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27 August 2009 Edition

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Turf cutters tell EU to sod off

TURF: EU Habitats Directive makes no sense when it comes down to someone who just wants to cut for domestic fuel for their own home

TURF: EU Habitats Directive makes no sense when it comes down to someone who just wants to cut for domestic fuel for their own home

TURF CUTTING was always part of Ireland’s indigenous way of life. It was like thatching or hurling, part of the ethos of people who, over generations, perfected the art of self-sufficiency. ELLA O’DWYER looks at the here and now of working on the bog, the people on the cutting edge in the field, and the EU bureaucracy threatening to finish the practice for good.

WHEN I was asked to write about turf cutting I thought: ‘Simple. Sure, we had a turf bank at home. I’ve been there, done that and worn the mucky T-shirt afterwards.’  I was wrong. It might have been simple back then but not so now.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, terms like ‘Sacs’, ‘NHAs’ and ‘Turbary Rights’ weren’t in the turf cutters’ vocabulary – they’d have thought you were campaigning to save the whale or launching a new religion. Back then it was dirt simple.
Practically every farmer had their own turf bank. Turf was dug from the bogs, dried and used as a fuel for domestic use. The turf was cut manually, that is by using a sleán (slane), a turf spade with an iron head and a long wooden shaft.
There was a systematic rhythm to the whole procedure where the sods would be thrown up from the bank to the person catching the cold, wet turf. The sods would then be placed in neat piles on a small cart which would be drawn out further afield by a donkey – a light enough animal to be able to travel over the soft ground. From there the sods were piled strategically into heaps to allow the sun to penetrate the piles and dry out the wet turf.
A few days later, the turf cutters would come back and turn the sods to let the other side dry out before, finally, the loot would be brought home to the farmyard shed. It was all quite straightforward.
The 1970s saw the arrival of a tractor-driven, peat-cutting machine which could cut more turf in an hour than the man with the slane could do in a week.
Families who had a turf bank could hire a contractor to cut the turf or they could sell a ‘spread’ from the bank to anyone who hadn’t a bank of their own. By then, times were changing in Ireland. Enter the Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), the Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs), the Turbary Rights – the right to cut and carry away turf from the bogland and, of course, the EU Habitats Directive.
Under the authority of the EU directive, turf cutting was to have been terminated in certain regions of the country for conservation purposes ten years ago but the ruling was suspended – until now.
One conservationist argument is that the turf was being eroded and that turf cutting released carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, thereby damaging the environment. Now the directive is to go ahead – a development that makes little or no sense in the case of people like Tom Ward who simply wants to cut turf for his own use.
The small amount of turf that the likes of Tom cuts would replace itself in time and CO2 emissions would be very small.
“I’m all in favour of conservation,” says Tom, “but reasonable conservation. The EU Habitats Directive makes no sense when it comes down to someone like me who just wants to cut turf for domestic fuel for my own use at home, not for sale.
“Turf is a far more healthy fuel option than oil and far more affordable. As for the environment, the amount of impact I’ll make by cutting turf for my home is minimal.”

Turf cutting is not just a source of pride but is a viable, cost-effective source of home heating and energy

– Sinn Féin Councillor Paul Hogan

That’s a view shared by Athlone Sinn Féin Councillor Paul Hogan, who made a submission to the Government last month regarding the EU Habitats Directive to ban turf cutting in Longford and Westmeath.
“The amount of turf cut for domestic use is minuscule in comparison to the large-scale commercial operations of some companies in our bogs,” Paul confirms.
“The Turf Cutters and Contractors’ Association (TCCA), representing those who cut turf and contractors hired to do the work, compiled their own report on six Special Areas of Conservation. They estimate that 0.21% of raised bog in those six designated areas were lost due to turf cutting. These findings of the TCCA are significant in that, under the EU Habitats Directive, a habitat can retain a ‘Favourable Conservation Status’ provided its loss of extent is 1% or less.
“Then you have to look at the amount of bog that is currently under the auspices of the Government through various state agencies like Bord na Móna that cut about 90% of the country’s turf. There’s no comparison between the impact Bord na Móna made on the environment and the minute impact that someone cutting for domestic purposes will make.
“The fact is that many people, not just from rural backgrounds but also urban backgrounds, see turf as a source of domestic fuel.”
Hogan points out that turf cutting in Ireland is a tradition.
“It’s a tradition that invokes real pride and love connected with the bog: its habitat, its environment and the annual harvest. It’s a trait that has been passed from generation to generation and continues to be a source of recreational enjoyment for many people, young and old, the length and breadth of this island.”
The recreational aspect usually peaked when the ‘catcher’ lost concentration and got turfed in the face with the mushy black sod!
Turf cutting was one of many practices that helped Irish people survive in hard times and in the current economic climate it can help Irish families today.
“Turf cutting,” as Hogan reminds us, “is not just a source of pride but is a viable, cost-effective source of home heating and energy. With the envisaged increase in price for oil, gas and electricity over the coming years, it is essential for families to continue to harvest turf for domestic fuel.”
The EU directive on turf cutting is another reminder of the need to rein in some of the European Union’s authority on Ireland and of the need to secure a better deal in the Lisbon Treaty.
“There are comparisons between the EU directive on turf cutting and the EU directive to ban eel fishing outright,” Paul Hogan says.
“Many fishermen have seen their livelihoods destroyed by a blanket ban across Europe. The fishing industry as a whole is virtually in Europe’s control.”
Like Tom Ward, I’m all for conservation and the labour-saving developments that retired the donkey in favour of the tractor. I’m also all for Ireland in Europe – it’s where we belong. But, like the absent-minded catcher who misses the throw and gets slapped in the face with the sodding turf, Ireland and Europe ‘could do better’.

BETTER DEAL: This directive on turf cutting shows the need to rein in some of the EU’s authority on Ireland 


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