Ireland may be referred to the European Court of Justice unless action is taken to halt the cutting of peat within Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), the European Commission has warned.

SACs are designated to conserve raised bogs and blanket bogs under the EU's Habitats Directive.

In a statement, the European Commission said Ireland has taken action to stop turf cutting in SACs, but said that "cutting activities are still ongoing and enforcement action appears to have stalled".

A statement issued by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage this evening said "Ireland strongly contends that the opinion does not take into full consideration the significant, investment and resources that are being placed by the State into the conservation and management of Ireland protected peatlands".

The statement points out cutting of raised bogs in SACs and Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs) has significantly decreased since 2011, and €59m has been paid out to 2,800 qualifying applicants to the Cessation of Turf Cutting Compensation Scheme.

The EU Commission said that while restoration activities have begun on some raised bogs, it "is too slow given the importance of this priority habitat and its precarious state".

The commission added: "With regard to blanket bogs SACs, there appears to be no regime controlling ongoing cutting with the cutting for domestic use exempt from control."

The commission issued a reasoned opinion to Ireland in June 2011, and said that following a "long dialogue with the Irish authorities" it has decided to issue an additional reasoned opinion.

It said the Government has two months to respond to this additional reasoned opinion and take the necessary measures and warned that "otherwise, the European Commission may decide to refer Ireland to the Court of Justice of the European Union."

Green Party MEP Grace O'Sullivan has said that there is an international obligation on Ireland to protect its boglands.

Speaking to RTÉ's Drivetime, Ms O'Sullivan said: "Ireland is the envy of Europe when it comes to peatlands and boglands.

"We hold 60% of Europe's remaining bogs, so we have a great duty of care, not only in Ireland, but internationally in terms of protecting these special areas of conservation.

"There is an obligation on us as a nation and as a member state to protect these very important places."

Ms O'Sullivan said that so far, Ireland is not doing this.

"We aren't protecting these active raised bogs and we have to do that," she said.

"We have an obligation under Irish law and EU Habitats Directive," she added.

Reacting to the European Commission's intervention Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice, who is also chairman of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, said it was "a ferocious backward step" that left him shocked.

"Brussels would need to educate themselves on the spirit of partnership that's been going on for the last few years in resolving this issue with the National Parks, with turfcutters and with the TCCA," he said.

He said huge progress in ending turf cutting on bogs located in Special Areas of Conservations has been made and cutting has stopped entirely in most of 57 SAC bogs identified by the EC .

"There are 57 sites and its been resolved for all but 12 or 14 sites and three of them are in process at the moment. I think that's progress, that's the spirit of partnership which Brussels might not understand," he said.

Mr Fitzmaurice warned pressure from the commission on people will halt progress.

"If they keep coming heavy then the shutters will be pulled down and there will be a full stop. So the EU can decide if they want to work together as a community or do they want to push everyone back into the trenches like we had ten or 11 years ago."

For his part, Tony Lowes of Friends of the Irish Environment welcomed the European Commissions intervention.

"It comes after 20 years of waiting for the implementation of the Habitats Directive. We welcome this and hope we don't have to wait another ten years," he said.

The Habitats Directive was signed into Irish Law in 1997 and land areas with valued natural characteristics were designated as Special Areas of Conservation.

Additional reporting Joe Mag Raollaigh