Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Monday 5 December 2016

Coillte sales stir up grower fears

William Merivale

Published 12/12/2012 | 06:00

The proposed sale of State assets is one of the controversial and divisive issues of the day. Debate rages over the wisdom of selling off the family silver for short-term gain but questionable long-term advantage, and many have expressed dismay at the prospect of State-owned land falling into private hands.

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The report of the Review Group on State Assets and Liabilities (the McCarthy report), published in April 2011, included an unequivocal recommendation that Coillte be included in the list of State assets to be sold.

However, this recommendation was subject to the condition that the land remains in public ownership and that existing public rights of access be maintained.

In short, McCarthy's recommendations extend to the sale of cutting rights only and not the disposal of the underlying land.

Following the publication of this report, the Government mandated Coillte to prepare for the sale of the cutting rights of at least a substantial proportion of its forest estate.

In turn, Coillte commissioned accountancy firm Deloitte to prepare a report identifying the key issues.

The Deloitte report was recently completed and submitted to NewERA (the New Economy and Recovery Authority) and the details have yet to be released.

Meanwhile, the Coillte branch of the trade union IMPACT has produced its own report entitled 'Save our Forests – the social, economic and environmental case against selling Coillte assets", which makes a compelling case against any disposal.

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To add fuel to the fire, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, while addressing the MacGill Summer School in Co Donegal earlier this year, stated categorically that no State land in the ownership of Coillte would be sold.

A few days later, also in Donegal, Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney echoed the Taoiseach's statement. However, a few months later, Dublin auctioneers Quinn Agnew were instructed to sell by tender the freehold interest of 448.8ha (1,109 acres) of Coillte forest at Ballybofey, Co Donegal.

Local forest interest groups are concerned with this development, arguing it is in direct contravention of the public pronouncements by the Government that no Coillte land would be sold.

John Jackson, former IFA farm forestry committee chairman and current chairman of the Donegal Woodland Owners Society, stated that no local forest interest groups were consulted over the sale, and that it was some time before it was fully appreciated locally that a large Coillte property had actually been placed on the market.

During question time in the Dail recently, Mr Coveney stated that the buying and selling of land was Coillte's business; a strange comment in the light of the previous pronouncements, and given that the shares in Coillte are held by the Ministers for Agriculture and Finance on behalf of the State.

In the event that the cutting rights of Coillte's forest estate are sold, and bearing in mind that any such sale is likely to be for a period of 50-80 years, there are profound implications for the wider industry.

While Coillte now owns just over half of the entire forest estate, due to the age structure of our forests it also remains the dominant supplier of the logs to our mills.

By and large, Coillte ensures continuity of supply, thus enabling the mills to plan well in advance.

This continuity serves the national interest as supply of logs is maintained even when prices fall.

Private ownership would dictate a very different supply pattern, and this would impact on private owners as well. Our unique supply situation partly explains higher timber prices than anywhere else in Europe as the millers can function on lower margins.

Pat Glennon, joint managing director of Glennon Brothers and chairman of the Irish Timber Council, expressed the concerns of the sawmilling sector recently.

"As we strive to continue to develop our exports, it is essential that we have continuity of raw material supply," Mr Glennon said.

"The Irish Timber Council is very concerned about the impact of the proposed sale of Coillte's harvesting rights, as they supply over 80pc of the logs to the sawmills in the Republic of Ireland." he said.

The Government, and in particular the Minister for Agriculture, must remember that not only do they have a responsibility for Coillte, but they also have a duty of care to the thousands of people who have been encouraged to afforest their lands over the last 25 years or so.

It is vitally important for our industry and the future of our forests that private growers are fully consulted as part of any decision-making process, and are properly represented on any strategic planning or decision-making body.

William Merivale is national secretary of PEFC Ireland and a forestry consultant based in Cork. Email: william@cjandco.net

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