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Forestry growers in need of a champion to challenge confusing stop-start initiatives

It is now almost two decades since I first decided to plant some of my land.

This decision was based on the promise that my forestry income would remain tax free and that I was creating a lasting and valuable asset while enhancing both the landscape and the environment.

For a few years, it seemed all of this was true. During that time thousands of other farmers planted and established the timber resource that is now the basis for our home sawmilling industry and the manufacture of a huge range of products from construction material to home heating fuel, fencing, decking, garden materials, gates, furniture and a host of other valuable items.

However, much of that early optimism evaporated, due to the the failure of past governments to reassure farmers that the various schemes would remain in place and unaltered.

Sadly, for well over a decade, this stop-start approach has continued unabated.

Roading grants have been scrapped and reinstated at a lower rate. Premium payments have been reduced and even the acreage to be planted was capped, depending on uptake.

Taxation was introduced and the regulations regarding planting, tending and thinning have all been altered in a manner that makes life extremely difficult for contractors, consultants and farm foresters.

More recently, we have seen the sterilising of large tracts of land simply because of a perception of a "possible" threat to the hen harrier, despite the fact that this lovely bird is currently breeding happily in areas heavily planted with conifers.

Due to the negative attitudes of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and some environmental NGOs, hundreds of thousands of acres of land are now frozen.

Why is it our regulatory authorities are so averse to increasing the area of woodland from the current 11pc, the lowest of any European country? It seems at times the Forest Service is trying to halt afforestation rather than promote it.

But where are the leaders?

In times of need, throughout the centuries, strong-minded and charismatic individuals have emerged who possess the ability to change public opinion in favour of a particular cause.

The arrival of the computer and iPhone have given us unlimited access to the internet and, with it, almost anyone can promote a cause if they handle the media cleverly. A good YouTube video can become a worldwide sensation and a clever advertisement a part of everyday life.

Just think of the success of the phrases "Because you're worth it" or "It does what it says on the tin" and how these slogans reach in to our subconscious and help sell a product. So why is our Forest Service so backward when it comes to selling the benefits of planting trees?

Bord Bia has an excellent website and sponsors celebrity chefs to teach us to value good food and healthy eating, so why not have a weekly TV show devoted to celebrity foresters or woodland owners?

Forestry needs a champion, someone to identify and promote the best practitioners of woodland management along with sawmillers, craftspeople, joiners, carpenters and the farmers who achieve excellence in the management of their woods.

The need for more trees has been widely publicised in the past so why are we now placing so many obstacles in the way of those who wish to plant?

Confidence has been badly eroded and it is difficult to understand how on the one hand Teagasc is funded to encourage afforestation, and on the other the Forest Service and Revenue are busy placing doubts in our minds.

All over Ireland small businesses are busy utilising the timber from our woods. They provide jobs, exports and a solid future for rural communities. Many farmers are keen to plant more of their land, especially given the awful weather we have endured.

They need leadership and encouragement rather than a host of draconian regulations that have little foundation.

Irish Independent