Is now the time to set up a forest owners association?
Donegal group provides a model for what's needed
There are around 16,000 Irish farmers who have planted trees under the afforestation schemes that were introduced in the early 1990s. Many did so without having any knowledge of forestry, for in those early days proper, professional advice was hard to find.
At that time, Teagasc had people with no background or qualification in the forestry profession giving advice on forestry matters, and it was very difficult to know where to look for independent guidance and support. Many farmers also chose to plant without seeking any outside advice or assistance and this provided an opportunity for some unscrupulous contractors to carry out establishment work without proper care and attention.
The Forest Service did not have enough inspectors monitoring planting and, as a result, too many substandard plantations were left unchecked. Things have, of course, improved since then but this is of little consolation to the people who are left owning woodland that has no viable commercial future.
The years 1994-1996 saw a huge increase in private planting figures. Contractors and nurseries worked flat out to meet the demand from farmers and other landowners. Land prices were relatively low and the afforestation scheme looked, and indeed was, a very attractive long-term investment. But the final premium payment date is now looming for many of those who participated in the early years.
If those people own well-stocked, well-managed forests, then they can sit back and congratulate themselves on a wise decision to plant trees.
If their woodland has been poorly managed or the wrong species were planted, then they have a real problem on their hands. One can, of course, blame the unfortunate landowners themselves for not attending conferences, seminars and open days and learning as much as possible about forestry before committing precious acres to such a long-term use; but some were elderly or busy in other part-time employment, and perhaps some were also gullible and thus easy prey for the conmen and vultures that are present in every walk of life.
Whatever the reasons, many people are now faced with trying to earn an income from land that has been planted with trees not suited to the site they are on, and if they fell and replant with a fast-growing species such as spruce they still have to wait a further 20 years or more for an income from thinning. Our Forest Service has a responsibility to those landowners, as do the many other agencies who advised on what one could plant and where.
Perhaps the owners of broadleaf plantations could be given the option of having their woods incorporated into a FEPS scheme. The land could then continue to provide them with a modest income while benefiting the environment for the national good.