Deciduous trees have huge environmental benefits but there is little financial reward in them, so farmers need to be incentivised with an appropriate lifetime annual premium
In the 1950s and ’60s, many Dutch and German farmers moved to Ireland, attracted by the low price of land and the availability of top-quality properties, especially in Meath and Kildare.
Some also bought peaty land and set up plant nurseries, successfully specialising in horticulture, something the Dutch have excelled at for generations.
Many also began growing corn and did so with great efficiency, ploughing right up to the margins of fields. And it wasn’t long before Irish farmers copied their practices.
By the start of the 1970s, it had become the standard to drain wetlands, remove hedgerows and utilise every inch of available land. These activities were funded by generous grants, and this continued until recently, when we realised that there was an environmental crisis with little or nothing left for wildlife.
Modern combines, and planting another tillage crop immediately following harvest, completed the disappearance of grain-rich stubbles, a centuries-old food source for wildlife. The population of farmland birds and insects collapsed.
But attitudes have changed and we are now asked to leave wide headlands, sow wildflower mixes and plant trees.
Isn’t it amazing, however, that in order to plant trees, we require numerous permits relating to landscape, climate, ecology etc? These often take years to obtain, yet anyone can still plough up old pastures in the morning and plant wheat without any such obstructions or delays?
I don’t want to offend my many friends who are tillage farmers (I was one myself), but given the inputs of chemicals, herbicides and pesticides used to grow a good crop of wheat, compared to trees, it’s clear which is the better for the environment and for the prevention of climate change.
It is obvious we need wheat and barley, but we also need trees to absorb carbon and use as construction timber, fencing materials and wood fuel to reduce our dependence on imported oil, gas and coal.
Our politicians seem to be obsessed with public consultations, which are about as useful as asking the opinions of the general public through social media.
Most people have only the haziest idea regarding species of trees and how and where to plant them.
When asked they will probably say that they think trees are nice green things that birds nest in, and are good for the climate and the environment. And from what they have heard, native broadleaves are better than conifers.
Ask them why they think this and they are lost and murmur something on the lines that they have read somewhere that this is so.
Yet there are ample genuine experts available on all issues relating to forestry, ecology, timber use and climate change to provide us with experienced and reliable advice. Why don’t we listen to them?
I am referring here to the many professional foresters and woodland management consultants and the staff in our Forest Service.
Let us benefit from their accumulated wisdom, knowledge and experience, rather than running around like headless chickens discussing a topic of huge national importance with people who know little or nothing about it.
Recently I asked a forester with a lifetime’s experience of woodland and environmental management, how did he think farmers could be persuaded to plant trees.
He said the answer was simple. Pay them. If our policy-makers want farmers to plant broadleaves, then they must be paid a lifetime annual premium that adequately reflects the long-term nature of the enterprise.
A sufficiently large 20-year premium is appropriate for conifers that will be harvested in a further 10/20 years’ time.
Under the current schemes, he said, no farmer in their right mind would plant broadleaves if they wanted a financial return.
Of all the broadleaf species available, ash was the only one that those of us who planted back in the ’90s felt sure would reward our investment, so the arrival of ash dieback disease has been little short of a national tragedy.
But we must face reality, deal with this setback and get our planting programmes moving again.
I am a huge fan of broadleaf species but I have never deluded myself that, apart from ash, I would ever make money from them.
Like so many others I just like them for multiple reasons that I have often written about, but when it comes to a financial return, the only trees that are commercially viable are conifers.
Forestry is an additional farm enterprise that is great for the environment and the economy. We could easily meet all our national needs if only the minister in charge would get her act together.
Joe Barry is a farmer and forester based on the Meath-Kildare border