Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 25 May 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Rewetting of Peatland and its Impact on Farmers: Discussion (Resumed)
Apologies have been received from Deputy Kehoe. Deputy Nolan is substituting for Deputy Michael Collins and Deputy Harkin is substituting for Deputy Fitzmaurice. Before we begin, I remind members that, in the context of the current Covid-19 restrictions, only the Chairman and staff are present in the committee room. All other members must join remotely from elsewhere in the parliamentary precincts. The secretariat can issue invitations to join the meeting on MS Teams. Members may not participate in the meeting from outside of the parliamentary precincts. I ask members to mute their microphone when not making a contribution and please use the raise hand function to indicate. Please note that messages sent to the meeting chat are visible to all participants. Members of the committee will be prioritised for speaking slots.
Today's meeting is in two sessions. The first is engagement with officials from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the second will be with representatives of Teagasc. The subject of the first session is the rewetting of peatland and the impact on drainage for surrounding farmland. From the Department's peatlands issues and land designation section I welcome Ms Suzanne Nally, assistant principal officer, Ms Audrey Carroll, assistant principal officer and Ms Adele Shelton, assistant principal officer. We have received their opening statement and briefing material and these have already been circulated to members. We are limited in our time due to Covid-19 safety restrictions and so the committee has agreed the opening statement be taken as read so we can use the full session for questions and answers. All opening statements are published on the Houses of the Oireachtas website and publicly available.
Before we begin, I must read an important notice on parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a 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. They are asked to respect parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Participants joining the committee meeting from a location outside of parliamentary precincts are asked to be aware that the constitutional protections afforded to those participating within parliamentary precincts does not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether, or the extent to which, participation is covered by absolute privilege of a statutory nature.
We move to questions from the committee. I see Senator Paul Daly has his hand up, as does Deputy Harkin. We will begin with the Senator.
I thank the Chairman. I welcome the officials and thank them for their two comprehensive submissions. I have a couple of points and questions. They are specific to each of the two areas, namely, the rewetting of bogs and horticultural peat, although there is a bit of a link between the two. Starting with the rewetting of bogs, I seek some clarification from the witnesses further to the contents of their submission. In the larger scheme of things, with the anticipated sequestration and storage of carbon, who do the officials see getting credit for the carbon, going forward? This is a big debate in the agriculture sector about whether the carbon that is sequestered or stored in Irish lands would be accredited to the sector. I would like some comment on that from the officials. To whom do they see the credit being given?
On another point, I might quote a paragraph from the officials' submission:
The Government’s approach, as set out in the National Peatlands Strategy, is to recognise that domestic turf cutters have a traditional right to cut turf and that this right is balanced with the conservation objectives for protected bogs and the legal obligations on the State.
I would like the officials to comment on that, based on the fact that at the moment, Bord na Móna, which is answerable to the Department in this regard, is not issuing licences to people who have turbary rights or who need a Bord na Móna licence to cut to turf on what were traditionally their family banks, which are leased from Bord na Móna. Why are the officials not intervening there to back up what their submission states?
On the horticultural peat, the comprehensive report the officials have given us and all the work done to date is quoting investment and research into alternatives, while at the same time we have ceased production. Is that not putting the cart before the horse? I have the two reports in my hand and while I see fully and welcome the possibilities of carbon sequestration and storage by wetting our peatlands, I cannot see the justification for the current situation, nor justify it to members of the public who question it. Last week, I spoke to a haulier who specialises in peat haulage and he is currently drawing peat from the port of Drogheda down to the south of the country. This is peat that has come into this country from, I think, Lithuania, transported on a diesel-burning ship, loaded onto his lorry and transported down the country because the officials' Department cannot or did not intervene in the scenario through the courts and through the planning process, which has horticultural peat production ceased at the moment. This despite the officials openly saying in their statement that we are now, and only now, investing in research for alternatives. That is certainly putting the cart before the horse and a serious contradiction between the two submissions from the Department. I would like a little more elaboration on that point also.
