The recently announced suspension of the forest roads and woodland improvement schemes has shocked everyone in the industry.
Following the Budget, forestry appeared to have emerged relatively intact, but this recent decision could have huge implications, not just for the future of farm forestry but for all the rural businesses that depend on a steady supply of broadleaf and conifer thinnings from the private sector.
Since the tending/thinning grant was introduced, thousands of farmers began the task of managing and thinning their broadleaf woods. This essential activity provided the raw material for the emerging wood fuel industry, which has almost doubled in size since 2006.
It also ensured that our national stock of ash woodland was properly managed to produce a high quality final crop and, of equal importance, a steady supply of hurley butts, most of which are currently imported.
The tending/thinning grant was one of the most important support schemes ever introduced in that it kick-started hundreds of small rural businesses and provided jobs in areas where previously there were none. If it is not re-introduced to at least its former level then we will revert to importing logs from Latvia and Estonia and hurley butts from Holland, Wales and elsewhere. Our broadleaf woods will lie untended and a valuable national asset will be lost forever, for once ash passes around 8m in height it must be thinned, otherwise it will never achieve its potential.
It must be remembered that tending and thinning of broadleaves is an uneconomic activity without grant support. All farm foresters and other woodland owners planted them in line with Government policy on the clear understanding that the vital support schemes would be in place to facilitate the ongoing management of their crops.
In a circular sent on December 16 to all foresters and forestry companies, the Forest Service announced the closure of the scheme.
The statement read: "No applications under the current Forest Roads (Grants) Scheme will be either accepted or approved by the Department. It is intended, shortly, to circulate for consultation proposed changes to the Forest Roads Scheme with a view to having a revised scheme in place as early as possible in the new year.
Applicants under the current Forest Roads (Grants) Scheme whose applications have not been decided upon/approved will be afforded the opportunity to switch to the revised scheme, subject to their acceptance of the revised conditions."
This statement means that the Forest Roads Scheme is under review, whereas the announcement regarding the Woodland Improvement Scheme (Tending and Thinning) gave no such reassurance and included the following: "This scheme is suspended pending a review of liabilities and funding. No new applications under the Woodland Improvement Scheme will be accepted and no existing applications will be approved by the Department from today."
However, since the circular was sent out, Shane McEntee, the Minister of State for Forestry, has stated that the tending and thinning scheme will be re-opened in the new year. It is now vital that following re-opening, the amount available is not reduced but rather increased to ensure the continuation of proper broadleaf management.
Almost 200,000 cubic metres of home-produced firewood were sold in 2010 with an estimated value of around €30m. This money is generated locally, grown locally and spent locally. The figures demonstrate the huge return the State received for the €750/ha spent on the tending/thinning scheme. There seems to be little point in continuing to grant aid roading and afforestation if the woodland owners are then unable to manage their broadleaves properly.
Access to woodland is, of course, essential so that the private sector can continue to harvest, extract and supply sawmills, board mills and the wood fuel industry, but equally vital is the proper management of our national hardwood resource.
One hectare of ash represents an investment by the State of €14,283 between grants and premiums over 20 years.
If the broadleaf thinning grant is suspended or reduced then broadleaf crops will not be thinned, resulting in the most expensive crops of scrub ever produced in Ireland or indeed in any other country.
It is, of course, essential that all State funds are spent carefully and productively and the figures show clearly that the tending/ thinning grant returns a large dividend to the national coffers.
Its total cost is equal to around 180ha of afforestation out of the 7,000ha budgeted for. Suspending or reducing it would be a form of financial lunacy that we can ill afford.