Perhaps the biggest changes are the reduction in the duration of the premium payments from 20 years to 15 and the introduction of a single rate of premium for farmers and non-farmers alike. Allowing what are termed non-farmers to participate equally is a wise move. It ends the ridiculous situation where farmers who had taken early retirement or had reduced their farming activity and held an off farm job or perhaps also had land let could not qualify and access the higher farmer premium rates. Some had also relinquished their herd number and were therefore no longer eligible as farmers.
John Phelan, manager of Woodland Managers in Galway said there are good features in the new afforestation scheme.
"Even though the availability of the same premium rate to all should help to bring in some land where owners are no longer technically farmers, the targets still fall well short of the ambition of the newly launched Forest policy," he said.
There is also an incentive to plant areas in excess of 8ha and such plantations will attract an increased premium rate. The average size of forests planted in recent years has reduced to 6.5ha and given the added costs of managing small areas, it is sensible to make planting larger sections more attractive.
The new Forestry for Fibre Scheme is of particular interest to anyone producing wood fuel, heating their own home or supplying existing businesses. Its aim is to deliver additional forestry biomass for energy, thereby helping to replace fossil fuels in the production of heat and power.
Eligible species are Italian alder, Eucalyptus, Hybrid aspen and Poplar. All of these are fast growing and Italian alder is well suited to heavy clay soils. It has grown quite spectacularly here on my farm in Meath and I look forward to planting more under this new scheme.
I have already planted trial plots of Eucalyptus this year and while they are currently growing at a very rapid rate, it might be wiser to wait a season or two before committing to a larger acreage.
Yet again, the introduction of this scheme shows that the Department of Agriculture is keeping in touch with market trends and is catering for the extraordinary demand for biomass for use as fuel. This trend is of course of great benefit nationally as it reduces both carbon emissions and our dependence on imported fossil fuels.
Both the new Agro-forestry scheme and forest for fibre offer shorter rotations for farmers who might not necessarily have planted under conventional forestry due to long rotations.
The one drawback is that, like the remainder of the schemes, it still includes the requirement that once planted, land must remain in forestry for the foreseeable future. We do of course receive relatively generous grants and premiums but it could act as a disincentive to some who are nervous of that ruling.
Further important initiatives are the extension of the Forest Roads scheme which will facilitate thinning, thereby ensuring that this material is also accessible for renewable-energy purposes as well as mainstream timber uses.
The criteria for calculating the eligible area served by the proposed forest road has changed. Where 50pc or greater of the area is due for harvesting in the next three years the entire area can now be deemed eligible. For cooperative road building (joint applications) this can extend to five years.
In cases where the proposed forest road bell mouth is at least 2m below the surface of the existing public road, an additional 30m will be allowed per forest entrance to contribute towards the cost of additional stone required.
This means that bell mouths in this situation can include an additional 70m of road length for grant purposes.
A special construction works (SCW) grant is being introduced at a maximum value of €5,000 per application or 50pc of the cost of the SCW, whichever is the smaller.
This provision is primarily aimed at facilitating the construction of forest roads in environmentally sensitive sites to limit any potential adverse impact from harvesting activities.
Forest road developments which connect to an existing forest road network in a public, state-owned or private forest will be supported. In these situations, that proportion of forest road constructed outside of the applicant's land will be grant aided. The first instalment will be 90pc of the total payment while the remaining amount is paid as a second instalment.
Praising the new recommendations, Donal Whelan, technical director of the Irish Timber Growers Association said: "In relation to forest roads, the additional allowance for bell mouths in certain circumstances, the special construction grant and the funding to connect to other existing forest road networks are most welcome."
The reintroduced Woodland Improvement Scheme is also aimed at accessing more timber for fuel, as well as promoting the proper management of broadleaf woodlands and leading to healthier more productive broadleaf forests.
On the downside, the premium income being paid to anyone now planting land is reduced in absolute terms. While the annual premium is slightly increased, a farmer who entered the previous scheme was in fact better off overall.
The sum in question is not huge and with the state of our national finances, we are perhaps fortunate to have any scheme at all. Given the demand for both commercial timber and biomass, planting under our afforestation schemes has proved an excellent investment. This looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.