Trying to boost forestry is a hard sell beyond the Garden County

Downing on politics

Minister of State for Forestry, Andrew Doyle.
Minister of State for Forestry, Andrew Doyle.
John Downing

John Downing

Andrew Doyle believes there is still a conflict between tree growing and food production in Ireland. Farmers incline towards producing beef, dairy or sheep meat - growing trees risks meaning one less house in the community and more land out of production.

The Wicklow TD and junior agriculture minister now responsible for forestry promotion says his own experience was quite the opposite growing up on the family farm near Roundwood, close to Glendalough, in one of Ireland's most beautiful areas.

"Any window I look out at home, I'm looking at plantations. I'm minutes away from woods where I go mountain biking with my brothers," he says.

"Where I grew up, forestry was an important part of the rural economy. People with small holdings or no land at all often got work in forestry. It gave them regular income, firewood from windfalls and flexibility to engage in other work."

Wicklow is one of Ireland's few counties which comes near the aspirational but rather fictional target of 18pc of land in forestry. The theory is that Ireland, currently with the EU's lowest ratio of forestry at 11.7pc, would go to 18pc by 2046.

That is not going to happen as it would require a yearly planting of 16,000 hectares. The new Programme for Government has a target of 8,300 hectares per year - and the current planting level is in or about 6,300 hectares.

Ever the pragmatist, Andrew Doyle believes he will be doing well if he can push up by about one third and reach the programme target. The issue is inextricably linked to the vexed topic of climate change and sits alongside ambitious plans to expand Ireland's dairy and beef sector.

The minister is a "true believer" in forestry and has one son working in the sector and another training in it at UCD. He has also recently taken the plunge on his own holding of 190 acres.

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"We always had 110 acres of good land and about 80 acres of what we called 'the bog'. This was old turf-cutting banks which were in fact dangerous and where we lost livestock in big bogholes," he says.

His basic premise is pitched at farmers with some marginal land. A farmer could take some 20pc of his or her land and plant it, using one of the many schemes all detailed on the Department of Agriculture website and elsewhere.


They could get 15 years of premium payments free of tax and then get income from the thinnings also free of tax. In practice, farmers probably need to plant a minimum of two hectares to make it worthwhile.

Machinery is also an issue as big harvesters can cost up to €250,000.

The Nordic countries, where farmers often plant a hectare to mark a new birth, have small harvesters ideal for 10 hectare units. "We need to look at a grant scheme to promote these machines," he says.

Andrew Doyle is also an enthusiastic supporter of the Irish Forest and Woodland Awards, run by the RDS, with a €10,000 prize fund and a closing date of June 30. As chairman of the Dáil agriculture committee, he was called upon to present the awards last year and was amazed by the quality and diversity of the winners.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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