggested by the Deputy. An assessment may be carried out by officials of the Department who will visit those involved and see what is the scientific position with regard to the respective bogs in question. We must work within the confines of the Habitats Directive.