A massive increase in the level of farmer interest in forestry has been reported by forestry companies this spring.
Up to date figures on afforestation approvals from the Department of Agriculture show that the area earmarked for forestry during the first three months of the year is running 20pc ahead of normal levels.
Approvals for 3,684ha have been issued by the Department of Agriculture since January, compared to 3,013ha for the same period to March 2013. There has also been an increase in the number of approved applicants, 469 to March this year as compared to 441 to March 2013.
Last year a total of 1,993 approvals were issued covering a land base of 16,230ha.
However, only 6,400ha of these options were taken up by farmers.
Historically, the majority of farmers converting to forestry come from the low profit beef sector. But there is now a trend where farmers, who are handing over their farms to the next generation, will plant a portion of their lands as a retirement policy.
Industry sources stressed this week that there was a marked difference between farmers expressing an interest in forestry and farmers actually planting woodlands.
Marina Conway of Western Forestry Co-Op in Sligo told the Farming Independent that there has been a "definite" increase in the level of interest from farmers in forestry this year.
"There's interest alright but whether this translates into hectares is another matter," she said.
With the Single Farm Payment secured until 2019 and the new GLAS scheme in the pipeline, farmers were now looking at all the options open to them, she pointed out.
Paddy Bruton, of Forestry Services in Kilkenny, agreed that the level of interest in forestry was up this year, but he stressed that interest in forestry and intention to grow were two different concepts.
He said beef farmers and those fattening cattle might be considering forestry today because of the state of the beef market but if the beef market improved over the next few months they might reconsider that option.
The next stage in the process for landowners with forestry approvals and who intend to plant comes in June, when the Forestry Service will issue financial approval for plans and this will be followed later by grant approvals.
Donal Whelan of the Irish Timber Growers Association was also cautious about the latest forestry figures.
He said that last year only 40pc of the approvals, or 6,400ha were planted. However, he said it was simple business prudence for farmers – especially beef farmers on marginal land – to consider the forestry option.
Mr Whelan said his association was currently urging farmers to participate in the latest consultation process initiated by the Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, on a new Government-backed Forestry Programme which is expected to be announced at the end of this year.
The biggest year in terms of afforestation during that last two decades was 1995 when 23,000ha were planted. However, 17,000ha of this total was planted by Coillte.