Forestry proposal for 1.8m hectares of marginal land
Taxation measures, guaranteed subsidy payments, and new grant levels for forestry are all recommended in a report to help boost the number of trees being planted.
The in-depth report also calls for discussions between the forestry sector and the National Parks and Wildlife Service over permitting some planting in Hen Harrier special protection areas as soon as possible.
The report - from the Council for Forest Research and Development, COFORD - highlighted 1.08m hectares of land with 'limited' agricultural capabilities that could be utilised for forestry plantations.
It notes that farmers "seem to be unwilling to afforest", despite returns from forestry that are comparable to cattle and sheep farming.
When land that is subject to environmental constraints is excluded, the area being targeted falls to 1.08m hectares. Some 49pc of this is being currently used for cattle, 18pc for dairy, 27pc for sheep, 2pc for tillage and 4pc in mixed livestock farming.
Minister of State for forestry, Tom Hayes, said the report showed there was a major land asset in Ireland that was "suitable to support an increase in forest cover".
With forestry being touted as a vital contribution to the farm sector's efforts to minimise greenhouse gas emissions, Mr Hayes said they would be examining the 28 recommendations in the report to work towards "restoring the national forest resource".
However, he noted that there were already "attractive grant aid and premium payments" in place for landowners.
The IFA Farm forestry chair Michael Fleming urged the minister to adopt the recommendation to assess the suitability of land in productive capacity to grow timber as a matter of urgency.
Mr Fleming said this would open up more productive marginal land that has been restricted from the Afforestation Programme since 2010.
"The report estimates that there are nearly 180,000ha of productive marginal land that have a yield class greater than 14 - a requirement of the Afforestation Scheme - that is not currently farmed. It is this land base that we need to be targeting to achieve our Afforestation Programme and maximise farm incomes," said Mr Fleming.
The 'Site Classification' system recommended in the report examines the site suitability for afforestation, using information on soil and vegetation to determine productivity.
Mr Fleming urged farmers to consider forestry as a potential option for their land and to examine the available grants and premiums. He also highlighted beneficial changes in the last Budget on forestry income.
"The report also identifies 1.8m hectares of land that are classified as being "limited" for agriculture but with forestry presenting a viable alternative land use option, particularly when you consider that the returns from forestry are comparable to cattle and sheep systems," said Mr Fleming.
The report also recommended that forest premiums be guaranteed at entry level rate and the landowner qualify for any increase in rates that may happen in the future.
It recommends the maximum timeframe for processing straightforward afforestation approvals and payments be set at three months. There are 735,000ha under forestry - 10.5pc of the land area- with aims to plant 15,000ha a year up to 2020. In 2014, 6,252ha were planted.
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