Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 6 February 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs
Preservation of the Biodiversity and Ecosystems of Peatlands: Discussion.
We are in public session. I welcome everyone here today. They have come to assist the committee in considering the preservation of the biodiversity and ecosystems of peatlands. I am very pleased to welcome representatives from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Dr. Ciarán O'Keeffe and Mr. Brian Lucan, who are both from the National Parks and Wildlife Service. I welcome Dr. Catherine Farrell, head of ecology, and Mr. Stuart Conaty, land and property manager, Bord na Móna. I welcome Dr. Catherine O'Connell, chief executive, Irish Peatland Conservation Council. Finally, I welcome Mr. Pádraic Fogarty, campaign officer, Irish Wildlife Trust.
Before inviting the witnesses to address the meeting I draw their attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009 they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to the joint committee. If, however, they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. The opening statements and any other documents they have submitted to the committee may be published on the committee's website after the meeting.
Members of the committee are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
To commence our discussion I call on Dr. Ciaran O'Keefe and Mr. Brian Lucas from the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department to make an opening statement. I may take statements from other witnesses as well as we go along and then I will ask members if they have any questions to raise on these issues.
Mr. Brian Lucas:
First, I thank the committee for inviting the Department to make a presentation today. Peatlands cover approximately 20% of the State's land area and their use has implications across a wide spectrum of public policy. Intact peatlands produce an array of nature-generated benefits to society known as ecosystem services. These services provided by peatlands include water retention, which can reduce flooding; water filtration and supply; climate regulation via carbon storage; and, cultural benefits. Bogs are, of course, an important habitat in their own right and an important breeding ground for many species including highly threatened species such as the curlew.
Ireland's peatlands, occurring as raised bogs, blanket bogs or fens are unique on a national and global scale. Ireland recognised the importance of these peatlands and took steps to protect the best remaining bogs through designation as special areas of conservation, SACs, and natural heritage areas, NHAs. Between 1997 and 2002, Ireland nominated 53 raised bog sites for designation as SACs. Some 75 raised bog NHAs have also been designated under the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 to supplement the raised bog SAC network. Ireland has also identified 50 areas as SACs for the protection of blanket bog. A further 73 sites containing blanket bog habitat have been designated as NHAs under Irish law. Some 67 sites have been selected for conservation for one or more habitats directive annex 1 fen habitat in Ireland.
Ireland has approximately 60% of the remaining raised bog habitat in Western Europe. The original area of raised bogs in the State was approximately 311,000 ha. Most of Ireland's raised bog peatlands are no longer of ecological interest as they have been cut over. It is estimated that 10% of the raised bog area is suitable for conservation. For conservation purposes, there has been a need to restrict turf cutting on a number of sites to protect the best of our remaining active raised bog habitat.
The national raised bog special areas of conservation management plan 2017-22, approved by the Government and published in December 2017, sets out how the raised bog special areas of conservation are to be managed, conserved and restored and how the needs of turf cutters are to be addressed. The national restoration programme for Ireland's raised bog special areas of conservation and natural heritage areas is contained within this plan. It is intended to restore all designated raised bogs within three cycles, with the first cycle operating for the duration of the management plan.
Site-specific conservation objectives have been published for the 53 raised bog special areas of conservation and restoration plans drafted for these sites, to be developed further in partnership with stakeholders including landowners and local communities. Site-specific restorations plans for the raised bog natural heritage areas are also currently being developed by the Department. In order to help allay concerns on the potential impacts of restoration on areas of land adjacent to the protected bogs, the Department is in the process of developing drainage management plans for the special area of conservation sites as part of the national restoration programme. Restoration measures on raised bogs involve the insertion of peat or plastic dams to block surface water drains to restore more natural physical conditions and the re-wetting of the bog to raise water levels close to the bog surface to restore peat forming conditions. Raising the water table should not flood the land surrounding the bog but will ensure that it remains wet enough for the growth of sphagnum moss within the protected site. Restoration measures may also include tree felling and scrub clearance.
Work on the restoration programme has already begun with a €5.4 million project called the living bog, which is co-funded under the EU LIFE 2014-2020 programme. The Department is managing this project and is contributing €1.352 million as well as expert ecological resources and know-how, with the European Commission providing €4.056 million. The living bog project is the single biggest raised bog restoration project ever undertaken by the State and, as well as physical restoration work, there is a key focus on involving local communities. A large scale community outreach programme is currently under way in towns, villages and schools, and community-led amenity provision is currently at an advanced stage. The project will provide for sensitively designed amenities at a small number of the project sites such as walking trails, birdwatching facilities and signage. The living bog project, which commenced in 2016 and will conclude at the end of 2020, aims to restore the favourable conservation condition and increase the area for active raised bog by 277 ha or 58% on the 12 raised bog special area of conservation project sites. This will contribute to the national objective of achieving favourable conservation status for active raised bog in Ireland.
Restoration works were completed on two LIFE project special area of conservation sites in 2018 in Mongan bog SAC in County Offaly and in Garriskil bog SAC in County Westmeath. Some 1,500 peat dams have been inserted, blocking some 16,000 m of open drains. Restoration works are currently underway on three other SAC LIFE sites, namely: Carrownagappul bog SAC in County Galway; Ardnagullion bog SAC in County Longford and Moyclare bog SAC in County Offaly. In tandem with the LIFE project, the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department is undertaking restoration works on State owned lands within the protected raised bog network. Restoration measures on State-owned lands were completed last year on two raised bog special areas of conservation, Kilsallagh bog in County Galway and Drumalough bog in County Roscommon.
The Department worked in partnership with Coillte to complete some of the restoration measures. In addition, it liaises with Bord na Móna on the restoration and rehabilitation plans of that company. Further restoration works on State-owned lands are planned to be undertaken in 2019 on a number of raised bog protected sites. Landowners and other stakeholders are notified in writing in advance of the commencement of restoration works on land in State ownership. All restoration works are being undertaken in line with best practice as set out in the guidance document, Best Practice in Raised Bog Restoration in Ireland, which was published by the Department in 2017. As well as the LIFE project and restoration works on State-owned land in protected sites, between 2018 and 2019, the Department expects to invest around €300,000 in community engagement projects. This is in addition to the, on average, €4.46 million per annum paid to turf cutters under the compensation initiative to conserve raised bogs.
Given the significance of Ireland's raised bog resource at an international level, conserving the best examples of our peatland habitats is, of itself, something Ireland should be doing. It also fulfils Ireland's commitments under the EU habitats directive. It will also have benefits for Ireland's commitments under international climate change targets by improving the carbon flux or balance, particularly in relation to carbon dioxide, methane and dissolved organic carbon in water and by providing a host of other ecosystem services such as flood attenuation, water regulation, amenity value and biodiversity. Irish peatlands are a significant carbon store, containing more than 75% of all the national soil organic carbon.
On average, peatlands are estimated to hold about 1,500 tonnes of soil carbon per hectare, i.e., about ten times as much as a typical mineral soil. Functioning peatlands capture, sequester, carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the form of peat and vegetation. When peatlands are drained or damaged, the peat oxidises and the carbon is released back to the atmosphere. Peat oxidation can be stopped or reduced through the restoration of sites and hydrological management measures. The least damaged Irish peatlands may actively sequester on average 57,402 tonnes of carbon per year over the whole country. These are mostly bogs that have been selected for nature conservation purposes.
The Department is working closely with other Departments and agencies to consider further the role wetlands restoration and rehabilitation can play in achieving the objectives of the 2017 national mitigation plan and potential synergies with other environment-led schemes. A working group, including representatives from the Department, has been established by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment to formulate how accounting for managed wetlands can be achieved in the context of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and in compliance with the relevant EU legislation. I thank the members of the committee for their attention; we would be happy to try to answer any questions they may have.