Ms Suzanne Nally:
I will take the first question on carbon credits. The restoration of Ireland's bogs will give many benefits in terms of carbon sequestration, storage and capture. At the moment there is no policy in place, no measure for the trading of carbon credits for peatlands restoration. However, this is an evolving area and the Department with the responsibility for any policy in that regard is the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications. I am aware the UK has a peatlands code in place and there have been a number of measures undertaken in other member states. It is expected that the restoration of over 22,000 ha of raised bog habitat within the special areas of conservation natural heritage area network will directly reduce and halt carbon loss, meet our national conservation targets and result in estimated emissions reductions of 47,000 tonnes of CO2 per year.
On the right to cut turf, as was stated, the National Peatlands Strategy recognises the domestic turfcutter has a traditional right to cut turf and this is respected. There has been a lot of consultation and collaboration between the Department and turfcutters on this. Bord na Móna is under the remit of the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications. On turbary rights, there are discussions ongoing between Bord na Móna and local landowners and turbary rights holders and I do not really have any further information in that regard to impart to the committee today. My colleague, Ms Shelton, may have some.
Ms Adele Shelton:
The only thing I could add to what Ms Nally has just said is that my understanding is that the fact that Bord na Móna is not, in some circumstances, reissuing licences is to do with a ruling from an Bord Pleanála which restricts it in this regard.
We repeat that Bord na Móna is under the aegis of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications.
Ms Suzanne Nally:
I will take that question as well. The draft interim update was submitted recently to the Minister. The working group is continuing its deliberations and is due to finalise a report in the coming weeks. My colleagues and I are not involved in this area of responsibility but we await the outcome of the report.
I appreciate the Chairman allowing me to intervene. Ms Nally answered the question on carbon credits and said that there is no policy or measure in place to trade carbon credits. Will the carbon credits be attributed to the agri sector?
On the rewetting of bogs, as the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association liaised with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, on rehabilitation projects previously is it correct to say that no work can be carried out on anyone's property without their consent whether it is blanket bogs or other types of land? Will the NPWS pay a premium for any part of the schemes that concern designated lands? Finally, what assurances can the witnesses give today that the rewetting projects will not affect the productivity of nearby farms?
Ms Suzanne Nally:
On the rewetting of bogs, the way that the NPWS manages its national protected raised bog restoration programme is to minimise impacts on adjoining landowners. The Deputy is correct that it is done on a voluntary basis. If any impacts are identified then we would consult the landowners. If the landowner has concerns about the potential for impacts then we would not proceed with the restoration works. All projects are done by total collaboration and mutual agreement.
The way that the restoration plans are developed at present is that the majority of the marginal and periphery drains are kept open to minimise impacts on agricultural, marginal and surrounding lands. The aim of the restoration and rewetting of the bogs is to raise the water levels in the bog to at or below the surface to encourage the growth of sphagnum moss, which is the building block of peat. If it is too wet the sphagnum moss does not grow. What we are trying to do is retain the water on the bogs to encourage peat forming habitats.
Ms Nally said in response to an earlier question on carbon credits that there is no policy and measure to trade carbon credits. Will whatever carbon credits there are be attributed to the agricultural sector?
Ms Suzanne Nally:
I do not know is my honest answer. The whole space is evolving and there is a lot of discussion on carbon credits and the peatlands code. As I said, there is no policy in place at the moment but the issue is subject to further cross-governmental and departmental discussions.
In response to the question on premiums, if there are particular impacts on land, by private landowners, the Department is in the process of introducing a financial incentive scheme called the protected raised bog restoration incentive scheme. It is an area-based payment to compensate anyone who facilitates restoration works on their lands or given access to those lands. We are still developing the terms and conditions of the scheme and hope to roll it out on a bog-by-bog basis. We have had the pilot scheme under the living bog project, which is an EU-funded life project and the Department is the co-ordinating beneficiary on 12 special areas of conservation raised bog sites in the Border, midlands and west region.
