Industry enjoys growth spurt as applications go up by 25pc in 9 months
After years of decline, forestry is back in business, with a 25pc surge in applications during the first nine months of last year.
This is a welcome turnaround for the sector. In 1996, the Department of Agriculture published a strategic plan setting out targets to ensure the industry increased output of sawn timber from 2.2m cubic metres in 1995 to 10m cubic metres by 2030.
By the end of 1995, total forest cover was 8pc of the land area. In contrast, the plan set an ambitious target of 17pc – 1.2m hectares – by 2030.
To achieve this, 25,000ha needed to be planted every year for the first five years, after which planting could fall to 20,000ha for the following 30 years.
It was envisaged that such a rate of planting and the ensuing increase in timber production would result in the creation of an additional 11,000 jobs in the sector by 2020, and a significant increase in timber processing, including a high value-added pulp industry and possibly the creation of a paper industry by 2035.
Unfortunately, these targets proved to be overly ambitious. The rate of afforestation reached a high of 23,700ha in 1995, then fell off rapidly.
Only once, in 1996, has the rate exceeded 20,000ha. Indeed, planting never made it over 15,000ha except during the 2000/02 period.
The total area planted in the five years from 2007 to 2011 was 34,800ha, an average of just under 7,000ha per annum. Clearly the Strategic Plan is at best aspirational, though almost two decades on it still has not been updated to reflect the current reality.
Of course there are many factors that influence the decision to plant and ultimately it's for every individual owner to make up his or her mind.
Naturally, the anticipated financial returns from forestry in comparison to other farm enterprises have a significant bearing.
However, several other factors must be considered. For example, REPS has been a competing attraction for a number of years, with the considerable added benefit that putting a farm into REPS did not involve an irreversible change in land use.
Restrictions on the proportion of unenclosed land that could be included in an area to be planted, along with a general move towards planting more productive land, and the rise in the number of environmental restrictions, all chipped away at the acreage too.
However, 2012 has seen an upsurge in interest again. Official figures released by the Forest Service for the first nine months of 2012 show an increase of 25pc in the number of forestry applications compared with 2011. This will translate into at least 14,000ha of new plantations.
John Roche, of the Forestry Company, said that these figures came as no surprise, since they had noticed a big increase in interest in planting and thinning.
"It's down to a number of factors, including the attractive annual forestry premium, the value of a forestry crop and the wet weather in Ireland, which makes farming on marginal land even more difficult," he said.
William Merivale is national secretary of PEFC Ireland and a forestry consultant based in Cork. Email: email@example.com