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Friday 20 October 2017

Irish forestry, it is safe to say, has come of age

The forestry policy review identifies many new opportunities
The forestry policy review identifies many new opportunities

William Merivale

We now have a vibrant industry that comprises 11pc of our land area, employs thousands, contributes in no small way to the economy, and does its bit to help mitigate climate change.

In addition, close to half of the total forest area is now privately owned, mostly by farmers, many of whom are at the stage of seeing tangible results from their efforts.

Nevertheless, it is still a young industry and there remains much to learn. In this regard it is good to see that Minister of State Tom Hayes TD recently launched the final report and recommendations of the Forestry Policy Review Group, entitled Forests, Products and People-Ireland's forest policy: A renewed vision.

Bearing in mind the developments that have taken place in the sector since publication of the last comprehensive report outlining forest policy for the future, the Strategic Plan of 1996, this new review has been eagerly awaited.

These recommendations include:

• Major investment in wood processing, and increasing levels of export of wood products to existing and new markets;

• An export orientated wood panel industry;

• The emergence of the wood energy market which will assume increasing importance over the coming decade;

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• Increased understanding and recognition of the impacts of afforestation and forest management on water quality, biodiversity and ecosystems, including climate change mitigation;

• The increased use of forests for recreation and leisure;

• Emergence of supply from the private sector

Crucially, the report recognises that forestry now plays an increasingly important economic, environmental and social role.

Changes in socio-economic and environmental circumstances have resulted in a progression in society's expectations of forests from mainly providing market goods, towards the provision of more environmental goods.

The Forest Policy Review Group was established by the Department of Agriculture in April 2010 to review State forestry policy, to take account of its critical role in relation to climate change and its importance to construction, bio-energy, bio-diversity.

It also considered forestry's potential to deliver long-term employment in other downstream industries such as eco-tourism, furniture, crafts and so forth.

The report recommends that a task force be set up to consider the establishment of a stand-alone government body or agency which could have the responsibility of addressing development and promotion of the forest sector and forest products nationally and internationally.

This is something that the industry has been calling for over many years and this, as well as other potentially significant 'strategic action recommendations' in the report, could act as a catalyst to drive the industry forward in the coming years.

STRATEGIC ACTIONS

The report covers everything from expansion and management of the resource, the supply chain and processing sector, through to forest protection and health, legislation and institutional arrangements. Among the proposed strategic actions are:

• Support measures and initiatives to establish an overarching forest sector body which will co-ordinate research and development, training and education across the sector. The focus would be on innovation, added value and increased competitiveness. This should be welcomed by all within the industry and is a reflection of international trends.

• In consultation with stakeholders, the Department will develop a National Roundwood Mobilisation Strategy to implement improved efficiency and logistics along the supply chain from grower to final end user. This will recognise the increased volumes coming from the private sector. It will also take account of best international practice.

If this is achieved it will be a significant development. Both private growers and processors are aware of the challenges facing the sector. These include the large number of small diverse wood lots and associated costs of bringing these to market.

This ties in with another strategic action elsewhere in the report, namely, that the Department is to facilitate a review of the wood processing and wood based panels sector with a view to improving long-term sustainable roundwood supply from both the private sector and Coillte.

TAXATION

The report also calls for reform of the tax system regarding revenues from forestry. It suggests that:

The tax treatment of forestry should be reviewed taking into account the timing and scale of timber revenues and reforestation costs. This will ensure that tax treatment does not act as a disincentive for the achievement of national policy goals, in particular forest cover, roundwood supply to industry and climate change mitigation

The recommendations of the review of tax schemes (Department of Finance 2006) and the Commission on Taxation (2009) in relation to thresholds to be implemented.

This is of course long overdue. The Irish Timber Growers Association (ITGA) has made similar representations and submissions to the ongoing agri-taxation review highlighting the anomalies in the tax treatment of forestry in Ireland.

It is planned that the final report of the agri-taxation review process will be published at the time of Budget 2015 - around mid-October.

It is expected that the review will influence tax policy in the agriculture sector for a number of years to come and hopefully will reflect the recommendations of the Review Group.

Intriguingly, the report also recommends ending the requirement enshrined in the 1946 Forestry Act to replant forest lands following clear-fell, arguing that this provision acts a significant disincentive considering planting their land.

The report acknowledges the fear that removing this requirement may lead to a reduction in forest area. But it argues that the requirement may also have the perverse result of reducing the forest cover anyway, citing farmers' apprehensions in committing to a permanent change in land use.

While not everyone will agree to all the recommendations, the report is to be welcomed and it will be interesting to see how the industry develops from here.

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

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