Page last updated at 13:41 GMT, Thursday, 9 June 2011 14:41 UK

Turf-cutters battle over Irish peat bog ban

Digging for peat in Ireland, 1936
Turf-digging is an age-old tradition in Ireland

By Tracey Logan
Ireland

Ireland risks being fined by the European Commission over a bitter battle for the traditional right of rural families to dig peat to burn as fuel at home.

It took two Irishmen to pull me out of Woodfield Bog in County Galway.

Tugging on my right arm was Luke 'Ming' Flanagan, a newly elected independent member of the Irish Parliament, or Dail.

Pulling on my left was the press officer of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association (TCCA), an organisation turned militant by an EU ban limiting rights to harvest peat for Irish home fires.

Luke 'Ming' Flanagan
Like his great-uncle, Ming Flanagan is defending turf cutting for fuel

It is easy to get stuck in the mire when covering turf wars.

Like many rural families, Luke 'Ming' Flanagan's have turf-cutting - or turbary - rights on a bog that is among Europe's most threatened habitats.

Bogs may seem like vast beige wastelands with just the occasional rock for interest, but up close they are a squelching forest at your feet.

Home to all manner of tiny plant life, they support crawling, hopping and flying creatures of all kinds, making them a priority for conservation.

As a source of fuel for free, bog peat is black gold to rural communities.

But the environmental cost of extracting it is huge.

'Powerful' force

A brick-shaped sod of turf burns well for an hour, but it will take the bog 100 years to replace it.

Yet in these recessionary times, with fuel prices rising, the turf-cutting ban has sent chills across rural Ireland.

In January, 4,000 turf-cutters gathered to protest against the enforcement of the bog ban.

Turf cutters protesting the EU ban
Thousands of turf-cutters have protested over their right to harvest peat

Meeting just weeks before the general election, they were a powerful political force which swept the then mayor of the town of Roscommon, Luke 'Ming' Flanagan, into the Dail.

Best known for his campaign to legalise cannabis, Mr Flanagan is now the turf-cutters' most potent advocate, inspired by an ancestor a century ago - the Republican priest Father Michael O'Flanagan.

Then, with Ireland still under British rule, officials tried to give preferential turf-cutting rights to Irishmen serving in the British army.

Father O'Flanagan stepped down from his pulpit and onto the bog with a turf spade, successfully asserting an Irishman's right to cut the turf.

A century later, his great nephew Ming now seeks to achieve something similar - but this time the opponent is EU officialdom.

Mr Flanagan cites bureaucratic heavy-handedness, lack of consultation with turf-cutters and bad science.

Whatever scientists say - or the law - Mr Flanagan is cutting turf this year.

"Humans are part of the environment, too," he says.

Others are doing the same, as officials stand by, avoiding confrontation.

Environmental damage

Turf-cutters protest their demands are reasonable, but the use of machines has increased their impact on the bog.

Where once teams of men cut peat with hand tools or "slanes", donkeys carrying away the turf in baskets on their backs, now giant mechanical claws do the cutting.

Walking on bogs is like walking on water. They are less solid than milk
Jim Ryan, wetland ecologist

As I watched, it took just seconds for a claw to reach forward and scrape away a 3m-high slice of Woodfield bog, dumping its load of 1,000-year-old peat into a giant hopper.

Driving slowly away on its caterpillar tracks, the hopper pooped out 30m-long strings of perfectly parallel sods for drying.

On this bog, turf cutting remains legal and, as we left, a couple of English tourists arrived to cut some turf for themselves.

Stepping out of the bog, trying to avoid sinking, we stepped carefully on the firm ground of the hopper tracks as small brown frogs leapt aside, a surprising sign of life on such scarred terrain.

The poet Seamus Heaney describes bogs as black butter, "melting and opening underfoot".

It is why I kept sinking into them.

A day earlier it had happened in Clara bog, while I was interviewing the wetland ecologist Jim Ryan, a senior government advisor.

"Walking on bogs is like walking on water," he explained.

"They are less solid than milk."

Turf-cutters think the little patch they cut does no harm, but the water channels they dig to prepare peat for cutting act like bursting a balloon.

Here, he said, in the government's living laboratory of bog science, a 60m stretch of turf cut last year damaged a patch 10 times bigger.

As we walked across the sunken, barren terrain of cut bog, the rushing sound of artificial streams confirmed the landscape is changing.

The streams were a disturbing sign of the bog's shifting hydrology - they reduce the bog's ability to buffer rural flooding, and they may also be diverting water away from nearby protected woodland.

Climbing onto virgin bog, we marvelled at the mosses, heathers, grasses and tiny red and white plants at our feet - including little white Andromeda, the county flower of Offaly.

"Now if that were 10 times the size that it is," Jim said, "people would be jumping up and down with excitement."

"You have to look at the fine scale on the bog, to see its beauty."

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