Peat being cut at protected site near Lough Neagh and ‘sold to garden centres’

The School Lands is a protected site near Lough Neagh. Picture by Tommy Greene, The Detail

The School Lands is a protected site near Lough Neagh. Picture by Tommy Greene, The Detail

A COUNCIL is investigating claims that peat has been illegally extracted from a protected site near Lough Neagh for years and sold to garden centres.

Since 2017, Mid Ulster District Council has launched three separate investigations into alleged illegal peat cutting on the School Lands, a 131-hectare wetland around Derrytresk and Derryloughan, near Dungannon, Co Tyrone.

The wetland, close to Lough Neagh, is a key habitat for curlews, once one of the most endangered birds in Northern Ireland.

The School Lands, so called because they were formerly owned by the Royal School Dungannon, are owned by the Department of Education but are managed by the Lough Neagh Partnership (LNP) under a 20-year lease.

Following a complaint in July 2017, the council investigated and issued an enforcement notice in 2020 to stop peat from being extracted. However, that notice was appealed and did not come into effect until June 2022.

A second investigation was launched in May 2021 and is still ongoing, almost three years later.

A third investigation was launched in December last year.

LNP, a charity which carries out development and conservation projects at Lough Neagh, said the extracted peat was being sold to garden centres as compost.

Gerry Darby, manager of the LNP, said the extraction is affecting attempts to conserve the site.

“There are no beneficiaries apart from the individual/persons undertaking the work whom we believe are selling compost extracted from the site to the horticulture industry and garden centres across Northern Ireland and perhaps further afield," he said.

He said the extraction must stop.

“Not only does it despoil an important habitat, it allows carbon to leach into the atmosphere thereby accelerating climate change which affects everyone,” he said.

Although there is no specific protection for bogs in Northern Ireland, many are part of protected sites.

Firms who want to extract peat cannot do so without planning permission.

A council spokeswoman told The Detail that it could not give further details about the ongoing investigations.

“We are unable to disclose complainant details at this stage of the investigation and, due to the potential risk of prejudice to an ongoing investigation, we are unable to give further details,” she said.

A spokesman for the Department of Education said it had “received reports from third parties regarding large scale or commercial peat extraction alleged to have taken place in the area, however we do not have specific details of individual incidents”.

“Given the remote location of the land, these reports were received some time after the associated activities had been carried out, making it impossible to identify those responsible,” he said.

A Daera spokesman said the extraction was a “planning matter for the local planning authority (the council)” but that “NIEA (Northern Ireland Environment Agency) will provide advice, should it be consulted (by Mid Ulster District Council).”

He added: “NIEA carries out routine monitoring of semi-natural peatlands (condition assessments) within Northern Ireland’s protected site network on a rolling 6-10 yearly programme”.

The School Lands, near Lough Neagh, is a key habitat for curlews. Photo by Tommy Greene, The Detail

The School Lands, near Lough Neagh, is a key habitat for curlews. Photo by Tommy Greene, The Detail

Enforcement problems

Peat has been cut, dried and used as fuel in homes across Ireland for centuries.

In October 2022, the Irish government introduced a ban on the sale of turf used as fuel.

However, there are no plans to introduce a similar ban in the north, where peat extraction for domestic fuel is on a significantly smaller scale.

James Orr, director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, accused the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) of ignoring the destruction of peatlands.

“The NIEA is toothless when it comes to protecting this priority habitat," he said.

"All agencies of the state are deaf to the cry of the breeding curlew that were once abundant on these boglands that circled the lough like a jewelled necklace.

“Local people and poets such as (nobel laureate Seamus) Heaney understood the power of these wild places.

“Scientists recognise their importance in capturing carbon. It's shameful that everyone cares except those with the power to stop the destruction.”

Simon Gray, head of peatland recovery at the Ulster Wildlife Trust, said authorities in the north are wary of cracking down on peat extraction due to the complexities of ancient rights to cut turf for fuel, and the potential for litigation.

“There are a few spots (peatlands) where there’s less than reputable activity going on that we’re aware of,” he said.

“They’re lacking planning and possibly other consents. Or maybe it’s resting on some sort of historical right or claim that’s passed down generations - and they’re acting on some sort of grandfather right or whatever it is.

“The government are very wary of trying to police them for fear of possibly being taken to court or having some sort of claim being taken against them.”

A council is investigating alleged illegal extraction of peat in a protected habitat near Lough Neagh. Photo by Tommy Greene, The Detail

A council is investigating alleged illegal extraction of peat in a protected habitat near Lough Neagh. Photo by Tommy Greene, The Detail


Healthy peatlands are a key weapon against climate change.

Bogs can capture huge amounts of carbon dioxide - a driver of climate change - from the atmosphere.

Northern Ireland has around 242,600 hectares of peatland, covering around 12% of the total land area.

However, more than 80% of our peatlands are either damaged or in poor condition due to issues including peat extraction and gorse fires.

After Northern Ireland’s first climate change act was passed in 2022, Daera launched a consultation last year on how it could meet legally-binding net zero targets by 2050.

Following the consultation, Daera committed to restoring around 23,000 hectares of peatland by 2027.

Mr Gray told The Detail it is unlikely Daera’s restoration target will be met because not enough work has been done to date.

”Peatlands is a huge element of the ‘land use’ and ‘land use change’ section in Daera’s carbon budget consultation,” he said.

“They are setting what are, to be honest, pretty unrealistic targets for restoration of peatlands within some of those consultation documents.”

A separate draft peatland strategy - which aims to either conserve peatlands or restore damaged ones by 2040 - was published by Daera in August 2022.

However, the strategy could not be progressed until now due to the two-year political impasse at Stormont.

A Daera spokesman said agriculture minister Andrew Muir will bring the strategy before the Executive “with a view to publishing it later this year”.

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