Business Farming

Friday 30 September 2016

Disgruntled forestry critics barking up the wrong tree

Joe Barry

Published 17/08/2016 | 02:30

Foresty provides local employment
Foresty provides local employment

'There's nowt so queer as folk" is an old saying that I always understood had been written by Robbie Burns, the famous Scottish poet who composed 'Auld Lang Syne'. I was mistaken, however, and apparently it is of Welsh origin. It obviously means that people sometimes behave in a very strange way and is of little importance other than I was reminded of it while reading newspaper reports highlighting outbursts by a few individuals who were demonising forestry in Leitrim.

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One local paper quoted that "farmers are angry and if forestry is allowed to continue like this, it's going to wipe out rural communities in counties with disadvantaged land". "Not alone will the farmers be wiped out", they wrote, "but we will lose local villages, schools and post offices and the whole fabric of rural Ireland will be destroyed."

Now this is emotive stuff but it gets better, or worse depending on your point of view. It continued: The national policy to increase forestry around the country is "unfairly targeting Leitrim". What could this possibly mean?

The afforestation scheme, along with the grants and aids that go with it, are the exact same for Meath or Cork, Tipperary or Kildare. The special thing about Leitrim is that, despite having large areas of what could mistakenly be termed "disadvantaged land", it has a huge advantage over the other counties mentioned because trees grow better there than almost anywhere else in Europe. Why on earth would anyone not want to make the most of the assets they have?

Wicklow is a county where afforestation has brought great prosperity and employment and provides the raw material for many small businesses. I recall some years ago being with a group of European foresters who were on tour and visiting a wood near Leitrim village. They were astonished to see the quality and growth rates of sitka and Norway spruce, which were far better there than anything they had encountered elsewhere.

It was further reported in another newspaper that there was strong criticism against the Irish financial institutions that are providing funding for people to plant their land, but there is no credit extended to young farmers looking to buy land and increase their farms. I found that statement really extraordinary. What is it that these critics of forestry actually want? I fully agree that banks should support successful young farmers who wish to increase their holdings, but why criticise the banks for funding the same farmers who want to plant marginal land and thereby improve their income?

No doubt the banks look at the figures and come to the sensible conclusion that land planted for forestry is a safe and sound investment. There was more emotive stuff quoted such as "the Irish Farmers' Association fear entire parishes will be obliterated if planting continues. The organisation is calling on the Government to place immediate controls on foreign investors buying land to plant. Vulture funds, pension funds and foreign companies with huge budgets are buying up land for forestry. The money they have is totally out of reach of any farmer, young or old, who wants to buy land to make a decent life out of farming".

Perhaps we are now getting to the core of the issue when we hear terms like "vulture funds" and "foreigners". Who are they, these grasping "foreign" investors? Are they perhaps other farmers from Meath or Kildare or Galway? Or maybe they are Irish widows and pensioners who have their life savings invested in a fund that wisely sees forestry as a safe haven for their money?

A spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture said: "The vast majority of lands planted since the 1990s are owned by farmers. This is excess of 85pc of the total. The remaining cohort consists of private investors, pension funds or other private individuals who own land." This talk of hordes of wealthy "foreigners" is not only untrue but sounds a bit too much like the racism and jingoism we hear coming from Britain at the moment.

Trees are a valuable and sustainable crop that is good for the environment and improves the air we breathe. Timber is in constant demand and readily saleable, and supports a host of spin-off industries that provide much needed local employment. Relative to other farm enterprises, forestry continues to be a great additional investment.

I firmly believe any farmer who has suitable land should grasp the opportunities that the current schemes provide.

In the early 1990s, when I was seeking a property to plant in Leitrim, a local farmer remarked to me that "there is mould on the for sale signs down here".

Given that Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan and Roscommon contain some of the best land in Europe for growing trees, it would seem very foolish not to make the most of it, but 20 odd years ago, people were nervous of what was a relatively new farming enterprise.

The land I purchased was planted, fenced and is maintained by local people. The forester in charge of the thinning and harvesting is local and the contractor who installed the forest roadway was also local, as is the quarry that supplied the hardcore.

All of the money spent went in to the local economy and some of the workers who carried out the planting subsequently carried out two substantial jobs for friends of mine in Kildare. At that time I didn't hear anyone complain about "foreign" workers coming to Kildare.

The timber from the woods also goes to a nearby sawmill that provides further local employment, so I am naturally puzzled as to what people could object to or indeed why.

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