I have a few questions on the Vote. A working group has been set up to discuss the effects that the ban on peat harvesting will have on the horticultural industry. The group has only just given its interim report to the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and the recommendations are weeks away from being published. Is the Department aware that suppliers to the industry are fearful that they could go out of business by September if the harvesting and horticultural period is not allowed?
I want to put it on record that when we talk about horticultural peat use in the mushroom industry, over 80% of the mushroom industry is peat free and that only 15% of the peat base is necessary to allow mushrooms to sprout. Does the Department have concerns about alternatives to horticultural peats such as coir and so on? They will need to have fertilisers, nutrients and bio-stimulants added to them. The run-off from these additives will have an impact on water courses, rewetted bogs, potentially, and ultimately on pollution levels. This is a requirement with the ban on horticultural peat, which goes against the farm to fork strategy that we all have heard about.
Is there a case for the moss peat industry to continue to harvest peat on a case-by-case basis? I mean where binding guarantees are given that cut-over bogs post harvest will be allowed to regenerate ecologically in perpetuity and that whatever post harvest activities is allowed.
On rewetting bogs, at a meeting of this committee in March Dr. David Wilson spoke about the Abbeyleix project where no flooding was reported and said that it was a role model. I asked him about the issues surrounding the Shannon area where industrial extraction took place and when I read the transcript of the debate I realised that Dr. Wilson did not offer solutions on the flooded areas. Can the witnesses offer more certainty or solutions?
The use of boglands has changed the landscape. What level of certainty does the Department have right now about the impacts that rainfall, for example, would have on rewetted lands that have been harvested for decades and are very different from what they once were?
Finally, on the ability of the small scale turfcutters to work on private bogs with 30 ha and below, does that apply to a single landmass of 30 ha or is the landmass connected to a bog miles away due to hydrological circumstances? What impact could rewetting have on those farmers?
The three witnesses are here to discuss peatland issues and are not experts on horticultural peat. I suggest that they note the questions and get someone else to provide written answers if they do not have the answers the committee members require concerning horticultural peat.
Ms Adele Shelton:
On the industrial scale harvesting around the Shannon area, my involvement is with the enhanced decommissioning, restoration and rehabilitation scheme that is being implemented. Bord na Móna operates the scheme that encompasses approximately 33,000 ha from which it previously harvested turf for electricity generation.
As I said, it is being operated by Bord na Móna. This Department, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, is the regulator for that scheme, which is very wide in its scope. Of course, some of the bogs that will be rehabilitated as part of that enhanced peatland rehabilitation scheme, EPRS, are adjacent or close to the Shannon.
I am aware that Bord na Móna has issued a statement regarding this restoration and rehabilitation work on its land which will address concerns regarding potential risks to surrounding lands and landowners and the Department is aware that Bord na Móna is considering such risks to surrounding lands along with any other relevant risks when it is designing the individual bog rehabilitation plans. However, the assessment of such potential risks to an individual bog would be an operational matter for Bord na Móna because it feeds in to the design process for these rehabilitation bog packages. As I said, I am fully aware that the risk to surrounding landowners is something that is foremost in Bord na Móna's mind when it is developing these bog rehabilitation and restoration plans, although in saying that I am not here to speak to the operational workings of Bord na Móna.
Ms Suzanne Nally:
I might follow on from that in relation to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, restoration programme. In terms of the impacts on surrounding lands and how certain we can be of low impacts as such, for our protected raised bog restoration programme extensive hydrological analysis was carried out in advance to understand and predict the water flow off and around these bogs. We do surveys on a bog by bog basis and consult with local landowners as well and then decide whether to review the restoration plans. We might decide to not put in place a number of peat dams based on concerns of local landowners. We are trying to rewet the bog itself and not the surrounding landscape at all. To help allay concerns, we have developed drainage management plans for every one of the raised bogs special area of conservation sites and also a number of the raised bog national heritage areas, NHAs, which are designated under national legislation.
