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It’s time to go Dutch and make our forestry about more than just wood

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We know woodlands can make money and help the environment, but the Netherlands have shown that with a bit of lateral thinking, forestry can also play a big role in keeping rural communities on the land.

Irish farmers should take note of what the Dutch do. Despite being a small country, the Netherlands is the second largest exporter of agricultural products in the world.

They are renowned for their agricultural systems — a farming nation to be taken seriously.

We can thank/blame the Dutch for the colour of carrots. Back in the 16th century, carrots were white, yellow, black, purple or red — but the Dutch bred orange varieties to honour their House of Orange.

Ireland and the Netherlands have a similar percentage forest cover, the lowest in Europe, but Dutch woodlands play a significant social role for their population.

The woodlands they have on suitable lands with appropriate species have been shown to be economically and environmentally sustainable.

The third pillar of sustainability, social sustainability, is often questioned in Ireland in the context of forestry.

Studies have shown that forestry is economically sustainable on suitable marginal lands as referred to in the recent report on the Socio-Economic Impact of Forestry in Leitrim.

This report concluded that forestry would economically outperform cattle farming on 57pc of Irish farms nationally, and beat sheep farming in 56pc of cases.

However, the social wellbeing of farmers must be paramount in any forestry programme, as farm families are encouraged to continue to live and work locally.

Environmentally, where the right trees are planted in the right places, woodlands can provide a myriad of benefits.

Forestry and woodland planting are central to our Climate Action Plan and enhance the sustainability of the agriculture sector, by sequestering carbon and mitigating emissions.

Woodlands also positively contribute to our biodiversity, they provide recreational and amenity areas, contribute to water protection and flood prevention, are sources of renewable energy, and assist with air filtration/pollution removal.

Farming is a way of life, and not just an income-generating activity and is critically important socially and culturally to Ireland.

The wider forestry sector must become more aware of this and create opportunities where farmers can farm their woodlands generating ongoing income streams to allow families work on the land.

Encouraging the younger generation to take pride in sustainable woodland and farming activity will be increasingly important — research shows that many younger rural people are leaving the land, and many farmers do not have a succession plan in place.

This is something the forestry community is working to address.

For example, recent Irish Timber Growers Association (ITGA) events have looked at different woodland enterprises such as bee keeping, inoculating logs with various species of edible mushrooms, establishing truffle orchards, forest foliage production, agroforestry, and introducing wild turkeys and free-range pigs.

Then you have wood crafts and various woodland recreational ventures.

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With almost 10 million tourists visiting Ireland annually with a €5.6 billion annual spend, woodland recreation is becoming increasingly important and could be further developed.

Health and wellness now dominate strategic thinking in the food industry, and our green woodland environments have a significant natural advantage in this area.

For example, researchers have found that Irish heather honey contains health benefits comparable with the world-renowned manuka honey from New Zealand.

Woodland honey has a significant history in Ireland. PW Joyce’s A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland outlines the importance of the management of bees by the ancient Irish and refers to the 20-page section of Brehon Laws devoted to it Ireland has one of the widest differentials in the EU between farmers’ incomes and gross wages/salaries in the wider economy. Forestry income will be critical in bridging that gap — making rural Ireland more socially sustainable.The new CAP measures will provide a valuable opportunity for greater integration of forestry.

Forestry is recognised as our most significant potential carbon sink and should be prioritised with appropriate payments to farmers for the public goods produced — along with the forestry sector fostering new initiatives in socially sustainable woodland creation and management.

Donal Whelan is the Technical Director of the Irish Timber Growers Association (ITGA).


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