I thank Mr. Lucas for his opening statement. I remind witnesses that their full statements will be published on the committee website after the meeting. Therefore, could witnesses keep their statements to five minutes if possible? I invite Dr. Catherine Farrell, head of ecology at Bord na Móna, to give her opening statemnet.
Dr. Catherine Farrell:
My name is Dr. Catherine Farrell and I am head of ecology at Bord na Móna. I have been working on the conservation and restoration of peatlands since 1996. I am joined by my colleague Stuart Conaty, land and property manager at Bord na Móna. We thank the committee for inviting us here. In light of the time, I will reduce some of the paragraphs of my statement so I invite witnesses to delve into it for all the detail required.
Peatlands are specialised ecosystems comprising a range of habitats and species leading them to being complex and unique areas of high biodiversity. Peatlands are wetlands and when presented in a relatively natural state, provide a range of ecosystem goods and services. In the late 1960s, Bord na Móna has recognised the value of bogs as habitats for indigenous plant and animal species. This led to the purchase of a number of sites purely for the conservation of raised bog and fen habitat as well as blanket bogs in the west of Ireland.
With the focus of the company clearly set on decarbonisation and the short timeframe for continued peat production, the company looks forward to working and collaborating for the significant benefits of peatland conservation, restoration and rehabilitation locally, nationally and internationally. With that in mind, those remaining near-intact bog areas within the company's holdings - in the region of 4,000 ha of degraded raised bog capable of regeneration - are earmarked for conservation and the necessary restoration works to reverse the impacts of drainage. These bogs will play an important role in the national peatland strategy and the conservation of active raised bogs in particular under the EU habitats directive. Iconic species such as curlew and red grouse are using these bogs and their future management will be critical to sustaining these remnant breeding populations.
Bord na Móna has applied machines full-time to the restoration of this nationally and internationally recognised habitat. To date, we have restored 2,000 ha of raised bogs and a further 2,000 ha are in the process of restoration. These bogs are earmarked by the NPWS for designation to replace other special areas of conservation-natural heritage area sites that have been degraded since the time of designation by ongoing turf cutting in the margins. This includes well known sites such as Abbeyleix Bog, Ballydangan Bog and the Clonboley-Killeglan group in County Roscommon.
With regard to the remaining Bord na Móna lands, I will further discuss the nature of these areas against the backdrop of the wider national peatland resource. Over the past centuries, peatlands were used for afforestation and drainage for agriculture in the 1900s. According to the latest research on mapping peatlands from Dr. John Connolly of DCU, peatlands account for approximately 20% of total Irish land cover with 66% of those converted to other land use, including agriculture at 27%; forestry at 35%; and industrial peat, or active peat fields, production at 4%. A further 20% of the national peatland cover is considered degraded leaving few remaining unmodified examples of the original peatlands.
Bord na Móna is the custodian of 80,000 ha of peatland in Ireland. The company was established in the 1930s with the remit to use our natural resources to provide energy security for the new State and to support employment. Since then, we have continued to do so - harvesting peat annually for energy and horticulture with small amounts harvested for animal bedding. In 2018, the company CEO, Tom Donnellan, announced that peat for energy will be significantly scaled down as part of the company's decarbonisation strategy with limited continued production for horticulture. The company is growing strong renewable energy and resource recovery businesses and developing other commercial options as part of its ongoing remit to provide employment in the midlands.
Of those 80, 000 ha of Bord na Móna peatland, approximately 50% is related to peat production, of which half consists of peat production fields. A total of 15% comprises undeveloped margins, including bog remnants, areas birch, etc., while 5% is under forest cover and 30% falls into the category of cutaway bogs or bogs depleted of commercially viable peat resource. When Bord na Móna was established, the view was held at Government and management level that once the commercial peat was extracted, the bogs could be converted to productive growing land. Despite significant efforts that continue today, the bogs have proved to be largely inhospitable areas for crop establishment and growth. That includes forestry, grassland, tillage and food. We have discussed that at other Oireachtas committee sittings. Some biomass trials continue on parcels of land in areas where we can manage those areas to establish willow and other biomass species. This is in support of replacing peat with biomass in the peat-fired stations.
Since the 1990s, larger areas of bog have been emerging as cutaway and the company has been working to rehabilitate these cutaway bogs to develop replacement wet peatland systems, i.e., wetlands and wet woodland systems, that can provide a range of ecosystem goods and services other than the traditional use for peat and-or land for agriculture and forestry. The best example of extensive rehabilitation is the Lough Boora Discovery Park in County Offaly. The rehabilitation work began in the 1990s and work is still ongoing at the margins of this extensive bog complex which stretches over 3,000 ha. This former bare production landscape is now home to a documented 1,000 plus peatland species. The mosaic of wetland and woodland habitats found there represents a range of ecosystem goods and services, most notably, space for walking and enjoyment of the outdoor for all levels of human ability. It should be noted that these replacement peatland habitats are not akin to the former raised bog ecosystems that pre-dated peat production. They do, however, comprise poor fen, rich fen, wet grassland, reedswamp, open water and wet birch woodland - all habitats that were present prior to the formation and that led to the formation of the great bogs.
Where we can restore recognised raised bogs systems, we will continue to do so, as highlighted already. The rehabilitation of the Oweninny Bogs in County Mayo has involved the re-wetting of up to 6,500 ha of industrial cutaway blanket bog that have now shown to be reverting to diverse peatland ecosystems as well as switching already from carbon sources to healthy carbon sinks.
Once peat production is stopped in an area, or in the lead up to that time, the Bord na Móna rehabilitation approach involves establishing a detailed baseline ecology and drainage map of the cutaway bog followed by targeted internal field drain blocking and management of external outfalls.
The methods have been developed over 30 years of rehabilitation activities, working with local community groups, NGOs, including the Irish Peatland Conservation Council and the Irish Wildlife Trust, and statutory bodies such as the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and local authorities. To date, 15,000 ha of cutaway bog have been rehabilitated using this approach, with 5,000 ha in active rehabilitation, in the Littleton bog group.
Bord na Móna has highlighted that peat production will cease over a large part of its lands by the mid-2020s as peat burning is phased out. In the interim, rehabilitation measures will continue to be carried out with the focus on re-wetting and rehabilitation of the cutaway areas in line with national policy such as the national biodiversity action plan, policy on climate change, and the water framework directive. This will result in an extensive network of replacement peatland habitats, wetland and woodland systems, which will provide an expansive landscape for species and habitats otherwise marginalised by agriculture, forestry and peat production. The new landscape also provide other ecosystem services such as water filtration or attenuation, and reduce carbon emissions from the formerly drained peat production lands. Results from the work to date illustrate that, nationally and internationally, significant numbers of wintering birds are using the rehabilitated sites annually, and the breeding bird populations, particularly of wetland species within the sites and in surrounding areas, have also been enhanced.
We have brought copies of our biodiversity action plan, which is the main vehicle we use for consultation. We are in the process of developing natural capital accounts for our lands. This is using the UN environmental and economic accounting approach, and this will enable the company to demonstrate how its transition from active peat production to rehabilitated and recovering peatland systems in terms of water, climate, health and well-being can transform all our lands at this important time.
We thank members for their time. We extend a warm invitation to them to view and explore the outcomes of our bog restoration work, as well as the fruits of the rehabilitation work at Lough Boora Discovery Park, to see at first hand what we have been endeavouring to portray in a five-minute presentation that was meant to be a ten-minute presentation.
