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Darragh McCullough: Misguided anti-forestry protests harm farmers and the environment

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Stumped: Forestry development is at a standstill nationwide as objections block the planting and harvesting of coniferous plantations. Picture: Alf Harvey.

Stumped: Forestry development is at a standstill nationwide as objections block the planting and harvesting of coniferous plantations. Picture: Alf Harvey.

Alf Harvey

Stumped: Forestry development is at a standstill nationwide as objections block the planting and harvesting of coniferous plantations. Picture: Alf Harvey.

I see that Sionad Jones escaped with nothing more than a slap on the wrist recently for sawing down 250 trees and killing another 250 in a Coillte plantation in west Cork.

Ms Jones is heralded as an 'environmental hero' for attempting to convert some of the forest back to the way she remembers the landscape when she first moved from Wales to Bantry over 30 years ago.

If it had been my forestry I'd be livid. Since when does a person have the right to start destroying anybody's crop just because they don't like it?

The same logic that these activists use on Sitka spruce could apply to any field being farmed in Ireland. A farmer grows a 100pc ryegrass sward because up to now that's been the best way to maximise grass yields.

Yes, a multi-species sward might be the norm in the future, but until farmers figure out how to manage these new species mixes, self-styled heroes don't have the right to go in and destroy the crop.

The same applies to a field of wheat, potatoes or any other crop. These are monocultures because we haven't any better way of producing food at rock-bottom prices.

Do these monocultures destroy the environment? Not if they are grown responsibly in the patchwork quilt that characterises Ireland's farming landscape. Short of rewilding the whole country, its actually pretty biodiverse.

But there is this creeping notion that as a society we don't really need to be making the most of our natural resources for production anymore.

Is this the Google effect? Have the billions in corporation taxes blinded us to what our natural resources can provide?

When global Goliaths like Facebook, Google and Apple are buying up office space and data centres, some people seem to think that farming, forestry and fisheries don't really matter anymore.

They may be right. But what if they are wrong?

What if there is a big push by Donald Trump to bring every footloose US multinational back to Make America Great Again? What if the UK slashes its corporate tax rates to entice more big companies to set up shop there?

Now we have Sinn Féin looking to classify Sitka spruce as an invasive species, and blacklist it from any future forestry premia. If this happens, it will simply bring all forestry planting to a halt, since there is no viable return from planting only native species.

Tragically, forestry activity has already ground to a standstill nationally. Serial objectors have developed a small industry out of objecting to anyone looking to either plant or harvest coniferous plantations.

They encourage people to fire off another hurdle for farmers to clear.

But they are just holding the State to account. That's how a democracy is supposed to work.

Maybe the real issue is inside in the Department of Agriculture? Each of the appealed cases has already been signed off on by the Department's dedicated Forest Service.

Are these civil servants up to the job if the appeals committee rejects nearly every second case the Forest Service have rubber-stamped, as was the case in the first five weeks of this year?

The same section has suffered from a woeful lack of appropriate staffing.

Forestry advisors claim there are over 1,200 applications waiting to be assessed on ecological grounds. Bizarrely, the Department has until very recently only employed one ecologist who was able to process approximately two cases a week.

Forestry contractors with staff on short weeks and millions invested in idle machines are ready to start protesting, and I can understand their frustration.

Why the €2.4bn that the forestry sector generates annually is any less worthy of fighting for than the €2.4bn generated by the beef sector beats me.

The fish sector is another example of a massive national resource tied up in knots by our apparent disregard for its potential.

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Scotland has a coastline that is about three times longer than Ireland's, but it manages to produce ten times more farmed fish than us. Norway's indented coastline is about eight times longer than ours, yet they manage to produce about 160 times more farmed fish than us.

This is not a call to plaster our coastlines in fish farms or our marginal areas with forestry. But in a world where wild fish stocks are plummeting, and carbon concentrations are rising, there has to be room for well-managed forestry and aquaculture.

If the issue is a concern about foreign investment buying up tracts of land or controlling our coastlines, that's a job for our legislators.

Equally, if the issue is lack of skills in the Department of Agriculture, that should be fixable within months if not weeks.

But then I see Sinn Féin calling forestry investment west of the Shannon a "land grab of the west". That's not concern about communities and jobs in the west. That's just populism. The same populism that celebrates somebody destroying a legitimate crop.

Indo Farming