Outsiders investing in forestry 'threat to fabric of rural life' claim farmers
Payments for forestry plantations should be restricted to residents or businesses who live within a 50km radius of the land, according to a radical proposal from the hill farmers.
With interest in woodland investments on the rise amongst farmers and businesses, hill farmers have claimed forestry expansion is threatening the "fabric of rural life".
However, the proposal for a major overhaul in Afforestation Premiums that the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA) plans to raise with the Department of Agriculture has come under fire from forestry companies.
Paddy Bruton from the private firm Forestry Services said national buyers account for the vast majority of purchases and there were in fact not that many international buyers or so-called vulture funds buying into woodlands.
Mr Bruton described a 50km radius as "ludicrous", warning it was infringing on property rights.
"If they want to apply it to forestry then apply it to every farm sector. So should anyone leasing the 700ac Roscommon farm only be allowed to lease it if they are within 50km?" he said.
"A person selling their land wants to get the best price possible. If that is payable by someone from Wexford for land in Roscommon than why should the seller not avail of that price?"
The INHFA's Gerry Loftus claimed forestry expansion threatens the "very fabric of rural life and unless radical changes are made to the premium and the establishment grant then this threat will become a distinct reality throughout western seaboard counties".
Mr Loftus pointed out the annual Afforestation Premium in excess of €600/ha can be received regardless of where a person lives or what type of business they are in.
"These premium and possible futuristic carbon credits are the main driving forces behind the forestry expansion," he said.
The INHFA are proposing that any future premium or establishment grants would require that the resident's main home is within 50km of the forestry site, similarly for the headquarters of a business.
"It would not impact on local farmers who wanted to plant some of their land but it would eliminate companies and others coming to counties such as Leitrim and using that land potential as a carbon right-off at no cost to them but enormous cost to the local community."
However, the Department of Agriculture said it must be remembered that the majority of payments for forestry premia and grants continue to be made to farmers who own their own land.
"It would not be legally possible to restrict eligibility for payments under EU state aid rules on grounds of geographic location," it pointed out.
It comes as new figures show planting is falling far short of the government ambitions with just 2,000 hectares set so far this year, down 14pc on this time last year.
Currently, forest covers 11pc of Ireland's land.
The government policy ambition is to grow this figure to 18pc by 2050 with woodland being used as a carbon sink as part of the country's climate change mitigation plan.
Meanwhile, the IFA farm forestry chair Pat Collins has advised farmers who have financial approval to afforest to wait until the autumn to plant.
He said the planting season had been extended following the introduction of the Forestry Regulation, which now requires farmers to erect a site notice.
However, planting in dry conditions resulted in stressed plants.
INHFA calls for 50km restriction on payments for plantation investments
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