Dr. Catherine O'Connell:
I thank members for the opportunity to address them. I am representing the Irish Peatland Conservation Council, IPCC.
Peatlands are regarded as among the harshest environments on the planet because they are waterlogged all year round and species of animals and plants that grow in them need to be specially adapted to survive. IPCC, however, says that peatlands are superheros. The reason is that they carry out important functions such as purifying water, sometimes mitigating flooding, and providing a home for rare plants, animals and biodiversity. They beat nearly every other ecosystem when it comes to carbon storage. On top of that, they are part of the cultural heritage and they have an immense recreational value.
IPCC contends Ireland has 275,000 ha of peatlands with conservation value, including fens, raised bogs and blanket bogs. These are all peatlands of a kind that are rare or extinct elsewhere in Europe and the world. The quantity of land represents 23% of the original peatland area in Ireland. The rest has been man-modified by industrial and private peat extraction, forestry, grazing, land reclamation and other uses.
When Dutch peatland scientists came to Ireland in the 1980s and witnessed the extent and speed of the degradation of our peatlands, they took two steps. The first was to encourage the formation of IPCC to campaign for the conservation of bogs and the second was to raise funds within the Netherlands to purchase three peatlands in Ireland. Once the sites were purchased, they were donated to the Irish people as gifts with the simple message that we should conserve our peatlands while we still have pristine examples remaining. The Dutch logic was that a peatland in pristine condition costs very little to protect and manage by comparison with a site that has been damaged and needs costly repair. Dutch peatland managers ended up spending millions of euro trying to restore their lost heritage.
Despite the friendly Dutch advice, the current Irish peatland conservation scheme is not working. We have reached the stage where we need to invest millions of euro to protect our peatlands or risk a future where a sod of turf will be a peculiar item on display in a museum cabinet.
Several factors have led to our present critical situation and are likely to drive certain peatland types to extinction if action is not taken. My submission contains a number of pictures that illustrate the points I am making. Damaging activities on designated sites occur due to inadequate regulation. Figure 1 shows the extraction of turf using digger and hopper machinery on Slieve Tooey SAC in County Donegal. Figure 2 depicts something that just happened over Christmas 2018, that is, not enforcing planning law, which allows developers to drain peatland for horticultural peat extraction such as at Doolistown Bog in County Meath. This is occurring as we speak. The third point I want to highlight is the provision of permission for a wind farm development within the Lough Derryduff-west of Ardara blanket bog SAC in County Donegal. Figure 3 shows an aerial photograph of the intact blanket bog where the development was given permission.
On wind farms, IPCC have analysed ten years of its work on wind farm applications. We are at a loss to know why, in all that time, a county council has never cited the intrinsic value of the peatland and its habitat as a reason for objecting to a wind farm development. That tells us something about awareness of this issue.
The second significant point I want to make is that the lack of management of sites that have been designated is causing degradation to continue and this, in turn, is driving habitat and species losses. The NPWS reports describe the peatland habitats as drying, shrinking, cracking, slumping and eroding. Its Status of EU Protected Habitats and Species in Ireland reports from 2007 and 2013 shows that within the array of peatland sites, the status of bogs changed from bad to increasingly bad over the six-year period covered. Figure 4 of our submission, which is from the report, shows raised bogs affected by the lack of consultation on restoration plans.
Owing to a lack of consultation on all the plans, etc., that have been written, we are still not able to get down to the process of managing all the sites. That is facilitating further loss because the habitats are degrading as we speak. Species such as curlew and large heath butterfly are at risk.
The final point I want to make is that the unprecedented delays in designating fens, raised bogs and blanket bog sites, engaging with the landowners involved and setting conservation targets for these ecosystems means that sites cannot be protected from damaging activities, nor can restoration begin. This is perpetuating loss. This seems to be due lack of Government commitment, a lack of personnel and inadequate funding.
What can we do to stop the loss of our peatlands? On the positive side, the peatlands strategy and a raised bog management plan are in place. Some communities are engaged in the process of managing sites, and a considerable body of knowledge and research is available about how peatlands work. On the other hand, progress is constrained by the need for more staff in the NPWS to conduct surveys, consult landowners, set conservation targets and carry out management work.
Of course, we need more money to facilitate all of that.
The IPCC has been in existence for 37 years and our work on saving bogs is entirely funded by private individuals. To date, we have spent €4 million buying bogs, campaigning and educating children. This must be proof, if any was needed, that there is a positive attitude among the public towards conserving peatlands but we need to commit to delivering peatland protection by engaging with people, bringing every voice into the process and being transparent in all decisions relating to the management of our conserved peatlands and peat resources generally. This is what it will take to turn the tide and provide a future for Irish peatlands and their wildlife.
I thank the committee for its invitation to this meeting but I feel that two groups are missing today. The first is the largest owner of peatland in the country, namely Coillte, and the second is a large peatland user, namely the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, TCCA.
Mr. Pádraic Fogarty:
We are grateful for the opportunity to address the committee. The Irish Wildlife Trust, IWT, was founded in 1979 for the purpose of raising awareness of Ireland’s unique wildlife and its importance to people, while also promoting better protection for nature through national policies and legislation. We are a registered charity with a membership base of approximately 800 people. We have a headquarters in Dublin along and branches in Waterford, Galway, Laois, Offaly, Kerry and Dublin. Much of the work we do is undertaken on a voluntary basis.
The work of the IWT and similar organisations has become all the more pressing in recent years as the full scale of the planetary ecological crisis becomes apparent. Scientists say that we have perhaps 12 years remaining to avert dangerous climate breakdown, while in October of last year a report from the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London showed that 60% of large animals have disappeared from the Earth in the past 40 years. Indeed, it is widely believed that we are in the middle of a mass extinction event, which is leading to the collapse of ecosystems and which has very uncertain consequences for us all. This has affected Ireland as much as any other country.
Over many thousands of years Ireland’s unique geography and climate has produced peatland and bog landscapes of global significance. In historic times, they were home to a diversity of habitats and wildlife, including vast woodlands and wetlands with teeming birdlife and specialised plants. These landscapes were also inhabited by people. There is evidence that turf was harvested for fuel going back many hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The IWT accepts that turf cutting for domestic use has a long cultural heritage and that people have well-established turbary rights, which should be respected. However, we must also acknowledge that major changes have occurred in more recent decades that have had calamitous consequences for our peatlands. It is no exaggeration to say that the raised bogs of the midlands are practically extinct. According to the NPWS, less than 1% of the original area remains active or capable of growing peat, while no raised bog has survived intact. The vast blanket bogs of the west and upland areas have fared little better. Only 28% are deemed worthy of conservation and the remaining 72% have been drained for agriculture, turf extraction or are buried underneath a carpet of plantation conifers. Even those blanket bogs within so-called protected areas such as SACs and SPAs have been subjected to overgrazing by sheep, uncontrolled fires and unregulated turf cutting, and these activities are leading to their deterioration. Of 11 habitats on peatland listed for special protection under the EU’s habitats directive, nine are in "bad" condition, one is "inadequate" and only one is "good", according to the NPWS. With habitat degradation comes extinction and, according to BirdWatch Ireland, ten birds which are characteristic of peatlands are on the red list, meaning they have suffered catastrophic declines in population or breeding range, namely the golden eagle, red grouse, golden plover, dunlin, curlew, twite, whinchat, nightjar, meadow pipit and ring ouzel. A number of other birds such as the skylark, the hen harrier and the short-eared owl are on the amber list. The hen harrier is currently threatened with the prospect of more planting of conifer monocultures, which will destroy its habitats. Wind turbines are being inappropriately erected on peatlands where their contribution to climate goals is likely to be less than the greenhouse gases being released by the degrading peat, while, at the same time, harming water quality and aquatic life downstream.
