Farm Ireland

Sunday 17 December 2017

We need assurance that afforestation scheme won't alter

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

I read recently where our Minister of State for Forestry, Shane McEntee, had launched this year's autumn programme for planting trees.

While one must praise his efforts and share a sense of relief that we still have a tree planting programme, I felt that the real headline should have read: "What has happened to our afforestation scheme?"

I have had the pleasure of meeting Mr McEntee several times in the past few months and, like most timber growers, I am greatly impressed by his undoubted commitment to forestry and rapidly increasing knowledge of the finer details of his brief.

However, I cannot help but cast my mind back to the mid-1990s when we were planting more than 20,000ha a year, instead of the miserly 1,500ha announced in the recent press release.

Many of the woods that were established in the 1990s are now being thinned and the income and general economic activity being generated as a result is surely evidence of the benefits forestry brings to rural areas and woodland owners.

Not only are the people who planted all those years ago still in receipt of their premium income, but the sawmilling and wood-fuel industries are providing a ready market for thinnings with prices far higher than anticipated.

Farmers who planted must now be well pleased with their reward; especially given their courage in investing in what was then a relatively unknown enterprise.

The many groups lobbying for forestry are, however, facing an uphill struggle when fighting for funding in the current economic climate. As ever, the civil servants in the Department of Finance will make the final decisions, but one often wonders whether the national good or political expediency finally decide the allocations of funding.

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It is downright scary that the people in charge of our finances managed to be unaware of €3.6bn floating around in the accounts. We have yet to hear who is specifically to blame for that colossal blunder.

All investment decisions are about confidence in the future, yet successive governments have managed to continually sow seeds of doubt in the minds of potential investors in forestry.

This stop-start approach has done huge harm to what is a long-term investment.

The rumours one hears of further proposed reductions in premium income, and the shortage of funding for basic planting, along with the difficulty in accessing aid for essential items such as roads for thinning and harvesting, are all creating an atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty.

As I am nearing the end of my 20-year premium payments, a further reduction will not affect me all that much, but if it were to happen, it would represent a further breaking of the promise made to farmers when the scheme was launched.

Reducing agreed payments erodes farmer confidence and it should be noted that the two premium increases granted over the past 10 years didn't even match inflation.

Landowners need a firm promise that the details of the afforestation scheme are sacrosanct and will be untouched for the duration of the contract, otherwise the planting figures will stumble along at their current dismally low level.

The heads of the Forest Service seem to be lying low and are no doubt fearful for the future. Who would want to be in charge of an industry that is praised for its achievements yet is having its core funding eroded and diminished annually?

Our tree cover is still the lowest in Europe and even Coillte, with its massive plantations, is now seeking supplies from the private sector. Thousands of hectares of marginal land are still lying idle, many of them sterilised due to what often appear to be dubious environmental grounds. Ireland was originally covered with trees from shore to shore and our National Parks and Wildlife Service should remember this and acknowledge the huge environmental benefits of mixed woodland when prohibiting planting on any given area.

I have always regretted not studying forestry when I was younger and readers might be interested in the following: County Limerick VEC is offering a part-time course in forestry under the Back to Education Initiative.

The course is designed for those with a general interest in forestry, or who wish to obtain a FETAC Level 5 Major Award in Forestry. It provides an understanding of the knowledge and skills required for forestry operations. Contact County Limerick VEC on 061 442 100 (extension 5) for further information.

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