SCORES of families throughout North Antrim are facing a home heating crisis this winter after a closure notice was placed on a turf bog near Armoy.
Decades of traditional peat cutting have been halted by Government officials who claim there is unauthorised harvesting of turf in what is designated a conservation area in the North East Area Plan.
It has left much of the community devastated and facing the bleak prospect of having to go without their main source of heat this year.
And there has been a warning that if there is a repeat of last year’s bitter cold spell which saw temperatures plummet to record lows, the consequences could be disastrous, particularly for the elderly.
Many families in Ballymoney and Moyle depend on turf as their main supply of heating and have been left devastated by the news.
This is the time of year when landowners, Seamus and Paul Hill from Ballycastle, would be making preparations for the turf season.
Instead, they are squaring up for a battle with Planners and Conservationists in a bid to overturn a decision which North Antrim MP, Ian Paisley Junior, has described as an “incredibly unfair” move by “tree huggers” or, in this case, “turf huggers.”
The first official communication on the matter was received by the Hill Brothers in July last in a letter from the Minerals Development and Compliance Unit, Planning Dept. advising that planning permission was required for peat extraction and giving the owners 28 days to submit a retrospective planning application.
A further letter was received from the Planning Dept. last November in response to a request for an extension to the deadline which was then extended to 29th April 2011.
This letter also advised that NIEA – Natural Heritage had been consulted and were stating that all work on site must cease immediately with measures being taken towards restoration of the peatland.
A meeting then took place in Belfast with all interested parties in attendance at which it was first brought to the attention of the Hill brothers that the land was a proposed SLNCI (Site of local nature, conservation importance) within the Northern Area Draft Plan 2016, which had been drawn up in 2005.
A meeting took place on site with the same representatives from Plannning Dept and NIEA-NH. The outcome was that NIEA-NH indicated that the area where peat extraction might be possible would be reduced by about 75%.
Mr. Paisley met with the Hill Brothers last week along with the Mayor of Ballymoney, Councillor Bill Kennedy, his Ulster Unionist colleague, Willie Graham and fellow Unionist, Joan Baird, to see what steps to take.
Mr. Paisley is acutely aware of the need for turf as a main fuel supply for many, as well as the tradition which stretches back decades and which forms a part of life for many in the rural community.
He says his first task will be to meet with Environment Minister, Edwin Poots, to re-open the consultation process. The Hill Brothers claim they were unaware that the Northern Area Draft Plan of 2016 had highlighted that the land was a proposed SLNCI and that they had not been consulted about it. Officials insisted it was published in newspapers and that there had been a six week period thereafter where letters of objection could be submitted.
Seamus Hill said he was genuinely unaware that the process had moved so far.
He told Mr. Paisley: “We don’t seem to have been given an opportunity to properly address this matter. We have been cutting here since 1986 and since planning regulations didn’t come in until 1991, we certainly didn’t think there was anything wrong in what we were doing. It’s not as if it was a new development.”
Paul Hill said it wasn’t as if they were adopting an uncaring attitude to conservation. They full recognised that the area was important to conservationists, but stressed they had made every effort to restore the land they had harvested.
“We tried to make sure that if we ‘dug out’ turf from one part we left it to renew itself naturally by landscaping and restoring what we could allowing the natural habitat to grow back,” he said.
Mr. Paisley said it was obvious to him there was a important economic interest and that proper and detailed consultations should have taken place.
“This business needs to be re-opened again and an environmental impact survey carried out. Economic decisions must be made an issue,” he added.
Mr. Bill Kennedy, whose family have cut in the area some years ago, said it was a body blow to people.
“I hear it in my shop day after day. The community is outraged. We all respect the need for conservation and the need to preserve areas such as Ballykenver, but this is a different matter. The Hills are harvesting only a part of a huge moss and should be allowed to continue. There are hundreds more acres that won’t be touched by them and which present a perfect breeding ground for birds and plants,” he said.
Mr. Kennedy says if he is elected as an Assembly member he will fight tooth and nail to help resotre a tradition and a vital lifeline in fuel terms for many families in North Antrim.
“The moss is a unique place and has been for years. It is a way of life for hundreds of people and I understand there are six people who have turberry rights at Ballykenver which entitles them to cut turf no matter what. This shows you just how much it is rooted in the culture of the area.”
Cllr. Willie Graham rents an area of Balleney every year and says he knows just how disappointed people are by the news.
“We will have to do whatever we can to reverse this decision,” he pledged.