We have to acknowledge that conservation measures over the past 30 years, limited in extent and late in coming as they were, have been a colossal failure. This has left us with serious challenges in meeting legally binding commitments on climate change, water quality and nature preservation. More important than that, it is a tragic loss of heritage that today we cannot show our children what a healthy bog looks like. It is a legacy for which few will thank us.
The national peatlands strategy was published in 2015 and set out to comprehensively map a path towards the wise management of all our peatland areas. It set out a path towards meeting conservation aims as well as the many other competing interests. In our view, it failed to deal in a meaningful way with existing forestry plantations or upland farming but the IWT was broadly supportive of the strategy. However, its implementation to date has been most disappointing. While authorities were quick to de-designate 46 Natural Heritage Areas, NHAs, which were identified in the 1970s as being nationally unique for their biodiversity value, we have yet to see even the list of proposed new NHAs that were supposed to replace them. We have seen no progress towards setting conservation objectives for blanket bogs and promised management plans have not materialised. The NPWS committed to finding a way of accommodating turf cutters while ensuring conservation objectives in these areas could be met but we are no wiser in 2019 as to how this can be achieved. Meanwhile, turf cutting and habitat loss continues.
The strategy committed-----
Mr. Pádraic Fogarty:
The IWT welcomes the publication last year of the national raised bog SAC management plan and is grateful to the NPWS and the other stakeholders for the work that went into this. Hopefully it will secure the future of these special places. We also commend the restoration efforts being undertaken at 12 of our raised bog SACs by the Living Bog Project and the CANN project, a €9.4 million cross-border environment project, which aims to improve the condition of blanket bog habitats and to support priority species found at 25 EU designated SACs across Northern Ireland, the Border region and western Scotland. We are encouraged by European Innovation Partnerships, EIPs, being run by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, one of which is working with scientists and farmers in upland areas with the aim of restoring the hen harrier population in SPAs. The community of Abbeyleix, County Laois has undertaken a remarkable project to rescue and restore their local bog, something which has been championed by President Higgins. We would also like to commend the work of the Bord na Mona ecology team which has been working on the restoration of 15,000 ha of industrial cut-away bog. The Lough Boora parklands in County Offaly show that large-scale ecological restoration is not only technically feasible but can also be popular with local communities while stimulating small scale sustainable enterprises. Despite this, many communities remain in the dark as to what the future of their local area holds. The IWT would like to see the ecological restoration of all of Bord na Mona’s 80,000 ha landholding but we are keen also that local communities will be central to the decision-making process. We have been told by local community groups that plans for a Shannon wilderness park have been stymied by lack of engagement from Bord na Mona and the drive for wind farms, which are unwanted by local communities.
Although the current state of our peatlands is not good, there remains an incredible opportunity if the right policies are put in place. Fixing these important ecosystems can help us to clean our water, lock up carbon, regulate flooding, stimulate local economies and restore wildlife populations. The IWT would like new solutions for upland farmers so they can make a good living while protecting nature. We would like Coillte to convert its plantations to native woodlands or, where appropriate, to restore blanket bog habitats. We would like Bord na Mona to be repurposed so that the midlands could be home to one of Europe’s largest landscape and nature restoration projects. There is an urgent need for the peatlands strategy to be energetically implemented.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service should be leading an education drive to show people the wonders of our peatland wildlife. To date, unfortunately, we have not seen the level of vision or enthusiasm required to meet these goals. A cloud of neglect and apathy has smothered the natural world. It is a terrible legacy that we are leaving to the next generation. It does not have to be this way. Legislators such as the committee members have the power to take action and give our children a brighter future.
I have a couple of questions on Bord na Móna and the loss of jobs. What consideration is being given to these 500 people who have lost or are about to lose their jobs? All Bord na Móna turf cutting is to cease by 2025 or 2026. What provision is being made for jobs for these people, since there is still peat to be had and a need for it for people who use it to heat houses. The other concern that I have is about blocking drains, raising water levels and going back in history. In a place called Gneeveguilla, the bog moved, covered houses and did away with a whole community. One child who had gone three miles to a neighbour's house survived. That was a terrible tragedy. How sure are we that something like this will not happen in the future? Are we infringing on neighbouring landowners' farms? If the level of water in one place is raised, it will surely be raised upstream if the water cannot get down to a certain level. Will we cause problems for neighbouring landowners?
My other question relates to the hen harrier and designation of lands. Where I come from, farmers have no problem with designations of hen harriers or any others if they are properly compensated for neutralising and making their lands worthless. It is fine for anyone to say we should promote the hen harrier or other ecosystems, but they do not give consideration to people's fortunes, how they will keep going and provide for their wives or families, send them to college like everyone else, and put food on the table. These ideas are all very grand. We are listening to people saying we cannot eat meat, must ride bicycles and cannot have a pint. Now we cannot heat our homes and must remain cold. The only facility many people have for heating is to cut turf to keep themselves warm for the winter. Generations have lived this way. It is fine for people to make suggestions that it cannot be done any more but alternative, economical suggestions must be provided to the people trying to live in rural Ireland who are affected by these sometimes ridiculous suggestions.
Mr. Stuart Conaty:
With regard to the jobs issue, as we face the extent of decarbonisation and what that means for us as a society, Bord na Móna has had to embark on a major programme of transition. We are conscious of the mandate from Government. That mandate is first and foremost to create sustainable employment in the midlands and to support Government strategy and policy. We have known of this transition for some time. We have plans in place. We developed our first wind farm in 1992. We invested in a new business in resource recovery in 2007. While the situation is now urgent, we are cognisant of the impact that the transition can have on employees and on the wider economy of the midlands. We are actively looking to bring sustainable economic activity to those areas. We believe we can do that in a way that is consistent with managing and living up to our obligations with regard to biodiversity. We see a consistency in the type of commercial developments. We are a commercial semi-State body. We need to be commercial. We will do so to support jobs in the midlands and to protect and enhance biodiversity as much as possible. My colleague might answer the question with regard to flooding.
Dr. Catherine Farrell:
I will address the approach to rewetting and rehabilitation of the bogs. To facilitate milled peat production, when working with peatland systems, one has to dig drains to dry the peat. We have an extensive network of field drains within our bog units. Our aim is not to flood the bogs but to raise the water level to the peat's surface. Within the topography of the cutaway bogs, there will always be depressions, so we inevitably get a mix of open water. In other areas, this is just to bring the water level back to the peat's surface to encourage the establishment of those peatland species that are the target species that we want back on sites.
Our rehabilitation is generally done on a three-phase basis. Before anything else, we do a flood risk assessment which looks at water levels. As Deputy Healy-Rae rightly said, many of the drainage works on Bord na Móna lands have facilitated development of agricultural lands around Bord na Móna bogs. We carry out a flood risk assessment to see what will happen when we block the field drains. The three phases are to look at internal field drains and slow down water movement within the peatland to trap water on site to stop the summer drying and to facilitate the establishment of vegetation. After two to five years, the potential for blocking outfalls of the bog is assessed. After that, we look at whether everything is okay. At each of those phases, we have ongoing consultation with the communities and people on the edges of the bog. It involves talking to farmers if they have concerns. This is one of the ongoing activities in Littleton. If we are doing any real wetting, we have to walk the land and ensure that people's concerns are heard. We consider the roads adjoining the land. All of that is combined with monitoring. Sometimes the bog presents surprises. In our history of rehabilitation of 20,000 ha, we have dealt with any surprises and have not had negative impacts on surrounding land. That is to alleviate concerns in that respect.
