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Irish farmers need to get over their aversion towards planting trees


I am very excited at the prospect that we are, hopefully, going to plant some forestry.

We've often talked about it and finally it looks like its going to happen.

When our forebears arrived here 9,000 years ago, broadleaf forest dominated. Coverage declined initially due to the change from hunter-gathering to agriculture. But the process accelerated rapidly from the 1600s onwards, due to exports to England for shipbuilding, etc.

At the turn of the 20th century, just 2pc of Ireland's land area was covered by forests. This has now risen to 11pc, with three-quarters of this being classified as predominantly conifer.

The target nationally is to bring the afforested area to 18pc by the middle of the century, and that ambition is attracting increased impetus in the context of our climate change strategy.

However, this year is actually seeing a contraction in planting, due to well-publicised reasons, while increased non-farmer activity in the sector is also raising some hackles.

Unlike other countries where farmers routinely plant trees to satisfy their own firewood requirements, I wonder why many Irish farmers see planting trees as only something for the old, infirm or those whose ambition has plateaued.

Perhaps part of the reason is that up to relatively recently, enough firewood was readily available through fallen trees and natural regeneration?

There are attractive (if reduced) grants available for planting and in 15-year annual premia. Moreover, grants, premia and timber sales are exempt from income tax and claiming them does not affect entitlement to the Basic Payment, subject to criteria. Profits from forestry are exempt from income tax.

A 2014 study into farmers' attitudes towards forestry found that, while financial considerations were important, so were other factors.

These include continuing a family farm tradition, the preference for a farming lifestyle and, especially, that "good" land should not be planted even if it returns a higher income.

Farmers just don't see forestry as an enterprise like others.

What farmers do see is themselves is as temporary caretakers whose job is to hand on the land in at least as good a condition as they get it.

So the requirement that planted land must remain in forestry in perpetuity is off-putting.

If there is one single change that would stir new interest, it seems that this would be it. If forestry is as good a gig as is being made out, such compulsion shouldn't be necessary.

Another issue is the length of time it takes for the crop to mature.

There is a saying that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the next best time is today. However, this does provide flexibility around harvesting. A temporary dip in prices can be ridden out and the crop continues to appreciate in the meantime.

Back to ourselves, we have enlisted the help of a forester called Gerry Blake, who has paid us a couple of visits and is now helping to complete the rather onerous application form.

We are hoping to plant about 10 acres, in two lots. It's all marginal land which has been reseeded on a number of occasions, but rushes quickly reappear.

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We are hoping that the smaller piece will be suitable for native woodland, as we are keen to enhance the ecological value of the farm.

I also love the idea of strolling through our own patch of deciduous forest. If we don't get to do it, someone else will.

As for the larger area, the current thinking is that Norway Spruce, with 10pc broadleaves, may be the most practical.

We are currently buzzing with enthusiasm. Hopefully, we still will be by the time the application process is complete.

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