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Floundering forests: The challenges facing the Irish forestry industry

It will take 100 years to achieve the government’s target of 18% forestry cover, writes Dermot McNally.

Dermot McNally Writer

AT THE RATE that new forests were planted in 2017, it will take 100 years to achieve the government’s target of 18% forestry cover – a far cry from the stated ambition of achieving it by 2046.

2017 marked a 30-year low (circa 5500 hectares) in afforestation levels. Therefore the industry was desperately hoping that the government’s Review of the Forestry Programme would give afforestation a badly needed boost. Most were left disappointed and believe other factors will depress afforestation further.

Sitka spruce

An immediate criticism of the Review was that the grant category under which Sitka Spruce is planted was afforded only a token 2% rise in premium, doing little to match inflation over the period of the Review.

Sitka (loved and hated in equal measure) is Ireland’s bread and butter crop supplying a huge range of construction and related trades. The requirement for an additional 5% broad leaf trees on all new plantations is welcome from an environmental perspective but is being considered by foresters as an effective 5% reduction in the productive planting area: returns from broad leaves are negligible.

Costs are on the up too: Budget 2017 made agricultural land 4% more expensive due to the stamp duty increase. Land prices also rose by an average of 3.6% in 2017 with the trend continuing so far in 2018. These rising costs and falling returns (due to stagnant premium and falling productive area) will push investors to opt for quicker payback elsewhere.

Forestry payments

On a positive note GPC 12, Forestry for Fibre, was trebled to €510 per hectare and the duration of the payment was increased from 10 to to 15 years. Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten believes that his measures will boost demand and price for forestry outputs.

However the type of quality land required to grow biomass crops rarely sells below €6,000 per acre making it financially nonviable in the first instance. And it’s worth noting that a booming biomass market can have negative effects: in the UK biomass quickly overtook panel board as the main end user of recycled woodchip increasing costs in construction and related trades.

Anti-forestry brigade

2018 has seen the anti-forestry brigade roar into action. Modern planting standards minimise many of the problems highlighted by Save Leitrim but the group have urged supporters to object to all new plantations, conifer and broad leaf without distinction.

They say that forestry is harming community but this catch cry seems at odds with the fact that Leitrim’s population hit a fifty year high in 2016, thanks at least in small part to employment provided by the forestry industry.

They also say that vulture funds are swooping up vast areas of forestry whereas 52% of all forestry is in public ownership (such as Coilte). Of the remainder, over 83% planted since 1980 was by Irish farmers. Little surprise then that the lobby group have been accused of scare mongering.

Save Leitrim’s environmental concerns are also quite selective: they are critical of certain forestry practices yet have erected signs arguing for “cattle not conifers”. Livestock production is responsible for a whopping 65% of agricultural emissions in Ireland. Save Leitrim say they aren’t anti-forestry but have also demanded a cessation of all new planting which seems unlikely given our low forestry cover as compared to the EU average of over 30%.

Ineptitude

Government ineptitude isn’t helping the drive to plant trees either. Forestry Minister Andrew Doyle was left red faced in February when the High Court highlighted the crazy situation that eight months after the deadline for the establishment of an Appeals Committee to examine contested afforestation cases, the Committee had yet to be established.

Applications which had been referred to the Committee were unable to be resolved and ended up in a legal limbo. The Appeals Committee adds a further burden to the creaking bureaucracy that requires a plethora of ecological and archaeological reports on new planting sites from numerous state bodies.

The difficulty doesn’t stop there: critics say that Forestry Inspectors are struggling to assess the standards being applied to sites that are moving into their second crop. Edwina Guckian, a Leitrim native concerned with the proliferation of evergreen trees says recently clear-felled sites are being planted in ways that repeat the mistakes of the past.

Incoherent

Politician’s are also making noises, few of them coherent. Sinn Féin have declared that they want to “Stop the Land Grab”, furthering the paranoia about the activity of so called vulture funds.

Independents too such as MEP Luke Ming Flanagan are speaking up. Luke famously wants to cut and burn turf (a non renewable resource) from Ireland’s bogs but he isn’t so keen on the expansion of commercial forestry (a renewable resource). He’s arguing for a continuous cover approach to plantation management which would avoid unsightly clear-fell.

Foresters stalwarts say that’s unworkable for conifer plantations which are prone to wind blow. Marc McSharry TD has also criticised the disproportionate level of planting in Leitrim but seemed to confuse the matter of the 18% forestry target by declaring that ”Our national target of up to 35% afforestation is an honourable ambition“.

Finally representative groups such as the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association have also weighed in against forestry but many feel they are primarily motivated by a desire to retain membership and subscriptions. It’s with this background that Minister of State for Food, Forestry and Horticulture, Andrew Doyle TD must set about trying to salvage the government’s afforestation plan.

Otherwise he’ll be forever known as the Minister who stood idly by as forestry floundered.

Dermot McNally is a journalist and writer who blogs at dermymcnally.com.

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Dermot McNally  / Writer

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