Mr. Stuart Conaty:
We are in the process of transitioning. There was an announcement on job losses and, unfortunately, there will be job losses among our colleagues. This is something we are working through and we have an ongoing transition programme. People will come out of jobs in the near future. The company has engaged in a detailed support facility for our employees to look at other opportunities and upskilling. We have a programme of benefits and facilities for employees. This is something that is ongoing. It is not a case that there will be a sudden closing of the gates and people will no longer be employed. It is a more gradual process, albeit over a period of months, during which we will see, unfortunately, a significant number of people departing. The company is giving them every support it can. The key consideration for Bord na Móna is we must look at the wider midlands community and its economy. We are actively looking at other opportunities to try to provide further, different and more sustainable employment for the people of the midlands.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. My first question is for Mr. Lucas. I would like clarification because a damning allegation was made about someone engaging in illegal digging and hopper turf cutting on Slieve Tooey in Donegal. This is a blanket bog in Donegal and not one of the 53 bogs listed. My understanding is, and I ask Mr. Lucas to correct me if I am wrong, that it is not illegal to cut turf with a hopper and track machine on a blanket bog where a sausage machine cut previously. Is this correct?
Mr. Brian Lucas:
On designated sites or sites proposed for designation, there are activities that require consent and, generally, they require the consent of the Minister or another public authority. For blanket bog designated sites, the special areas of conservation, SACs, to which I referred in my presentation, people do not need the consent of the Minister to cut on an existing bank.
Mr. Brian Lucas:
If, as Deputies have said, the bank has been cut over generations, the position under the activities requiring consent regime is that people do not need the consent of the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. If people wish to open a new bank, they must get the consent of the Minister.
Perhaps Dr. O'Connell will comment on this. An allegation was made about a contractor in Donegal. It is pretty easy to know who in Donegal has a Caterpillar 312 digger and who has a feed tractor and wheel hopper. Dr. O'Connell mentioned this in her presentation to the committee with regard to a blanket bog. From what I can see in the photograph, it was where a sausage machine worked previously. Is it advisable to make such an allegation before the committee about someone in Donegal?
I want to clarify this before we go any further on it because it is not good to make an allegation. It is dangerous to caption a photograph and make an allegation, regardless of who the person is. I do not know the person but I certainly will find out.
If I made an allegation against somebody, the Chairman would be on my back like a shot. Whether one agrees or disagrees with being allowed to cut turf is not the issue. The issue is quite simple. A statement was made before the committee that an illegal digger and hopper was cutting turf on Slieve Tooey.
I ask the Vice Chairman to ensure the record is correct. It appears from what Mr. Lucas said that it is a statement that has no foundation in fact and we need the record cleared on this. We can say it was ill-advised or that it is a type of cutting with which we do not agree but we cannot say it was illegal. That is the issue.
My next question is for Dr. Farrell. Bord na Móna has been doing work on several bogs throughout the country. It speaks about preserving bogs. It is looking at Daingean where it has done a lot of work. In the midlands it has made an application for wind turbines near Mount Dillon. This will involve digging out a lot of bog and putting in roadways. How is this going on when Bord na Móna speaks about conservation? With regard to consultation, Bord na Móna is working on Attymon bog. Farmers in the area have told me there has been no consultation with them with regard to bogs or land. I have sent an email to Bord na Móna to ask it to engage with people in the area.
Deputy Danny Healy-Rae raised the issue of the 450 jobs. I believe there will be redundancies as I do not see any plan for other jobs.
In its land division, or its move from the west to put it bluntly, there will be no jobs west of the Shannon in producing peat for Bord na Móna. With regard to the restoration of bogs, would it not have been a good idea to hold onto people in Derryfadda and other such areas who have had great expertise with machinery over the years? Anyone who worked on a bog was driving machines. Would it not be advisable to give them priority, even if it took only two or three years, and give them redundancy after that or they could get another job? From my understanding, no headway is being made in the tonnage of willow and it will take seven years for the fish project. There is no immediate rainbow on the horizon with regard to jobs for these workers, particularly in rural areas.
Do the witnesses agree we have moved to speaking about climate change and various issues but the habitats directive was the reason the 53 bogs were closed? They were closed to preserve them because parts of Europe, as Dr. O'Connell rightly pointed out, had dug away all they had. I want clarification on this.
I would also like the witnesses to comment on my next point. We are at a stage whereby no problem in this country will be solved, whether the witnesses like it or not, unless they bring the landowners and communities with them. Dr. Farrell spoke about 80,000 ha belonging to Bord na Móna but many private people have turbary rights or ownership of the bog. In fairness to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, over the past two or three years, Mr. Lucas has tried to get relocation sites as close as possible for people.
I should clarify that I am chairman of the TCCA. It is acceptable to move people from A to B, to where there is high-quality turf nearby, such as four or five miles away. They are working on that.
When the NPWS or other interests are trying to preserve those 53 - or 57, because a few areas, such as the River Moy, have multiple bogs - bogs, it is not helpful. Do the witnesses agree? Bear in mind, there could be a 3,000 acre designated bog and one might want 50 acres or 100 acres to give to the people. Do the witnesses agree that it is not helpful to have objections being submitted? It has been a problem particularly in Kildare in the past month or two, from what I have witnessed. It is a problem whether people like it or not. I own a bog in a so-called SAC, although I do not know if it is an SAC yet, as do other people around the country. I will not leave it until I have the choice of another bog. It is as simple as that. If we want to solve the problem, we must address the environmentalists who have objected and others. If a refusal is issued every time there is an objection to move people from one of those so-called raised SAC, as they are known in parts of the country, we will not solve the problem. It is bread and butter stuff. The people need to be brought on board and, in fairness, the NPWS are doing that and have contracted RPS Group, for example, to review the sites.
Allegations were made earlier about the science and it was claimed that less than 1% of the original area is available for growing peat. What did we know we had? Was there science to back it up? In the 1980s, before the habitats directive was introduced in 1997, it is now estimated that our science was up to 40% wrong. If I start doing something 40% wrong, I can never get it right. In fairness, a full re-evaluation is being done of those bogs to establish where exactly we are going, what we can restore, what is degraded bog, what we can get going and how much active raised bog we have. Do the witnesses agree that there should be some benefit given if one of those SACs performs well down the road? Notwithstanding the habitats directive, if someone's bog ends up doing well, should there be a carbon credit or financial reward for it? In fairness to the NPWS and its reweighting - and I presume Bord na Móna has done more than what I have been able to mention within the time - it is liaising with communities. While there are problems in certain areas - there is no point in saying there are not - the NPWS is liaising with communities as much as possible.
Mr. Fogarty referred to sheep. Farmers farmed the way they had to farm over the years. There was a destocking of sheep on mountains and, as he noted, sheep destroyed the mountain. That part of it is being addressed. Is it fair that a farmer in Connemara, on a hill in Sligo or in Donegal who has a few cows or sheep on the side of a mountain and wants to erect new stakes must apply for planning permission? I think it is wrong. Under the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's regulations, the farmer is obliged to prevent his or her cattle from mixing but is not allowed to erect a fence. There are certain matters that the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht needs to get to grips with. If there used to be a fence, a fence should be allowed to be put up. We are putting people in their land through a type of torture in respect of planning permission, and then some genius will object.
On the raised bogs, Dr. O'Connell referred to the Dutch, and she is correct, as Queen Beatrix has a connection to Irish bogs. The Dutch are mighty; they cut all their bogs away. Is that not correct? They then told us what to do and what not to do.
