Leitrim and the gigantic forest debate
Almost 19pc of the county is covered by trees, mostly Sitka spruce. For some, these woodlands offer income and employment, but others decry the impact the monoculture trees are having on the landscape - and locals' mental health
Key findings in the third National Forest Inventory completed in 2017 show that Leitrim is the county with the highest percentage of forest cover (18.9pc). A total of 536ha was planted by private foresters in Leitrim in 2017.
While some people believe the employment and income benefits that come with this are positive, there is a growing section of society in Leitrim who claim that monoculture Sitka spruce plantations are having a negative impact on the landscape and on people's mental health.
We spoke to representatives from both sides to give their views on forestry in Leitrim.
In favour of forestry
Suckler farmer and forestry contractor Brendan Lynch thinks that some of the commentary around over-planting in Leitrim is "negative, exaggerated and untrue".
Brendan wants to "debunk myths" around forestry and explain how it has been a benefit to him, his family and the wider community of Carrigallen.
As well as managing a suckler herd on his 74-acre farm, Brendan has been working as a forestry contractor in the area for the last 25 years. He planted 12.5 acres of Sitka spruce and hardwood in 2014.
He says that without the forestry he would find it difficult to provide a living for his family, as suckler farming does not produce a sustainable income.
"The average income of a suckler farmer is €15,000-17,000, which is not enough to make a living and rear a family. By having forestry I'll be able to keep the family farm and pass it on to the next generation," he says.
"I planted Sitka spruce and hardwood in the outlying farm. I bought a piece of land a couple of years ago with the premium from that land that's in forestry, and I feel that forestry will be a pension for me in years to come."
Brendan says forestry offers crucial employment in Leitrim, adding that his brother is a forestry contractor there.
"Forestry provides sustainable employment by local Irish companies and not US companies that are going to close down in the next 10 years," he adds.
"Some things that have been said about forestry in recent times are negative, exaggerated and not true. It provides local employment in the area I live in, in harvesting, sawmills and woodchipping nearby as well."
Forestry and farming don't have to "face up to one another"; they can complement each other, Brendan says.
"Nobody wants to see the whole of the county planted. There's some great suckler, beef and dairy farmers and long may it continue, but I've been on land where I've planted forestry that had been neglected up to that point because it had not been in grass for two or three years," he says, arguing that planting forestry is better than leaving land abandoned.
Brendan says that contrary to claims made by some anti-over-planting groups, Sitka spruce planting is not leading to population decline in Leitrim.
"Some people talk about forestry decimating areas but there's more (people) living in Leitrim now than there was in previous years. The population has gone up over the years. Families from different parts of the country are moving in and people are living in houses that were once left idle," he says.
"Communities are changing. People come and go. The country has changed immensely in the last 30 years. You can't blame forestry for natural changes in society."
Brendan recognises that forestry isn't for everyone but he feels that there are plenty of other options such as the GLAS scheme that may suit farmers who don't have any interest in planting.
"Small farmers are nearly paid to farm the landscape and keep the environment right these days. They don't have to plant, they can sign up for GLAS scheme," he says. "It's a farmer's own personal choice."
Brendan acknowledges the point of view that a greater variety of trees need to be planted in the county, but he feels new, stricter guidelines introduced by the Department of Agriculture - which ensure that new forestry plans must include 15pc broadleaves - will help achieve more variety.
He says Sitka spruce do make the most economic sense to plant as there is "no selling point for hardwoods".
Are companies and investors in Sitka spruce planting driving farmers off the land?
"If people want to stop investors buying the land they have to be prepared to pay the market value for it," Brendan says.
Agricultural consultant Liam de Paor, who is based in the north-west, says a number of forestry-related businesses in Leitrim are providing employment to part-time farmers. An example of these is Masonite in Carrick-on-Shannon, which employs 144 people,
"There are two sawmills in Mohill in Co Leitrim, and Glennon Brothers in Longford," Liam says.
"Glennon Brothers employs 50 people directly in its Longford wood processing factory and has another 40 people indirectly employed in haulage and harvesting."
McMorrow Haulage in Dowra, Co Leitrim transports in excess of 3,000 tonnes of timber per week and has close to 30 employees.
"18pc of Wicklow is planted and you don't see anyone there complaining about it," Liam says.
