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Pippa Hackett: We need to move fast to improve our forestry cover in Ireland

The Minister of State for Agriculture says Ireland is falling in its targets on forestry but the government plans to accelerate progress this year.

Image: Shutterstock/Robert Avgustin

WE CONDUCTED A survey recently. It told us that seven in 10 Irish adults said they didn’t notice anything about forests or woodlands in any media over the past year.

So they clearly haven’t been getting attention. But I intend that over next year, that situation is going to change dramatically.

Because there is a plan afoot to make sure that 2022 will be a year in which we all, very consciously, talk about, and think about, what we, as a nation, want from our trees.

The importance of trees

Trees sequester carbon. They are really important in the fight against climate change. They are also if planted in the right place, great for biodiversity, water quality and recreation.

So I was happy that the survey also revealed that three in four of us would like more forests in our county, and more trees planted in our nearest urban area.

Without a doubt, we do need more trees. At 11%, Ireland’s forest cover is among the lowest of any country in the EU. So we are not at all heavily afforested.

But deciding that we need more trees is only a first step. We also need to address questions such as what sort of trees do we want to grow? Who do we want to grow them? What level of public funding do we want to put into them? And what do we want them for … Climate? Biodiversity? Community benefits? Timber production and jobs? Or all of the above?

Such a plethora or questions is sure to produce a wide range of responses, so we have plans for a serious level of public engagement over the next year. We are going to hold a ‘deliberative dialogue’ with 99 representative citizens, rather like a Citizens’ Assembly. We are also going to conduct a Youth Forum, as well as carrying out online public consultation and questionnaires.

It’s really important that people do engage because we are at something of a crossroads.

Our current situation

We have managed to bring forest cover to its highest level in over 350 years, but levels of afforestation are slowing down and we are not going to reach our targets unless we get our systems working well, rebuild trust with landowners and industry, and also develop a shared vision of what we are aiming for, so that those who are thinking of planting, know they have the support of society behind them.

Right now, society is convinced of the benefits of trees. That much was obvious from the public attitudes survey which we carried out to get some insights to help the preparations for the upcoming engagements. And some of the insights were fascinating.

In the first instance, I was surprised to learn that over 75% of us are living fewer than 10 kilometres from a forest or urban woodland. That proximity is surely important, as nearly six in 10 of us visited a forest in the last year. Of those, just about half of us visited at least weekly, with the vast majority saying we were doing so for exercise.

We are pretty happy with the way our forests and woodlands are managed too, with nearly half saying we wouldn’t change anything, while another third would just like more toilet facilities.

Biodiversity and community

It was good to see an appreciation of the benefits of forests to communities. 88% of those surveyed said they thought forests and woodlands did benefit local communities, with the top four ways in which they do so thought to be: through helping address climate change; supporting mental health; improving air quality, and providing space for recreation and exercise.

But there was somewhat less recognition of the role forests play in timber production and supporting employment. Given that the sector contributes in the region of €2.3 billion to the economy and supports 12,000 jobs, I was a little surprised at that and it certainly seems to indicate a role for the deliberative process in helping us understand and appreciate the role timber is playing in the economy and can play in both locking up carbon and providing us with a sustainable building material.

I personally think this is an aspect we need to pay attention to. We produce and process a huge amount of softwood in this country, only to see the vast majority of it exported, for construction in other countries. But isn’t it time we considered using at least some more of that timber for construction here? I know it hasn’t been the tradition up to now, but maybe it’s time for some change?

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After all, at a time when we need so many more houses, what more climate friendly, sustainable future could we put in place than one which sees Irish grown timber compete more with concrete as our architects’ and builders’ construction material of choice?

The ways in which we, as a Government, might manage to support that, is one of the discussions I am really looking forward to having, amongst all the others, in the next year.

Pippa Hackett is a Green Party Senator and Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture 

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