They came to buy bog in this country. They cut their own away and plenty of them were trying to tell us what we could and could not do. They are quite entitled to buy bog wherever they want. I do not mind where they buy it. Nevertheless, they cut their own away first before they ever realised the value.
In the same country where we tell people that there are cuts of five or six hoppers for their own houses, we are telling them what they cannot do and that they are criminals. Meanwhile, Germany, England and several other countries, including the Netherlands, take different types of milled peat for sewage systems and so on around the country.
There are two different issues, namely, the blanket bog and the raised bog. I will address the former first. If I remember correctly, quite a large area of blanket bog is designated SAC or NHA. The level of turf cutting that takes place in the blanket bog does not have the same knock-on effect across the bog that the cutting of raised bog does because it tends to be much shallower and the drainage system tends to be different. Will the witnesses confirm that?
What percentage of the total preserve blanket bog is domestic cutting of blanket bog? As I recall, domestic turf cutting accounted for approximately 4% of the national total, while commercial cutting was approximately 96% of the volume cut in 1997 when we started. Of blanket bog, how much is currently active turbary? I have a suspicion that it will be relatively small.
On the threats to the blanket bog, destocking was mentioned. Some of the officials present might remember the initial destocking in 1997 or 1998. We had the courage to take on what was not a popular issue. I learnt one of my first lessons in irrationality in that process and why it is hard to make matters move forward. The Government at the time, along with the Department, decided that the quickest way of doing a rapid destocking before we measured every bog was to take 30% of everybody's income and get on with the job immediately because Europe was putting the pressure on.
I remember an extraordinary visit to Europe that taught me the danger of people making a principle out of practicalities. We said the Government was willing to compensate farmers through Exchequer funding for the loss of income. I thought we would be told that was great and fine but instead we were told that we could not do it because it would reward the polluter. Under the polluter pays principle, the polluter cannot be paid. I said it would be our money and that we were not seeking any EU money because we were willing to pay the farmers. We could not take 30% of farmers' incomes and say it did not matter. It was their livelihood.
While we paid them, it took seven years for the Department to get permission from Europe. I did not give a damn. As far as I was concerned, I was not going to take the bread out of the mouths of farmers up and down the west coast. The agenda always seems to be that we want people to take the pain, but do not want to compensate them for it. If ecologists want to know why their agenda is not working and why they meet resistance on the ground, the practical explanation is that if professionals in Dublin were told 30% of their income had to go for the greater good, there would be a fair few thousand people at the door of Leinster House. In this case, it was clear-cut. We were paying. We were not asking Europe to pay.
There is a second issue with destocking sheep. It is an argument I have had time and time again with the Department and others. People who are knowledgeable about sheep agree with me that Europe caused overstocking in the first place through the headage payment. That is a simple and absolute fact. The EU said it would pay for every ewe a farmer had even if it never had a lamb. What could one expect farmers to do but to put more and more ewes on the hills? If one distorts the market, one will get a distortion. When the EU went to destocking, it left the person who knew the individual hill out of the reckoning, namely the farmer who had been doing it right in most cases until the ewe premium came in. How to farm those hills in a sustainable way was still within their knowledge. They had been doing it for generations until the market was completely distorted. We brought in a lot of people who were not used to hills but who were agricultural planners and gave them the job of deciding in some empirical way how many sheep a hill could sustain. Departmental officials know that I have always believed that the complexity of the way sheep roam the hills was not taken into account.
It would be interesting to examine bogs to find out whether I am right or wrong on the next issue that arose. Farmers on the hills, certainly in Galway and Mayo, were encouraged greatly to engage in supplementary feeding of ewe lambs and ewes in winter. One of the problems with that is that one could keep more ewes on the hill. Another problem arose. From a very young age, ewes got used to be being fed. I do not know if anyone here has a cat, but we have one at home. Our cat does the odd bit of roaming around the area, but it will always sit on the window sill when I get up. The cat is cute and it knows that if it sits on the sill for long enough, I will get up for my breakfast and give it a tin of food at the back door. Luckily, the window sill is not going to wear away. If one does the same thing with sheep, they will congregate on the lower, softer or boggy peatlands where the food is given out. Hey presto, despite the fact that one has destocked the hill, a significant damage is done on those peatlands. It has nothing to do with stocking levels, but is the result of something farmers were told was good farming practice. Tradition did not do that. Farmers loved the hill and ensured it handled what it could. Certain grasses that die in winter on a hill determined stocking levels in the old days. This needs complicated, farmer-involved answers.
That brings us to the next matter, which is State policy. At another committee, a major issue arose during the week which was well reported, notwithstanding that I did not seek any publicity. We go on with platitudes about high-nature farming and the value of the ecology, hills, NHAs and so on. Many hills where sheep are present are NHAs, SACs or SPAs. I have no problem with that. I have a problem, however, if officials will only pay the single farm payment, basic payment scheme and greening based on production, which is to say the number of sheep a farmer can keep, while cutting that number. The officials discount as economic value completely the high-nature value of the peculiar manner in which these farmers must farm to keep a sensitive ecology in balance. If farmers fail to do that, they will destroy what we have there. Until we realise that a Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine refusing payments for high-nature farming is undermining the NPWS and the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, there will be resistance on the ground. Joined-up thinking is needed. No only that, there will be land abandonment and depopulation. Unless we get all of those ducks in a row, it will always appear to be a them-versus-us scenario.
One my last acts as Minister was to organise a meeting in Galway to say that if we were going to have all of these designations in the west, we needed to get all of the environmental organisations down to tell us how to make a few bob out of them. We were told those designations were so important that all the people wanted to come and look at the areas involved. I wanted to know how to get alternative employment for the people whose bread was being taken out of their mouths. People need a livelihood. This debate often ignores the fact that the main custodians of all of this are the people on the ground who must also live. There are simple remedies, but the big vested interests in Ireland do not want to apply them because their attitude is that if a farmer is on bad land, he or she should do it for the cause. If a farmer is anywhere else in the country, he or she should get paid for doing it for the cause.
The Chairman has been indulgent, but I want to make one comment on blanket bogs. I had an aunt who was an ecologist and botanist 50 years ago. She warned then that the midland bogs were in danger. When Síle de Valera designated the bogs in 1997 or 1998, we took a lot of major commercial operators out and approached Bord na Móna to say there was more to be done. We must recognise that Bord na Móna has moved forward and we need to keep working away. The same principle arises. There is a population there with a right to jobs and livelihoods. If someone takes one crust of bread out of their mouths, he or she must show me where another crust of equal value, if not more value, is to be found. It need not be in the same type of industry. One thing I regret, albeit it was not in my constituency, was the mistake the community made in respect of the inevitable closure of the sugar factory in Tuam. It tried to hang onto to the sugar company whereas if the community had looked to their children and the education they were getting, they would have insisted on getting a Government office for the town with 400 jobs. Their kids were much more likely to work in a Government office than on the production line in a sugar company. It should not be thought that we can walk out of the midlands, leaving it as a black hole. All one has to ask is why Offaly has won hurling and football all-Irelands. There was a population there to do it because, simply, of Bord na Móna.
Mr. Stuart Conaty:
There have been many questions, the answers to which I will hopefully capture in my reply. Deputy Fitzmaurice asked for clarification on the current redundancies and the retention of skills. We are conscious of the need to retain skills to put to future use. The current scheme is an entirely voluntary one. That should be borne in mind.
