Leitrim county councillors have unanimously agreed to amend their County Development Plan in a bid to curb the level of afforestation in the county.
In a development which campaigners say has echoes of the successful anti- fracking campaign in the county, councillors approved three motions to amend the plan, despite reservations from the executive about the legal implications of such a move.
The issue has now been referred to the council’s economic and planning special policy committee which has been charged with developing a formula of words which will ensure the amendment complies with national government policy and does not affect the rights of landowners.
Welcoming the councillors’ decision, Edwina Guckian, a member of the Save Leitrim lobby group which was established last January, said the cross-party support for the motions reflected widespread community concern about the level of afforestation in the county.
She said she believed people power would be an important part of this campaign with many of those involved in the fight against fracking, now highlighting their concerns about the proportion of Sitka spruce plantations in Leitrim.
Save Leitrim estimate that the 14,000 hectares of forestry plantations in Leitrim account for 50pc of the agricultural land.
Guckian said that the scale of afforestation was soaring.
“We know from the Department figures that 1700 acres were planted in Leitrim in 2017 – and in the first eight weeks of this year, licence applications were received for 600 acres”, she said.
The campaigner said that because an environmental assessment was required for any licence application over 50 hectares, “some of them apply for 30 hectares now and 20 more a few months later”.
Fianna Fáil Councillor Sinead Guckian who proposed that the County Development Plan be amended because of concerns about “the monoculture of Sitka spruce plantations”, said the council had for two years been trying to get the department to look at the licensing process “but our efforts were falling on deaf ears”.
She said officials from Letirim county council had revealed that there were six cases on file where they had raised concerns about licence applications which were subsequently given the go ahead by the Department of Agrciulture and Forestry.
Her party colleague Justin Warnock, also proposed that the county development plan be amended to protect the environment, farmers and rural communities “from the subsidised violation and exploitation of our farmland by speculators, hedge funds and vulture funds."
He said local farmers who wanted to expand their holdings could not compete with investors buying up land for afforestation who were attracted by the tax free status of forestry.
“Do the people of Ireland want tax payers’ money to be used to displace locals”, he asked.
Campaigners say there has been a surge in the level of forestry by non-farmers, many from outside the county.
In a report to elected representatives, the council executive stressed the importance of not interfering with the statutory rights of land owners.
They also pointed out that afforestation is supported by government incentives because of its carbon sequestration potential.
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