SAC in Roscommon.

Wednesday, 11 February 1998

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 154 No. 3

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Mr. Connor: Information on John Connor Zoom on John Connor I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for allowing me to raise this issue with which you are personally conversant. I am raising this matter in the hope of convincing the Minister to make concessions to a relatively small number of people who have been adversely affected by the EU habitats directive or, more precisely, by the designation of certain raised bog sites as special areas of conservation. These people cut peat or turf on such sites for their domestic requirements, but they have been informed by the Department that they can no longer use the sites for turf cutting.

This is a totally unacceptable situation because it is about more than just domestic fuel supplies. The issue goes to the heart of a timeless tradition in rural areas and is part of a way of life. This directive will not be accepted in a large number of cases.

The issue of compensation is only half the story. Like the fishing rod licence issue of ten years ago, the majority of those involved see one of their most cherished rights being taken away. They will resist and an ugly confrontation may arise. I predict that the Minister and her Department would not be the winners in that kind of situation.

I plead with the Minister to compromise. I humbly suggest that such a compromise could be approached by lifting the ban on cutting turf on raised bogs in 1998. It is an absolute principle of negotiation that no side in a dispute should take hostages as a negotiating weapon. The ban on turf cutting this season — which is due to begin in a matter of weeks and when there is no chance of any settlement on compensation or the other issues — amounts to taking hostages.

If the Minister wants these negotiations to go anywhere, she should remove this major irritant and lift the ban. Granted, a number of people will accept compensation and will desist from turf cutting. In a small number of cases people will transfer or relocate to other non SAC sites, but the biggest problem is that few alternative sites are available. It is impractical also in many other cases. The remaining cohort of people will not accept compensation and will continue to exercise what they see as their right — and it is their right — to cut and save turf on sites they legally own or have occupied legally for over a century.

It is not often appreciated that the total area of all such sites is relatively small. Most of the plots that are owned or are under long-term occupation or tenancy are of no more than one or two acres. Very few are one hectare (two and a half acres) sites or over. The Department has identified [253] 11,523 hectares of raised bog as SAC sites in the western counties, in addition to some inland countries such as Cavan, Tipperary and Kildare. The vast majority of these bogs belong to the Department of Agriculture and Food. In my own county of Roscommon, as the Cathaoirleach knows, some 2,634 hectares are designated as SAC sites. Without having accurate statistics, I would hazard a guess that well over 90 per cent of these sites belong to the State, so there is no problem.

Why not leave the people who wish to cut their turf, and who have legal ownership and occupation rights, to do so? Most of the sites are small and their sum total is a minimum percentage of the national total. Why not leave them their right to continue cutting turf and confine them to the area of the sites they own?

Properly handled, a plot of one acre of raised bog can provide an adequate fuel supply to a household for a period of 65 to 80 years. I know from personal experience that is a fact. The development of modern machinery for cutting turf now means that machine cutting is more environmentally friendly than the old hand-cutting method.

The Minister can solve this problem by compromise and she should think along the lines I have suggested. In the Dáil yesterday, the Minister said she was faced with a fait accompli when she assumed office, but that is not quite so. Last March these sites were given legal protection, but the 207 SAC sites have still not been submitted to the EU for approved designation. I have discussed the matter with sources close the European Commission in Brussels and it would appear they have no objection to the Minister's submitting the 207 sites, while letting them know that certain adjustments are required.

These adjustments are, I suggest, at the edges. The Minister will be able to buy out many of the plot owners on the SAC bogs and will relocate some others, but the remaining cohort will not leave. They see turf cutting as an absolute right and they will resist in the same way as the rod licence issue was fought, thus creating conflict in rural areas that none of us wants.

I frankly believe the European Commission will accept my suggested way forward because the amount of acreage the Minister will lose, when people decide to hold on to what they own or legally occupy, will be relatively small. The Minister should look at the matter in that light and seek compromise. She should lift the ban on turf cutting this year as a start. Please God, by this time next year the issue will have been settled to everyone's benefit.

Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands (Miss de Valera): Information on Síle de Valera Zoom on Síle de Valera I thank the Senator for raising this matter on the Adjournment. I also thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for allowing this debate. I understand it is an emotive and sensitive [254] issue and debates such as this can help to clarify the situation.

The EU habitats directive requires member states to designate their most important natural areas as special areas of conservation — SAC — and to protect them from anything that would damage their ecology. The directive identifies all active bogs as priorities, which basically means that they must be given the highest level of protection. Raised bogs, which are found, for example, in the general Castlerea area of County Roscommon, are particularly important in this context.

We have proposed only about 8,000 hectares from an original figure of over 300,000 hectares for SAC status. Blanket or mountain bogs are also identified as priorities in the directive but, given that about 200,000 hectares are being proposed for SAC status, this kind of bog is clearly less rare.

The directive specifies the scientific selection criteria by which these areas must be selected and provides that selection must be on scientific grounds only for priority habitats such as raised bog. Social and economic factors cannot be used as justification for not protecting these areas. A site can only be removed from the proposed designated area if it can be shown that the area does not, in fact, meet the directive's selection criteria.

It is, of course, possible that areas have been proposed for SAC status in error. Indeed, in an exercise of this size, it is virtually certain that anomalies will arise. Consequently, mechanisms are in place to deal with this. Those who feel that an area proposed as an SAC does not, in fact, merit this status, can appeal against the inclusion. In the first instance, they would be best advised to make direct contact with the local officers of Dúchas, my Department's heritage service, and make their reservations known. These local officials will look at the case and in the vast majority of cases the matter can be resolved at this level. Where resolution is not possible, all those affected have the right to make a formal appeal which will be considered by an independent committee with equal representation from landowners and users and other interests and with an independent chairperson. I expect this committee to begin its work in the near future.

It has been suggested by some of those representing turf cutters that the restriction on cutting on raised bogs be deferred for another year. While it is difficult to be precise, it is estimated that perhaps 40 acres of intact raised bog is lost effectively forever for each year during which cutting continues. It is difficult to see how the obligations to protect these areas can be reconciled with the kind of deferral suggested, under which the physical removal of part of what we are obliged to protect would continue.

My Department has had a number of meetings with those involved in turf cutting at which it was indicated that the compensation package for those who have been actively cutting in recent [255] times and who are required to stop will include the following elements. My Department will offer to buy the land from those affected. We would envisage a price of £1,000 per acre which has been rejected by the farming organisations and others as being inadequate. However, the price offered is based on long experience by my Department in buying similar land at anything from £450 to £800 per acre and, in that context, the price offered generously relates to prevailing market prices. For those who are not prepared to sell, it is hoped that in many areas we will be able to offer relocation to another bog. Those who have to move some distance from their existing bog plot to the new alternative site will be offered a once-off payment of £100 per mile, up to a maximum of [256] £500. Where agreement is not reached, independent arbitration is available.

I know it is difficult for people to accept the kind of changes that are necessary to protect disappearing habitats, but without change we will not be able to pass on the natural environment to our successors in anything like the state we received it. The last thing that I or my Department want is to be seen as imposing something that people do not want. I emphasise that the concerns of the people affected will be taken seriously and addressed to the maximum extent possible.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 12 February 1998.

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