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Saturday 10 December 2016

Opportunity and danger in plan for Coillte

Despite farmers overtaking the semi-State body in the amount of trees planted, seeing its forests put into private ownership could pose problems

Joe Barry

Published 26/04/2011 | 05:00

Coillte have excelled at creating access to their woodlands, such as at Colonel's Woods, Knockranny, Westport, Co Mayo, where visitors can
enjoy signed walks and other open air pastimes
Coillte have excelled at creating access to their woodlands, such as at Colonel's Woods, Knockranny, Westport, Co Mayo, where visitors can enjoy signed walks and other open air pastimes

According to my dictionary, a red herring is the term used to describe "an irrelevant distraction". It's hard to think of a more apt description for the recent furore over the rumoured sale of Coillte's lands than just that, an irrelevant distraction which did, however, promote some good discussion regarding the future of the company.

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It all began with Colm McCarthy's Bord Snip Nua report, which suggested that the sale of some State assets was desirable and this, in turn, fuelled the rumour machine.

Fine Gael had stated its intentions for Coillte quite clearly in its election manifesto and proposed a merger with Bord na Mona.

Furthermore, I am sure Labour would dislike the thought of any semi-State company being sold to the highest bidder. Apart altogether from the politics of the issue and the dislike socialists might have for private ownership, the land under Coillte's management belongs to you and me.

Everything in State ownership is, of course, owned by the taxpayers of Ireland and I doubt if, deep down, any of us would like to see 7pc of the Republic of Ireland's land mass in the control of a foreign multinational.

The public's perception of Coillte is a bit like their feelings about Marmite. You either love it or hate it -- and a lot depends on who you are talking to.

Some are unhappy with the return we are getting from this huge land resource of well over 1m acres and question Coillte's commitment, especially in recent years, towards replanting those parts of its land which have perhaps suffered fire damage or simply been clearfelled.

It is generally understood that Coillte's primary function was, and is, to grow trees and to keep on increasing the planted area, not to leave land idle or sell bits of it for wind farms and other developments.

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While we undoubtedly need sites for wind farms, surely the money so gained should be put into further planting rather than boosting the company's balance sheet.

In 2009, Coillte sold more than €33m worth of immature forests and this asset sale was then shown in the books as having generated a profit of €25m.

Private sector planting has recently overtaken that of Coillte and it is the farmers of Ireland who are now leading the field in creating carbon credits, sustaining jobs in sawmilling and reducing our future costs for imported timber.

The recent discovery of P.Ramorum in a Sitka spruce tree must be a worry for Coillte, whose planted estate contains around 70pc Sitka, with huge areas supporting just the one species. A move to diversify the mix would be costly but may be unavoidable.

Many also question the merit of paying the chief executive of Coillte, David Gunning, more than €400,000 annually.

In 2008, his total salary and benefits added up to €489,000. This is more than the president of the United States earns and is hard to comprehend at a time when the company has hugely reduced its general workforce and is not paying a dividend to its shareholders, the citizens of Ireland.

We all greatly miss those wonderful foresters from the past who used to engage with local communities and facilitate farmers who greatly appreciated being able to purchase small lots of timber wnen required for wood fuel or fencing.

There are, of course, other viewpoints and other sides to the issue which cannot be ignored and which remind me of the famous Monty Python question: "What have the Romans ever done for us?"

Well, in the case of Coillte, it has excelled at creating access to its woodlands, where we can all enjoy healthy outdoor pursuits with signed walks and facilities for mountain biking and other open-air pastimes.

This wonderful resource is often taken for granted by those who use it but they should stop and think what it costs to maintain it all and how access would undoubtedly be limited if the land were in private ownership.

Coillte also supplies many useful services to the private forestry sector and is in the difficult position that all semi-State bodies find themselves in, which is the conflict between showing a cash profit and providing benefits for the public that are extremely costly but politically expedient.

If a break-up of Coillte were to be considered, I am sure many farmers, like myself, along with some of the forestry contracting companies, would love the opportunity to lease some of those million acres for forestry.

It would kickstart a resurgence in planting, especially if the carbon credits were translated into cash for the timber growers.

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