As for what the drainage management plan involves, we engaged consultants who surveyed each bog, consulted the local landowners to identify any flooding issues or historical flooding issues, analysed the drainage network, set out any impediments to the drainage channels surrounding the bog and put in place a number of recommendations to maintain the drainage going forward to ensure that there would not be any impact on the conservation objectives of the site or surrounding lands.
These plans are being finalised. We will be going back to the landowners who provided input into these plans and having further consultation on those plans as well. When we are developing our restoration plans, we are taking into account the recommendations of each drainage management plan.
We received an update or a supplementary opening statement from Mr. Lucas as an update on his previous attendance. Am I correct in saying that the Chairman has indicated that none of our guests can speak to that?
I have to say it is crazy to suggest that the Department would come in to talk about rewetting bogs and peat and not expect us to ask questions in relation to horticultural peat and not be in a position to answer questions. We are the committee dealing with agriculture. We are dealing with a sector that is potentially facing crisis. That is not good enough. I want to register my disappointment with that in the strongest possible terms.
It is not good enough to get it in writing and try to read through the information on this. We have a statement that reads, "The review ... concludes that there are significant positives and negatives arising from ending the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry.", without setting out what those positives or negatives are as they perceive them. I presume they mean, by the negatives, the 17,000 jobs that could be at risk taking the current approach but there is nothing set out in terms of the immediate crisis that we face and everything reverts back to this working group that is operating behind closed doors.
In respect of the questions that have been answered, the Department has been asked on a couple of occasions about the carbon credits and who benefits from the sequestration. Obviously, that is the benefit we as a country get out of this if it is done correctly. Are our three guests all saying that they have no idea whether it is individual landowners, farmers or the wider sector that will benefit from this substantial work that we are asking communities to engage in?
Ms Adele Shelton:
Maybe I can come in there to apologise to the Deputy. Mr. Brian Lucas retired last week. Unfortunately, he is not available to attend this meeting today.
As the Deputy will be aware, it is such a broad remit. Peatlands and the work of peatlands encompasses so many different aspects at present and that is why all three of us are here. We all work in the peatlands area. It is such an incredibly broad brief.
Unfortunately, none of the three of us works in the horticultural body of work and our apologies for that. I am sure, if an invite was sent at a later date, somebody would be available to speak to the Deputy in more detail on the horticultural questions that have been raised here today.
Unfortunately, with the Deputy's question about the carbon credits, to repeat what Ms Nally has said as I understand her line was bad for the Deputy, it would be a matter for the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications to develop a national policy surrounding carbon credits. It is an evolving situation. I field many questions from turf-cutters on that issue but, unfortunately, it is not up to this Department to develop that policy. We will, of course, if requested, feed into it but it would not be something that this Department would be taking a lead on.
I wish Mr. Lucas well in retirement. I am not sure whether his retirement came as a shock to the Department. Either way, it would have been appropriate if somebody was able to discuss the important issue.
I may have picked the following up wrong from Ms Nally. I refer to adjoining landowners where bogs are being rewetted. Was the inference from the consultation process Ms Nally outlined that if those adjoining landowners are not satisfied with the assurances they have got the rewetting process will not take place?
On that point, in terms of the opening statement and the goals that have been set on unforeseen consequences, the big question is, how confident can the Department be that as it blocks drains the results will be as expected. We are all aware of the situation around Lough Funshinagh. Thankfully, it appears that the Office of Public Works, OPW, has reversed course and will now facilitate the installation of an overflow pipe but we see the very significant consequences if these things are not got right. In the opening statement, I found the language was interesting. It states, "the impact of the restoration measures to surrounding lands is kept to a minimum." That is very different from saying that the impact will be minimal. What does Ms Nally consider to be the acceptable impact on adjoining lands, and going back to that question, is that spelled out for adjoining landowners and what engagement takes place between them?
If this process develops correctly it can be a huge amenity, not only in terms of carbon sequestration but also biodiversity and all of the rest. This should be a positive process, but it is important that communities are part of the process in order to make sure it is a success.
