Government failing to prevent illegal turf cutting 12 years after ban, says conservation group

Figures show peat extraction on the rise despite compensation scheme, with raised bogs in special areas of conservation facing destruction

Illegal extraction of peat is continuing from raised bogs in Ireland located in special areas of conservation (SACs) in spite of a ban introduced in 2011, according to figures released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Based on activity in 2021 and 2022, the problem is getting worse because of the Government’s continuing failure to intervene, according to Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT) campaign officer Pádraic Fogarty.

People who were compensated after restrictions were introduced continue to extract peat and turf with immunity, he said.

Ireland’s raised bogs are among Europe’s oldest near-natural ecosystems, dating back more than 10,000 years. Protected under the EU Habitats Directive, they are home to many rare and endangered flora and fauna, and are Ireland’s greatest carbon stores.


Concentrated on the midlands and west of Ireland, they are unique, and Ireland has a disproportionately large number of them, Mr Fogarty said.

The figures, which were only released to the IWT by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, on appeal to the Information Commissioner, show 330 plots were cut in 2022, with 290 plots cuts in 2021. Sites are monitored for activity by the National Parks & Wildlife Service.

Most activity was recorded at Monivea bog in Co Galway (with 49 plots cut in 2022, and 51 in 2021); Barroughter, Co Galway (42 and 36); Mouds, Co Kildare (41 and 38); and Callow, Co Roscommon (31 and 22). The department said the figures were provisional and estimated following an annual survey.

“We should not have any turf cutting in SACs. The figures should be zero,” Mr Fogarty said.

The Government had gone through a process of compensating land owners and turbary right holders who were accommodated elsewhere, “but a small group are carrying on regardless... There’s a sense of immunity because the Government is not enforcing the rules,” he added.

The EU Life programme was trying to support restoration of raised bogs, “while down the road they are digging them out with excavators. It just seems perverse,” Mr Fogarty said.

Addressing the Oireachtas Committee on Environment and Climate Action, Minister for Environment and Climate Eamon Ryan last month voiced concern at the extent of peat exports annually – an estimated 500,000 tonnes per year – without planning permission. Analysis from data journalism website revealed there were more than 500,000 tonnes exported during 2021.

Mr Ryan said: “One of the more immediate issues is that there is still some half a million tonnes of peat being exported annually, with no planning permission, with no regulation, with no oversight, and if we were looking at ways of storing [carbon] and reducing environmental damage that’s being done at scale, that might be one of the areas we should focus on first.”

Mr Fogarty said the Government must enforce the law, “but they don’t want to go there; it’s a political hot potato”.

He said the curlew, which is at risk of becoming extinct in Ireland, and red grouse historically would have nested on the bogs but this was no longer happening.

Raised bogs were difficult and costly to restore and in some instances it was not possible to repair the damage as extraction changes their hydromorphology, drying out the bog and leading to continual shrinking of its area.

The IWT had been sending whatever data it could get to the European Commission, but the EU authorities have been slow to act. The commission has been pursuing enforcement proceedings on the issue for more than a decade. It stepped up the pace of its action because of the State’s failure to halt the cutting of peat within SACs in September 2022.

Mr Fogarty said ultimately the IWT was relying on the commission to bring a halt to the illegal activity, but even if Ireland was eventually fined, “it’s not going to bring the bogs back”.

“We would prefer the State to see the value of the bogs and move to protect them,” he said.

He warned the full impact of extraction was unclear. A survey of raised bogs had found less than 1 per cent of them were intact. But that data was old and there was no accurate picture of destruction since the extraction ban on SACs was introduced.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times