THE protection of the hen harrier is one of the biggest impediments to the expansion of forestry on marginal agricultural land in Limerick and north Kerry.
A substantial amount of land in this region is designated as Special Protection Areas for the bird of prey, meaning forestry planting within these areas does not qualify for establishment grant aid for forestry.
The resulting loss of income and employment opportunities is all the more frustrating for farmers and landowners as our marginal agricultural land and climate is ideal for Sitka spruce production.
We have the fastest growth rates and highest timber quality of any country in Europe. We also have a labour force ready and able with the experience and knowledge to carry out all forest operations.
The benefit of each acre planted to the local economy is estimated at €1,000/ac and this figure includes the cost of mounding, fencing, plants, planting and crop maintenance.
Forestry also provides the basis for a viable local industry into the future. There is no reason why a timber processing sawmill – manufacturing products for the construction industry or for export – could not be built in our region using timber grown in our own local forests.
Jobs would be created during the construction phase and sustainable jobs during the manufacturing process. Spin-off opportunities could include:
* Pallet production;
* Stake production;
* Landscaping opportunities using bark mulch and sawdust;
* Firewood sales using pulp and off-cuts (this market has seen huge growth in recent years). Forestry premia could also be an invaluable source of guaranteed income in this region.
Income from forestry would certainly have helped alleviate some of the stress and anguish that numerous farmers and their families in this region experienced last winter and spring.
For instance, a farmer who plants 20ac would receive €3,400 in tax-free premia. Up to a month ago that would have purchased 50 bales of hay or 10t of concentrates.
I believe the removal of this ban on planting in these areas should be given serious consideration.
As things stand, the value of land within a Hen Harrier SPA is very much reduced for planting.
All new planting is strictly regulated by the Forest and Wildlife Service. Its inspectorate is to be commended for their vigilance in ensuring all silvicultural and environmental aspects are strictly implemented.
All aspects of forestry including establishment, maintenance, harvesting and saw milling are meticulously regulated. We no longer have the blanket wall-to-wall planting with Sitka spruce.
Detailed set-back distances must be observed in relation to roads, streams and dwellings. For example, 15pc open space has to be included in each application, with a requirement that a minimum of 10pc broadleaf must be included. In addition, all archaeological features must be protected.
I would also suggest that the combination of retained open space and scrub areas is the ideal haven for all bird and wildlife.
It's not just farmers and landowners who are affected by the hen harrier protection measures; these measures are also affecting the livelihoods of agricultural contractors.
In some Special Protection Areas, grant-aided harvest roads cannot be constructed between April 1 and August 15 because this is the hen harrier's nesting season. This ban means that no road building takes place during the best months of the year and reduces work opportunities for contractors.
A grant of €35 per metre at a rate of 20m per hectare is available for road building. Postponing road construction until after August 15 means that no thinning will occur in any of the plantations until the following year, in order to allow the road to settle. Once again, this denies the farmer an income stream from his thinning before the arrival of winter.
Serious consideration should be given to the removal of this restriction. Allow farmers the freedom of choice to manage their own land to their best advantage in these areas.
Afforestation and farming can complement one another and retain the hen harrier as a friend not a foe.
Michael Sweeney is managing director of Select Forest Ltd based in Co Limerick