Ms Suzanne Nally:
On the point on horticulture peat, we were specifically invited here today to talk about the subject of rewetting and not horticultural peat. The working group does not operate behind closed doors. There are a large number of stakeholders in the working group from a number of different organisations and bodies.
On the Deputy's question on the impact on surrounding lands and consultation with landowners, in the majority of cases we do not suggest or draft a proposal to block a marginal drain. We will 100% consult with adjoining landowners. If they are agreeable to the rewetting or blocking of a marginal drain we will purchase the land, enter into a land management agreement or provide financial incentives in that regard. The NPWS has over 30 years experience in restoring raised bogs and has encountered no significant issues in that time that would raise concerns in terms of the impacts on adjoining landowners.
We are confident that the restoration plans are robust and well surveyed and investigated. A lot of preparatory work was put into them. There is ongoing monitoring of water levels. We put in place physiometers in advance to measure water levels before, during and after restoration works. We also have regular on-site monitoring. I hope that answers the Deputy's question.
I thank the witnesses. I appreciate they are here to talk about the issue of rewetting. I take on board that the NPWS has 30 years of experience in this area. As someone who grew up looking out at a bog I am conscious that they were thousands of years in formation and there is a lot more there than 30 years. There are a lot of imponderable facts when one is looking at rewetting.
I take on board what the witnesses said about consultation with farmers and that there is an opportunity for farmers to have their land bought out if they do not want to go down other roads. Farmers may not want a project to go ahead at all. Climate is changing. We have seen how we have struggled to cope with flooding. Over the past ten years we have seen multiple examples of that right across the country. I have some questions on the nub of the issue.
If the NPWS comes to my farm gate to take me through a consultation process and I am somewhat sceptical and ask a representative to show me how the process will evolve, can I see a time-lapse video of what will happen over the next ten, 40 or 60 years and how it will impact my farm or the likely impact it will have? Is there any provision in such a time-lapse video for freak weather patterns? We have had a number of exceptionally wet winters. If they happened again, is that factored into how the process will evolve over ten, 20 or 40 years?
My final question relates to the ESB. How involved is it in this process, in particular where there has been large-scale peat production in midland areas which is now coming to an end? We all appreciate the merits of rewetting boglands. The ESB has responsibility for the control of water levels on the River Shannon. As much as rewetting the boglands will have an impact, the biggest impact on water levels on bogs is what happens on the River Shannon and how it is controlled.
In terms of the plans the NPWS has for the midlands, specifically Longford-Westmeath, how engaged is the ESB with that process? If we asked the ESB to open sluice gates it simply would not happen. Is the ESB in agreement with the plans of the NPWS? Is it on the end of the phone? If something is not working will it open the gates?
Ms Suzanne Nally:
On the Deputy's question on time-lapse videos, I could bring a farmer to a million examples of raised bogs that have been recently restored or which were restored ten or 15 years ago to show him or her the effects of restoration on surrounding lands. In terms of a time-lapse, we would have historical hydrological data that we can use in our restoration programme which sets out the varying water levels and takes into account climate changes during that period.
After one to two years we would expect that the bog would become more of a wetland area. After five years we would see additional vegetation and sphagnum moss growth and some peat forming conditions. To see it return to its natural state as a bog will take 30 or more years.
In terms of consultation with the ESB, the focus of the NPWS is on protected raised bogs, special areas of conservation and natural heritage areas, NHAs. None of the sites we are rewetting was part of large-scale peat extraction. We have some areas of former industrial excavated peat for which we are putting in place enhanced restoration measures. The ESB would not be part of the consultation with the NPWS on the restoration programme at this point in time. It may be involved in the Bord na Móna programme.
Ms Adele Shelton:
I will jump in on the Bord na Móna restoration plans. It has engaged widely with stakeholders regarding its rehabilitation plans, and that feeds into the final plans it has drawn up. I am not aware of any particular consultation that may have taken place between Bord na Móna and the ESB, but if the Deputy wishes I can consult with Bord na Móna and come back to him with an answer.
