Thursday 29 September 2016

Forest ire - big businesses at loggerheads with farmers in Leitrim

Leitrim farmers claim they can no longer compete for land sales against national and international companies targeting the county for forestry

Claire Mc Cormack

Published 13/09/2016 | 02:30

IFA vice chairman of the national rural development committee, Pat Gilhooly. Photo: Brian Farrell
IFA vice chairman of the national rural development committee, Pat Gilhooly. Photo: Brian Farrell

Farmers in Leitrim are demanding an "urgent review" of the Government's national forestry programme.

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Farm organisations say local farmers are unable to compete against big-budget national and international forestry companies on land sales.

Revised incentives under the Forestry Programme 2014-2020 mean well-financed companies can now avail of the same afforestation grants and premiums as local landowners.

Other concerns include: impact on rural life, visual impact and fears that large swathes of forestry will impact on the productivity of neighbouring farmland.

However, those in favour of forestry, including some farmers, stress that planting is "financially beneficial" for farmers in parts of Leitrim as well as neighbouring counties such as Longford, Cavan and Roscommon.

Forestry companies and co-ops also contend that landowners are "entitled to get the best price for their land". They also claim local farmers choosing to plant their own marginal land are being "intimidated" by opposition groups.

Michael Fitzmaurice, Independent TD for Roscommon-Galway, is calling on the Government to fast-track its review of the Forestry Programme 2014-2020, due to take place next year. It will consider participation rates, climate change, environmental impact, rural communities and land-use policy.

"As soon as the Dail reconvenes I'll be pushing for the review to take place even sooner. They need to speed it up because it's a problem that needs to be addressed and sorted," he said.

"Land is being bought beside small family farms and whether you're a bank, an investment company or a pension fund you can get the same grants as a farmer living beside it. The situation can't continue. We're going to end up with a lot of the west planted like a theme park and it's basically driven by a carbon agenda," Mr Fitzmaurice told the Farming Independent.

Farmers who opt to plant get a tax-free premium payment of €210/ac each year for 15 years, while still qualifying for Basic Payments on any additional farmland. The issue is particularly contentious in south Leitrim, where, according to Department of Agriculture maps, the majority of planting is carried out privately.

Patrick Gilhooley, IFA vice chairman of the national rural development committee, says there is "a lot of frustration and anger" in areas such as Ballinamore, Mohill, Carrigallen and Cloone.

"At the moment everything is tax-free in forestry, which doesn't make economic sense. If you want to sell your land you're entitled to get the going rate, but the big problem is farmers aren't able to compete with that," he said.

"It's having a desperate effect on rural life, it's not providing jobs. Whereas if people are farming, it keeps people spending in the local towns and communities," he said.

Mr Gilhooley claims that the majority of planting in Leitrim is being done by forestry companies.

However, Department of Agriculture data indicates that the bulk of new forest planting in Leitrim over the past couple of years has been undertaken by farmers.

Some 81pc of the 513ha of planting in Leitrim in 2015 was undertaken by farmers, not companies. Likewise in 2014, 96pc of the 272ha of new forest in the county was undertaken by farmers.

Despite these figures, Enda Gilrane, agricultural consultant in Leitrim, says farmers are suffering. He says recent media attention is having the "opposite to the desired effect" as more companies are inquiring about forestry in Leitrim.

"South Leitrim is under more pressure than north Leitrim and it's certainly having a huge impact. There are far more forestry adverts than mart ads in the local paper. It's Irish companies, and some outside investors," he said.

"It's very much a balancing act for the Government. They want to get carbon emissions down and get money into the country with attractive premiums, but farmers in the locality should be given a greater grant than investors."

He added that companies are also targeting the region because of its proximity to saw mills.

Ballinamore estate agent Gordon Hughes says demand is "quite strong" among companies and investors.

"Forestry land values are making up to €5,000 per acre, it's making a higher return than agricultural land. Landowners would like to sell it to their neighbour or someone who is going to farm the land, but those buyers can't access finance from the banks," he said.

'The land I planted was almost costing me money to maintain'

Those farmers choosing to plant their own marginal land "feel intimated" by local opposition in Leitrim, a leading forestry co-op has warned.

Western Forestry Co-op, which encourages landowners to plant land themselves rather than sell it to outside investors, claims the benefits of forestry are being overlooked in the Leitrim land row.

"One of the saddest outcomes of the current discussions regarding forestry and Leitrim is that people who are happy with their decision to plant some of their marginal land feel apprehensive to speak about it," said Marina Conway, CEO of Western Forestry Co-op.

"Forestry is not for everyone, but for those who have planted land and for those reaping the financial rewards through harvesting it has been a positive experience," she said.

The co-op, established 31 years ago, stresses that forestry can compliment farming, not replace it.

"We have seen the income from the forest premium being used to invest in other areas of the farm such as security against farm machinery loans, security and deposit to buy other land, help pay college fees and most importantly as a guaranteed annual source of income for families," she said.

John Regan, a beef farmer from Leitrim, says planting 30 acres of his own land 14 years ago was a good decision."The land I planted was practically costing money to maintain. Even with drainage it wasn't suitable for grassland farming or cattle farming so I decided to plant it," he said.

John received in the region of €200 an acre, accumulating to €120,000 in premiums over two decades.

"It gave me certain amount of money that I could buy an adjoining 30 acres of much better land for grassland farming," he said.

For John, the only disadvantage is that there are no grants for replanting, which is compulsory under the Government scheme.

Meanwhile, Michael Bubna, a forestry consultant in Austria, said international companies are attracted to Ireland due to it's grant and tax incentives.

"Austrian investors are interested in Irish forest areas because the growing rates are very good there. Also taxes are low and grants are interesting," he said.

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