Liam cites the 1999 Clinch report on forestry, which stated that "for every 100 jobs in the forestry sector, an extra 90 full-time equivalent jobs are provided in other sectors of the economy".
Regarding farm incomes on marginal land, Liam argues that cattle and sheep farmers stand to gain between €100 and €330 per hectare on average for each year of the forest rotation, and that the tourism that these forests provide is beneficial to the wider local economy.
"My father told me a story of one time in the 1950s he was on the way home from carrying turf to Manorhamilton and a man came out on the road saying he needed to talk to him.
"The man said he only had one daughter and that she was married to a fella in the town. He knew that there would be nobody there to take over the farm.
"He begged my father to buy the farm and made him promise that it wouldn't be used for forestry.
"My father bought the land and it's like that man could see into the future because all that area - bar that piece of land we have - is covered in forestry now."
These are the words of Mary Rooney, who is Leitrim chair of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA). The Manorhamilton native runs a sheep and suckler farm with her husband across the border in Gorteen, Co Sligo.
For as long as Mary remembers, she says the growth of Sitka spruce plantations has not been seen as a positive development by local people in Leitrim.
While people like her grandfather once worked in forestry, now few people in the immediate area are employed in the sector and in most cases people don't even know who own the plantations, she claims.
"Farmers can't get money from the banks to buy the land but there are EIB (European Investment Bank) loans that offer 1pc loans to forestry investors.
"We don't know who these investors are. They could be foreign investors or they could be Dublin," she says.
"A young farmer looking to expand won't be able to go in to a bank and get a 1pc loan. I know the argument is there that it's marginal land being planted but most of the land in Leitrim is marginal. Some of the best weanlings in the country are reared on marginal land in Leitrim.
"Farmers are prepared to work with the marginal land in Leitrim; and yes, many have an outside job to keep going - but they deserve the chance to work the land."
Mary feels that the monoculture Sitka spruce plantations are having a "detrimental" impact on people's mental health and the landscape of Leitrim.
"Sitka spruce forests are complete deserts. If you see it on a big scale it's shocking. Fine houses from the 1970s are now boarded up and surrounded by forestry. If you're surrounded by Sitka spruce on three sides, you'll never see the sun and your land will be shaded," she says.
"Frost doesn't lift in the winter time either. If you have dark green trees around you, the valley in front of you and your neighbours disappear and it's very lonely."
Mary thinks that if Ireland is serious about reaching its climate targets it needs to rethink its forestry policy and plant a greater variety of trees.
She says we must avoid a situation where Leitrim becomes a "disaster zone" of trees.
"We need to start planting the best carbon sequesters, and Sitka spruce are not the best. They're an insult to timber. People say that they are the only market for timber but that's because it's the only market we are aiming at. Jobs wouldn't be lost in Leitrim if we changed the type of trees we planted," she says.
"If we are serious about climate change we need to plant trees that are resilient to floods and fires. You saw in Portugal during the summer the wildfires of mass Eucalyptus trees, and if we got a summer like they did in the south of the country, Leitrim would be the next disaster zone.
"We should be aiming to plant 75pc broadleaf trees. There is potential for real timber to be cut and real trees to be grown, where there's wildlife and colour. We deserve the chance to do that."
Midlands north-west MEP Marian Harkin, an independent, thinks the Government policy around forestry needs to change so that farmers are on a level playing field with those who wish to plant forestry.
"The situation is driven by grant aid that the Government is putting forward," she says. "The price of land in Leitrim is not that high; if those who wish to buy forestry have a grant they can afford the land compared to farmers. This isn't happening anywhere else - just where the land price is low.
"All we are asking for is a level playing field with farmers. Farmers looking to expand can't afford to. The Government are presiding over a system that is locking farmers out of the market and the only people who can afford land are those with the grant aid."
She adds that she is not against forestry but that a balanced agro-forestry approach should be promoted rather than blanket Sitka spruce plantations.
"Nobody has a problem with agro-forestry, but blanket Sitka spruce plots are destroying communities. Who wants to live in a place where there's hectares and hectares of invasive species?
"Agro-forestry is a model that we should aspire to. This would mean farmers would plant some trees of different species, not all Sitka spruce."
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