I welcome the witnesses and thank them for coming before us to share their expertise. I congratulate them on the significant work they are doing. In the past year funding for this kind of work has been significantly ramped up and we will see some very positive outcomes from that. I have no doubt the witnesses are at the centre of that. I would like to take this opportunity to extend my best wishes to Mr. Brian Lucas who was a mainstay of that section of the Department for a long time and wish him well in his retirement.
I am glad Ms Nally clarified the situation regarding the appearance of the NPWS here today. We are not here to discuss horticultural peat. We are here to discuss the rewetting of bogs and I am glad we have been brought back on track. I agree with Deputy Carthy who made a good point on the potential for the widescale restoration of biodiversity and that community involvement is critical to that. I have no doubt that the NPWS have significant plans in that regard.
In the opening statement the wild Atlantic nature LIFE project on the western seaboard was mentioned. Perhaps the witnesses could say a little bit more about that and what the experience so far has been. I ask the witnesses to say a little bit more about the relocation of turf cutters from protected to non-protected raised bogs. I also note that the EU in its biodiversity strategy has a target of restoring 30% of degraded carbon-rich ecosystems. Could the witnesses tell us more about the opportunities for Ireland in the further restoration of bogs, in particular in upland areas?
I also wish to ask about the flooding prevention potential of rewetting bogs, which is starting to attract significant attention. There are questions about the suitability of the Arterial Drainage Act. I am interested to hear the witnesses' thoughts on that and where we need to go with respect to that Act. It comes under the OPW, which is part of another Department, but this issue is cross-cutting. The witnesses might have some insights on that.
Ms Suzanne Nally:
The Deputy made an interesting point on community-led restoration. The national raised bogs special areas of conservation management plan sets out that eventually that is the way we want to go with raised bog restoration. We have seen some excellent results such as in Abbeyleix in County Laois with community-based restoration. We would support community groups in undertaking restoration measures under the peatlands community engagement scheme this year, to which the Minister awarded grants of more than €230,000 to 25 projects. One of those projects involved a restoration measures, which was a community-led restoration initiative. We definitively would like to see more of that.
The wild Atlantic nature LIFE project is funded by the EU with a budget of more than €20 million and will run for a period of nine years The National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department is a co-ordinating beneficiary. It involves blanket bog sites of more than 24 special areas of conservation in northern and western regions in Donegal, Sligo, Galway and Mayo. The aim of the project is to reactivate more than 5,000 ha of blanket bog and to raise awareness nationally about blanket bog conservation and the Natura 2000 network. It aims to work with farmers and local communities across a wide range of services provided from the blanket bogs. The project aims to adopt a results based approach building on successes of other locally adapted programmes such as pearl mussel European innovation partnership, EIP, project, rewarding landowners for the quality of the habitat produced. Landowners can undertake voluntary measures such as drain blocking with the aim of improving habitat quality. A pilot results based project will be launched in June this year and extended to other special areas of conservation outside the Owenduff-Nephin complex next year.
Ms Adele Shelton:
Under the cessation of the turf cutting scheme, turf cutters can opt for either relocation to a non-designated bog or a financial package of €22,500. The vast majority of turf cutters who qualify for this scheme opt for the financial package but approximately 10% have opted for relocation, where feasible. To date, the Department has relocated 106 turf cutters from 12 designated raised bogs sites to non-designated relocation sites. Work on a number of other potential relocation sites is moving through the process. Some of those may require planning permission. To date, the Department has received planning permission for two relocation sites in County Galway and these sites have been fully developed and are now operational. Similarly, the Department has made two section 5 declarations to the planning authorities in counties Roscommon and Westmeath. In both instances it was deemed by the planning authorities that these sites were exempted development and they, too, are fully operational.
In some cases we have not been able to find a suitable relocation site near where the turf cutters were previously cutting turf, even though we have undertaken exhaustive investigative works across all of the midlands. To date, where suitable relocation sites have not been identified, the Department has offered those turf cutters the opportunity to take a lump sum payment of the balance of their €22,500 with a view to them potentially purchasing an individual plot. In some instances it can be difficult to acquire the land or get planning permission. That is what prevents some of these potential relocation sites from being progressed from the Department’s point of view.
