The European Commission is asking Ireland to take urgent action to improve the implementation of legislation that protects peat bog habitats. The Commission is concerned that peat extraction is ongoing in numerous protected Natura 2000 sites, despite letters sent out by the Irish authorities.
Scientists have warned that up to 35% of certain priority habitats have been destroyed since the legislation was adopted, and that the annual rate of loss is between 1-4%. In addition, the Commission also has concerns over some 170 other protected bogs.
Ireland was sent a letter of formal notice about this matter in January 2011. Although recent progress appears to have been made in relation to 32 sites, this needs to be reflected by changes on the ground.
On the recommendation of Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik, the Commission has decided to send a reasoned opinion. The Commission’s assessment of the progress on the ground will be crucial in determining the next steps in this procedure.
The case concerns systemic breaches of the Habitats Directive (92/43/EC) and the EIA Directive (85/337/EEC) related to peat extraction on protected bogs. While Ireland is clearly acting on the problem – the Minister for the Environment announced an immediate ban on turf cutting in 32 active raised bogs in 2010, and an end to turf cutting in 24 additional active raised bogs by the end of 2011 – the Commission has serious concerns about the effectiveness of the response.
As well as being an endangered form of biodiversity, peat bogs are critical carbon stores and they provide important ecosystem services such as flood prevention. Under the Habitats Directive, Ireland had to submit peatlands for protection in Natura 2000 from 1998. Two types of peat bog – active raised bogs and active blanket bogs, are particularly at risk in Ireland. Developments are permitted in Natura 2000, Europe’s network of protected natural areas, only if they will not adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned, or if there is an overriding public interest and compensatory measures are taken.
European legislation also requires Ireland to make environmentally sensitive peat extraction projects subject to the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive, to evaluate possible impacts on the environment before they begin. This enables planners to minimise negative impacts before they actually happen.