Mr. Stuart Conaty:
As our CEO outlined our strategy is, in the first instance, to consolidate our existing businesses. We have to react so as to ensure future sustainability. Deputy Ó Cuív said that where we stop providing one crust of bread, we need to look to provide another and we are very conscious of that. We are actively looking at other opportunities and we have made the announcement to transition out of peat over the course of the next decade. That gives us time to find other opportunities, such as in aquaculture and inland fisheries, and we will not waste that time. I am not sure where the seven years come from and it is not a timeline to which we would subscribe. A pilot aquaculture facility is in operation in County Offaly. We have started on the process and we will do everything we can to move it forward, as we will with other opportunities.
I take Mr. Conaty's point but there were redundancies at the Port of Galway, where Bord na Móna had people working, as there were in Sligo. Bord na Móna is looking for 450 redundancies but the people affected will be 450 people with families who may get employment somewhere else but will be statistically unemployed from the day they take redundancy. They say in Offaly that the year they won the all-Ireland it was because so many of them were working in that area, either with Bord na Móna or because of Bord na Móna. There is no magic wand but, so far, there have redundancies in those areas and nothing else.
Mr. Stuart Conaty:
Bord na Móna, like every other organisation, has to respond to its customers and, as a commercial semi-State company, has to work according to Government policy. Unfortunately, the decarbonisation policy change, from both Europe and our own Government, is something markets have been forced to react to and that has an effect on Bord na Móna as a commercial semi-State business. We are very conscious of our mandate, to the midlands in particular, and to sustainable jobs and we are making progress with alternatives, such as with our trial aquaculture programme as well as the trial of the utilisation of cutaway bogs for the production of herbs. We will work very hard to provide the new crust of bread for the people of the midlands over the course of the next decade. The transition will take place over time and we will work in that period to find the alternatives to which I referred.
Dr. Catherine Farrell:
There were a couple of questions on wind farms on peat land. In the transition phase, we will try to ensure jobs. As an ecologist, I would love to say there will be wetlands, woodlands and restored bogs all over the place but we have to maximise the commercial use too. Cutaway bogs present a good opportunity for renewable energy projects. Instead of digging out loads of peat from an intact bog or an intact blanket bog in a special area of conservation, SAC, we could locate wind farms on cutaways where the peat is more shallow, where we already have the infrastructure and which are located next to the grid. We have to pick the right sites for wind farms and the right sites for wetlands. We are looking to reduce peat production and to have rehabilitation and restoration, as well as renewables, all of which are part of the decarbonisation story for Bord na Móna.
I would love to meet Deputy Fitzmaurice on the bog in Attymon. We started a process there in November and my colleague, Barry O'Loughlin has been doing great work there. We met the local co-operative and looked at the drainage of the site. I was there last Monday morning to make sure any work we do does not impact on adjoining lands. Water is flowing through the site and there is great potential for rewetting the peats for the regeneration of sphagnum and peat-forming habitats.
Dr. Catherine Farrell:
There are two bogs - Attymon and Cloonkeen. I was in Cloonkeen and I am aware that a constituent of the Deputy is interested in continuing to cut turf in Attymon. On the integrated pollution control, IPC, licence, we have a remit to rehabilitate all our peatlands after peat production to stabilise the ground in which peat production occurred. This involves drain blocking and natural processes for the regeneration of typical peatland species, or whatever species will grow to stop further erosion and, ideally, further carbon emissions. There is a legal obligation on the EPA to do this on every site, whether the locals can see this or not. That is how it will happen in Derryfadda, whose bogs are out of peat production and where stockpiles of relatively deep peat remain on-site. We need to decommission the bogs by taking off rails and plastic and by working with the people on site such as Paul Quinn, who has mapped every bit of bog in the area. We do not want to lose the expertise of people such as him because they are critical for us. There are four ecologists on our team and when we go out to map or develop rehabilitation plans, our first port of call are the bog lads - the men who drain the bog. If one knows how to drain a bog, one also knows how to rewet it. I would be quite happy to meet the Deputy at Derryfadda, too, because there is a lot to be learned from rehabilitation. All of us, including Dr. O'Connell, Mr. Fogarty, Dr. O'Keeffe and Mr. Lucas, are working together to restore and get peat formation going on those sites.
Mr. Stuart Conaty:
The final questions concerned the impact of decarbonisation and the rewetting of bogs and peatlands on local economies and communities. Studies have proved that the rewetting of bogs helps with greenhouse gas emissions and is positive in that respect. The Government needs to look at what that means for communities. If landowners are actively managing their land to give a benefit to the carbon-balancing exercise, we would need to look at this. The people making the sacrifice should not have to bear the responsibility entirely on their own. There needs to be an acknowledgement, in Government policy, of the right to compensation for people who provide this service, which is valuable to the greater economy and, indeed, the world economy.
Can I make the point that it should not be called compensation and it should be called payment? The reason I say so is that with compensation, some day people will come and state they are running short of money, it is only compensation and they do not need to give it. A payment is something for goods produced and one gets paid. It is a subtle question but it is one to note.
Dr. Catherine Farrell:
That is one of the reasons for using the system of environmental and economic accounting. It is getting a system where we can start looking at payment for ecosystem goods and services provided by that hill farmer for ensuring good water quality for enabling those populations of freshwater pearl mussel and the same for the farmers on the edges of the bogs who might want to get involved with the restoration and rehabilitation and be part of a future network of peatscapes, which will assist the National Parks and Wildlife Service and all of us here in reaching our targets for nature.
I agree with Dr. Farrell. Dr. Farrell knows as well as I do that the only thing blocking us all from this is the procurement process. There might be a guy with a small digger beside a bog who Bord na Móna might love to take on but the problem is that the company must go through all of the procurement process involving transparency and that person may not be in that system. That is the reality on the ground, where the bigger guy is more involved the pricing and procurement area. In the case of procurement, I have seen it with all of the contracts that have gone out. The procurement process is gone from the small guy who, say, would be coming from doing drainage work for a farmer, cutting a bit of turf or whatever.
Mr. Stuart Conaty:
Deputy Ó Cuív is quite right. It is an important distinction that the Deputy has made. I need to correct myself in using the word "compensation" because this is a service that people will be providing in our battle on the decarbonisation front. The Deputy quite rightly pointed out that it is not compensation. They are providing a valuable service that should be paid for.
Mr. Brian Lucas:
To take up from the points made, Deputy Fitzmaurice talked about the need to bring landowners and communities with us. This is something that the Government has set out in A Programme for a Partnership Government. There is recognition that turf cutters have a right to cut turf, which is balanced on the conservation obligations on the State. In my presentation, when I talked about the national raised bog special areas of conservation management plan, I stated it sets out how the raised bog special areas of conservation are to be managed, conserved and restored and, just as importantly, how the needs of turf cutters are to be addressed. In terms of what the Department has tried to do, we have an annual payment scheme. Under that scheme for cessation of turf cutting on the raised bogs, we have made over 18,000 payments amounting to €27 million.
In my job, over the years I have met turf cutter representatives and I have met turf cutters quite a number of times. Quite a few turf cutters say that they are getting their compensation and they are reasonably happy with that. I should not say "compensation". They are getting their payment and they are reasonably happy with that. I have to say I meet turf cutters who say that they just want to cut somewhere and that turf cutting has been in their family for generations and they would like to continue that tradition. It is not only for a source of fuel, although that is an important consideration. I meet people who say that it is part of their culture and heritage and part of their family tradition. In the national plan, we try to recognise that. What the Government stated in A Programme for a Partnership Government is that we will try to accommodate people in non-designated bogs where we can. We got planning permission last year to develop two non-designated bogs for turf cutting and we hope to develop those sites this year. We have similar sites in the process.