I also asked a question on the Arterial Drainage Act. I am conscious it might not be an area of expertise for these witnesses. Perhaps they may have something to say on it but, if not, would they respond, in writing, at a later date?
Ms Suzanne Nally:
We work with the OPW on our restoration plan where it encompasses the OPW's drainage network within its remit in terms of ongoing maintenance to ensure the conservation objective of the sites is still met. Other than that, what further remit or role the OPW may have is open for further consideration. We can provide a written reply if required.
The first issue I wish to raise is turbary rights, which is a major one in my constituency of Laois-Offaly. Families depend on turf for fuel. Approximately 40% of the houses in County Offaly alone depend on turf as their own source of solid fuel and heating. One of the speakers made the point that it is important that turf cutters are respected. I would go further. Turf cutters have been subjected to a creeping criminalisation, It has been unfair, unwarranted and very upsetting for many families with which I have dealt. I have dealt with turf cutters. I want to state that clearly in bringing their concerns to the table.
It is not enough to respect them. Turf cutters and the tradition of turf cutting must be protected. It is an activity which is part of our heritage. Heritage is part of the Department's remit. A proposal I want considered is for turf cutting to be made a heritage activity and protected under EU or international law. There are examples of that in the EU, to which we have already alluded. We are very quick to allude to the EU when it comes to climate change. Let us consider the EU's practices in protecting activities which are part of heritage. That needs to be done. I have put forward that proposal because heritage is part of the Department's remit. I emphasise it is not enough to respect turf cutters, we must protect them, as they have been subjected to much unfair, creeping criminalisation. Many households in my constituency depend on turf. Generations of families look forward to cutting turf, as they have always done. Let us not criminalise people and let us ensure they get more than just respect or tokenism. We need to ensure that turf cutting is protected.
I support the points made by Deputies Daly and Harkin on the carbon sequestration of bogs. I hope our bogs will not be treated like our fisheries, which were sold out. My colleague, Deputy Michael Collins, feels strongly about this issue. We need to ensure our bogs are not sold out and that Irish agriculture is not dealt a raw deal. Carbon sequestration credits should be given to Irish agriculture. That must be done. I make that point strongly in support of the speakers who raised the issue.
There has been some consultation on the rewetting of bogs. I have attended meetings with representatives of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association and the Irish Farmers Association. More needs to be done. There has been some degree of consultation on the rewetting of bogs but not enough. Bord na Móna has assured landowners in this respect but its assurances are not written agreements. I have said to Bord na Móna previously that it needs to provide written agreements that the rewetting of bogs will not affect landowners. I cannot understand why Bord na Móna should be paid money for bog rehabilitation before it provides such written assurances. That does not make sense. The rehabilitation of bogs should be tied into written agreements and the money allocated for it should be subject to the provision of written agreements.
This is how it should fare. I want to get the witnesses' views on the issues I have raised. I also have a direct question: do the witnesses feel that turf cutting should be made a heritage activity? The Department covers heritage issues and perhaps the witnesses will give their response on that.
Ms Suzanne Nally:
Turf cutting is part of our cultural identity. This is recognised in the national peatlands strategy and in the programme for Government. There are no plans to cease cutting turf for domestic use where it does not interfere with the legal obligations or conservational objectives of the State. There is a compensation scheme available for those who were cutting within raised bogs, in special areas of conservation and in natural heritage areas. My colleagues, Ms Carroll or Ms Shelton, may be able to speak further on that.
Turf cutting is a strong part of our industrial heritage. On the question of it being made a heritage practice under EU law as a protected activity is an interesting concept and needs further consideration.
