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What is a Turbary?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2016
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A turbary is a peat bog from which people can cut peat to use as fuel. By extension, peat cut from the bog may also be referred to as turbary. In nations where people have limited access to fuels, perhaps most notably Ireland, citizens may be guaranteed a common of turbary or right of turbary, meaning that they have the right to cut peat. The protection of this right was historically critically important, although changes in the way peat is harvested have led to environmental concerns among people who would like to protect peat bogs.

This word comes from a Latin word for “turf.” After being harvested and allowed to dry, peat can be used as fuel for cooking, heating, and other tasks. In areas where lumber was scarce and fuels such as dung were unavailable, peat was often a primary source of fuel for residents. Thus, the right to cut peat was very important because otherwise people could experience hardships.

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In some regions, a peat bog was held in common by members of the community and everyone had a right of turbary. In other cases, a bog might be situated on private land but people were given the right to cut in it as a result of an easement. Such easements were often the result of claims that since people were accustomed to openly harvesting peat, they should be allowed to continue to do so. Some land owners would also lease the right to turbary to people willing to pay for cutting privileges.

It takes a long time for peat to build up. When bogs were harvested by hand, the practice of using peat for fuel was usually sustainable because the bog could replenish itself over time. However, peat harvesting is often done mechanically today, and this has created two problems. The first is that peat is harvested in high volumes and bogs cannot keep up, and many bogs are becoming dried out and damaged. The second issue is damage caused by machines passing over the bog, which leads to compression and injury to native plants.

The use of tractors and other heavy equipment for cutting has raised concerns about the right of turbary. Environmental activists are concerned by the overall decline in peat bogs while members of communities argue that peat cutting is both necessary and part of their heritage. Several governments in nations where peat cutting is common have attempted to balance the needs of both groups.

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