What we have said as well - we set down this in the national plan, which is a published document available from the Department's website - is we see there being annual payments and accommodation in a non-designated bog. If that does not work for some reason, because it can be quite difficult to get a non-designated bog for turf cutting, we will try to use the habitats directive. There is an article in the directive that allows for cutting on an SAC so long as one does not damage the integrity of the site. That is an important point to make. One cannot damage or degrade a raised bog. We set out in that national plan the sites that we are looking for to see would that work as an alternative. Therefore, it is payments, accommodation in a non-designated bog or the use of Article 6.3 of the habitats directive.
Conservation came up in some of the questions about the targets. For the raised bog network for the SACs and the NHAs, the target is to get to 3,600 ha of active raised bog.
Deputy Fitzmaurice also brought up the issue of planning permission and fencing in sites. It is an issue that I have had landowners raise with me over the years. Generally, fencing would be exempt from planning permission. The issue is, as I referred earlier, activities requiring consent. In a designated site, it could be an activity requiring consent of the Minister or of another public authority. Were somebody to come to the Minister looking for consent, we would have to carry out an appropriate assessment screening. If the result of the screening was that the proposal to develop or maintain the fence did not require a full appropriate assessment, the Minister then would be in a position to give consent. If a full appropriate assessment is required, it brings that activity into the planning system and that is where planning permission may be required. A landowner once came to me stating he had been told by a local authority that he needed planning permission to put up a fence. When I spoke to the local authority about the case, it stated it had engaged and had offered an invitation to engage in pre-planning consultation to see whether the activity might have screened out. Therefore, it does not necessarily mean one would need planning permission to put up a fence in a designated site. It would require screening and the result of that screening-----
On a point of clarification, there was a case in Connemara where Galway County Council gave an exemption to put up a roadside fence, if Mr. Lucas knows where Ballinahinch is, at Ballinahinch Castle. I will explain where problems arise in the hills. Somebody then complained about the exemption through An Bord Pleanála in Dublin and An Bord Pleanála then gave a ruling that might have related to scenic designation, as opposed to SAC, that all those had to get planning permission. It is nothing to do per sewith the NPWS but it is to do with the integration of all the different systems which means that on the one hand, one is trying to keep the sheep or cattle off the road and on the other, someone is saying one must get planning permission. It all gets messy and one side does not seem to know what the other side is doing. We are getting these independent bodies giving us decisions and they are getting crazy results.
We have a major problem where those who own the land and who farmed it for many years have certain restrictions put on them. If they must go down a route of getting an appropriate assessment, screening out or whatever, that will cost money. We are dealing with farmers who are living on less than half the average industrial wage. Those obstacles put in front of them will bring about an Ireland in which, whether the Department wishes it or otherwise, it will not be good, that is, an Ireland where one will see a certain amount of land abandonment. Whether we like it or not, we come from a managed landscape. When they took the ewe or, as we saw in the Burren, the cow off the hill, it was detrimental to it. One must work with those communities to iron out those issues. I refer not only to the National Parks and Wildlife Service. It will involve the planning authorities as well. If people keep objecting to someone putting up a fence to keep in his or her sheep or someone who wants a relocation bog for the betterment of the overall habitats directive, one should bear in mind one still is dealing with people in their own private property. It is like a dog, in that if one keeps pulling its tail, it will bite.
Dr. Ciarán O'Keeffe:
We agree with what Deputy Fitzmaurice said about bringing people with us. There is wide recognition in that regard. Some of the really big successes in nature conservation have been in the Burren programme which started off as a live project. We have one going in County Kerry on the pearl mussel. We had Aran life which was finished a few months ago and is being replaced under the EIP scheme. All of those projects are about harvesting the farm knowledge of the landowner and using it to get to where we want to get to and, going back to the point made about compensation versus payment, paying them for the service they provide.
The Deputy asked if we recognised that blanket bogs were generally more tolerant of limited cutting. We do. It depends on issues such as topography. Sliabh Tooey was mentioned. There was a serious landslide a few years ago. It followed on immediately from sausage-machine cutting along the slope.
It goes back over 20 years. There was considerable consensus among all farmers and local people who recognised the damage being caused by the sausage machine. Things happened that probably should not have. The vast majority of people, certainly in Connemara, wanted the sausage machine out because in one season it was destroying a bog completely. I do not think anybody really-----
We can all agree that the sausage machine should never have been used. It should have been gone 20 years ago and we thought we had got rid of it. When it changed from the Department of Arts, Heritage the Gaeltacht and the Islands to the Department of the Environment and Local Government, it seemed to make a recovery, but it should never have happened. It was gone in 1999 or 2000 and it should have stayed that way. There was no justification for using it. I would never defend its use, as it was totally destructive. The farmers never defended its use either. There were just a few people using it.
I ask for the figures for the total numbers of SAC, NHA and SPA blanket bogs. Is the figure 240,000 ha?
Dr. Ciarán O'Keeffe:
One figure is the target, while the other is the total amount we think is in the Natura network. It is different because obviously we are trying to get the bog to grow again. That is the target, whereas in the case of blanket bogs, the situation is substantially different. We might have discussed this issue a while ago. Work we have done based on aerial photography indicates that cutting has had little impact on a very substantial proportion of the blanket bog network.
Dr. Catherine O'Connell:
The IPCC is quite concerned to ensure cutting on blanket bogs is not discussed outside the context of all the other threats they face face. They include the sheep issue, to which the Deputy alluded, wind farms, general erosion and forestry and their legacies. It is too simplistic to home in on blanket bogs and say they are not too deeply affected by turf cutting. There is damage and a threat to every blanket bog included in our list for conservation.
I wish to have an issue clarified. My understanding is someone will not receive permission on two grounds: the yield class is not given and they are included in SPAs, NHAs, etc. Effectively, a person will not receive permission to plant conifers in an NHA or SPA.
Would I be right in saying it would be very hard to receive planning permission in the 141,000 ha of SPAs, NHAs and SACs because in most cases it is necessary to build roads etc. to a wind farm which would also not be allowed?
Mr Pádraic Fogarty:
I wish to make one point that addresses many of the issues that have come up. Ireland's approach to conservation has been a disaster. It certainly has not benefited nature conservation and the Deputy can attest that it has not benefited people living in the areas in question either. The examples we have where nature conservation works are where local people and communities work with scientists and State agencies. When they all come together, we have success. However, it requires considerable work, political leadership and money. None of these things has ever been granted to nature conservation because it is not seen as a political priority. That is the root cause of all of the issues. We need proper leadership and proper funding of agencies such as the National Parks and Wildlife Service that can come up with management plans and engage in consultation with the people who live in the areas in quesdtion. That is what should happen in the future.
Mr Pádraic Fogarty:
We talk about compensation, areas of natural constraints and poor land, but many of these places are very rich in heritage, people and wildlife. We need to reward and work with the people who live in and maintain them. The EIP projects are all positive, but they are all very small and proceeding very slowly. We need to ramp up what is happening in the Burren. Studies indicate that what is happening in the Burren is applicable across the west and could benefit many people.
I was bitterly disappointed when the CAP for the period 2014 to 2020 was being brought forward. As the Vice Chairman knows, I waged a campaign throughout the country on the equalisation of payments as proposed by the European Commission. However, vested interests in the country fought against them, while the ecology organisations went to ground.
That concludes our consideration of the matter. I thank Dr. Ciarán O'Keeffe, Mr. Brian Lucas, Dr .Catherine Farrell, Mr. Stuart Conaty, Dr. Catherine O’Connell and Mr. Pádraic Fogarty for attending and for their presentations.