Ms Adele Shelton:
On the issue of Bord na Móna and the consultation process, as I said earlier and as the Deputy is aware, Bord na Móna has consulted widely on its plans. The rehabilitation plans come into the Department and we as the regulator then assess the plans on what we perceive to be their efficiency and cost benefits, to see whether they will meet the aims we are setting out to achieve in restoration and rehabilitation. Similarly, with regard to the plans drawn up by the Department for the designated raised bogs, Bord na Móna will not block any boundary drains. I do not want to presume to talk for Bord na Móna at this meeting, so unfortunately I am not able to say any more about that. If Bord na Móna wanted to take the consultation process further, that will be a decision for it to make with the stakeholders.
Ms Audrey Carroll:
The cessation of turf cutting compensation scheme was established in 2011 for domestic turf cutters, arising from the cessation of turf cutting in special areas of conservation, and was extended to include natural heritage areas. The scheme is designed to compensate turf cutters for the loss of household fuel. The Department is currently paying 2,600 applicants annually under the scheme and has committed significant funds to this effort. The scheme overall pays a €15,000 annual payment, index linked, to these turf cutters, and has spent some €47 million to date. Over the lifetime of the scheme it is expected to cost €80 million. Annually, this year the Department has spent more than €1.8 million paying out the turf cutters who are in this year's payment round.
The Department has made significant efforts to resolve the turf cutting issue on designated raised bogs. This includes the establishment of the Peatlands Council, and intensive, ongoing engagement with turf cutters on these issues, including with farming communities and non-governmental organisations, in support of the scheme.
Could I make a quick point of clarification? It was mentioned that the issue of horticultural peat was outside of the scope of today's meeting. The title of the meeting clearly includes the management of peatlands. The documentation circulated to members for this meeting included an update to the opening statements supplied by Mr. Brian Lucas that deals solely with the issue of horticultural peat. It was entirely in order for members to ask questions relating to that and to expect an answer if it was forthcoming. I just wanted to have this on the record.
We will further deal with that in summing up. I thank the witnesses. We wish Mr. Lucas well in his retirement. When Mr. Lucas was in before the committee he was paid compliments by a number of committee members, which is rare enough for a civil servant. Mr. Lucas has a long and proud record. We wish him well in his retirement.
The vast majority of people would agree that rewetting of bogs can have great environmental benefits. For the adjoining farmers, however, the Department has said that it wants to proceed with agreement. But the downside, disadvantages or problems for a farmer might not appear for 12 months, two years or three years. The effects on a water table, for example, most definitely would not be seen overnight. Can a protocol be put in place whereby if a farmer has issues appearing in any period of time after the rewetting of the bogs, those issues would be addressed? That would go a long way to addressing the fears farmers have about the rewetting. One could agree to it now, and everything would be grand at the moment, but somewhere down the road the rewetting could have a seriously negative impact on the productivity of neighbouring land. It would be greatly appreciated if a protocol could be put in place with a mechanism to deal with any ongoing issues, with a guarantee to the landowners that they would be dealt with to his or her satisfaction.
On the issue of horticultural peat, the committee had a meeting some months ago when Mr. Lucas gave a presentation. We were told that the working group would report in early to mid-April on the harvesting of horticultural peat. We are now in the last week of May and we still have not had the report. I would like it to go back to the Department that the committee is seeking an immediate update on that. I am getting calls constantly from people who have private bogs and who want to cut horticultural peat. The year is slipping by very quickly. As Senator Paul Daly has said, it is environmental and economic madness to be doing what is happening at the moment. Earlier in the year, this committee got a commitment that we would have an interim report on that aspect. My firm recollection is that we were told it would be with us by early to mid-April. I would like a written update to our members as quickly as possible. This is a huge issue, on which we were given commitments that have not been adhered to. I will speak to the committee secretariat when this meeting is finished and we will put a letter to the Minister to that effect. I want the witnesses to relay back to the Department that we need a written submission to us as soon as possible. I will also ask the Minister. We need that report. It is at least six weeks late at this stage.
I thank the witnesses for their answers today. They will understand the frustration of the committee with regard to horticultural peat. It is a huge issue out there in our constituencies. The witnesses were not in a position to fully brief us on it and while I do not hold the witnesses responsible it was frustrating for the committee.
We will suspend for a minute or two while we move to our next session.