Forestry drive threatens rural life, warns IFA
Rural communities in the west are at risk of being swallowed by towering woodlands as foreign investment companies buy up huge tracts of agricultural land to plant trees for export, the IFA says.
Last week, more than 200 farmers voiced opposition to the surge of afforestation in Leitrim - which they believe is being "unfairly targeted" by the Government's national policy to increase forestry.
Roscommon, Sligo, Cavan and Longford are also affected.
Young farmers in Leitrim say they are being "bullied" out of buying land to expand their farms as banks and other financial institutions favour international companies with "huge budgets".
The Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) fear entire parishes will be obliterated if planting continues. The organisation is calling on the Government to place immediate controls on foreign investors buying land to plant and to prevent them from availing of the same grants and tax concessions as farmers.
Adrian Leddy, IFA regional development officer for Leitrim, Longford, Sligo and Roscommon, says farmers are angry.
"If forestry is allowed to continue like this, it's going to wipe out rural communities in Leitrim and other counties with disadvantaged land. Not alone will the farmers be wiped out but we will lose local villages, schools and post offices, the whole fabric of rural Ireland will be destroyed," he said.
"It's vulture funds, pension funds and foreign companies with huge budgets who are buying up land for forestry. The money they have is totally out of reach of any farmer, young or old, who wants to buy land to make a decent, life out of farming," he said.
"Once the land is planted that's it, it is taken out of mainstream agriculture for good," he said adding that 17pc of the county is currently covered in woodland. Leitrim IFA are calling for a full review of the forestry programme.
"We don't want to a see a situation where farmers' sons and daughters have to go abroad to America or Canada we would like to see that there is a future for them on the land at home," he said.
Almost 11pc of the entire country has been planted with a vision of developing a vibrant export-orientated forest sector and to improve the national carbon footprint. The Government target for afforestation is 14,700 hectares per annum, leading to 18pc national forest cover by 2046.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture said: "The vast majority of lands planted since the 1990s are owned by farmers, in excess of 85pc. The remaining cohort consists of private investors, pension funds or private individuals who own lands".
Speaking in the Dail last week, Andrew Doyle, Minister of State for Food, Forestry and Horticulture said he is "well aware" of the issue in Leitrim. "The bulk of new forest plantation in recent years has been undertaken by farmers. Forestry is a viable land use alternative and farmers have availed of the afforestation scheme in significant numbers in recent years," he said.