Forest Research Ireland (FORI) has recently published a report announcing a draft of measures to expand on and improve forestry research in Ireland. Initiatives such as this have to be warmly welcomed in these rapidly changing times.
Who would have thought 10 years ago that we would have had so many species of trees threatened with disease? Or that so much marginal land would be unavailable for planting as a result of questionable environmental designations.
Whether the arrival of new diseases is due to climate change or the ever-increasing movement of plants and plant material around our planet is something no one knows for sure. One thing is certain; we badly need scientific research, undertaken in Ireland and under Irish conditions.
The stated aim of FORI is to "meet the needs of Ireland's forest sector to 2017 and beyond through research and innovation".
Fine words but what do they mean?
The first innovative action was perhaps to get someone from the private sector to chair the meetings. In this case, John Phelan of Woodland Ltd, who is well known and respected by everyone involved in the industry, was chosen for the task.
The Department of Agriculture and COFORD (Council for Forest Research and Development) are to be applauded for taking this step and in accepting the need to further involve the private sector in research. It is an internationally recognised phenomenon that State and semi-State bodies will often try to hold jealously on to their own areas of control and resist any attempt to lessen that power by bringing in outside help and influence.
This can be seen in most areas of government, but, to their credit, COFORD has always been open to ideas and initiatives that came from outside its own sphere.
Over the years they have published excellent research papers and their 'COFORD Connects' publications have been of great assistance to private growers like myself, as well as to the wider forest and timber industries. They provide all of us with an invaluable source of reference.
At the launch of FORI, Minister of State for Forestry, Tom Hayes, stated: "The importance of continued investment in excellent science for Ireland's forest sector cannot be understated.
"Investing in research is a central part of the Food Harvest 2020 strategy. Indeed, it is also a central part of this Government's Action Plan for Jobs insofar as it ensures that scientific research is better targeted at turning the good ideas of our talented researchers into new products and processes, and ultimately high quality jobs."
Again, I had difficulty in establishing exactly what is meant by this but reading between the lines, reference is made to the huge areas of marginal agricultural land that are either barred from afforestation or lying idle.
With regard to this situation, the report states that: "Appropriate land must be used productively and wisely to ensure the future of the rural economy. Research is an investment in that future."
Now that is an encouraging statement in that it accepts that future land use should be based on scientifically proven facts - something we will all welcome. It is difficult to know exactly where it is coming from but there are also noticeable changes taking place in the manner in which the Department of Agriculture is viewing forestry in general.
Although funds remain limited, one gets the feeling that the days of 'stop-start' funding and the suspension of essential schemes before they had time to benefit afforestation are now a thing of the past.
I think this is due to a new awareness within Government of the importance of forestry nationally and its ability to provide rural jobs rural prosperity.
Having often criticised aspects of forest policy and administration in the past, I now find there are so many good things happening, that they are almost hard to believe.
However, before we get carried away, there are of course still many problems with the current system of handling afforestation applications, granting roadway and felling applications, and the general volume of paperwork that we all still have to deal with.
Most of this is possibly due to a lack of staff, as well as some out-of-date systems that are still in operation. Things are definitely changing, however, and during the past year or so, I sense a feeling of optimism and enthusiasm emanating from the Department of Agriculture and the staff at Johnstown Castle that was sorely lacking at times in the past. Long may it last.