Farm Ireland

Monday 20 November 2017

'Why can't our leaders see that increasing forest cover is vital?'

Government blind to rise in timber demand

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

Ireland is short of timber supplies and this situation will continue despite all the exhortations to plant more trees. Sawmills are currently importing significant amounts of timber from Scotland but Government supports for further planting are unlikely to increase.

Anyone listening to the speakers at the recent National Forestry Conference would wonder what sort of industry we have when it is clearly in the national interest to increase our tree cover, but despite the willingness of farmers to plant, no one seems capable of making it happen.

Our new Minister of State for Forestry, Sean Connick TD, is reputed to be extremely able and keen to tackle the job at hand but we were told that some of his colleagues in Government feel that his talents will be somehow wasted in forestry. What chance have we got when senior politicians and state officials hold this negative attitude?

Energy requirements for wood fuel alone are set to more than treble over the next decade from 0.8m cubic metres to 2.7m cubic metres; demand will continue to exceed supply and all of this in a country that has the best growing conditions of any in Europe. We heard the usual waffle about planting targets which have never been achieved and at the same time we were told repeatedly how forestry is vital to the national economy.

So why doesn't someone do something?

John Gillespie, our new assistant secretary in the Department of Agriculture, oozed pessimism when delivering a lengthy and unnecessary lesson on the history of Irish forestry. He stated that it is possible that the budget for forestry will actually reduce and we may not have the money to achieve even the current modest planting targets. At least he was honest and maybe that is something that has been missing up to now.

Stuart Goodall, chief executive of the British confederation of forest industries, put it well when he stated the simple and plain facts that planting and harvesting trees and using wood equals carbon reduction, jobs and business growth. It is obvious that we should be growing more trees to reduce imports and replace fossil fuel. The private sector will soon overtake Coillte as the largest source of timber supplies but without the support of Government we will continue to rely on imported fuel and wood.

Support schemes are not a hand out to the forestry sector; rather they are an investment that brings massive benefits to the entire economy.

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We have only 10pc of our land under forestry at present and the potential for further planting is huge, especially if we plant the available areas of marginal land.


Forestry has consistently out-performed equities and property as an investment over the years and this trend is set to continue.

Given the forecast demand for wood, we will remain severely undersupplied and doubts have been cast on the ability of many of our smaller wooded areas to be harvested economically. Oil, gas and coal supplies are finite and we must in future rely on biomass, wind and water. Timber-framed housing now accounts for 25pc of all homes being built in Britain, and once building resumes in Ireland this trend will be replicated here.

John Reilly from Bord na Mona stated that by 2020, 16pc of all energy consumed must come from renewable sources and wood fuel will be high on the list. Government policy is to drastically reduce our imports of fossil fuels and this is also mandatory under an EU directive.

Bord na Mona is now looking at the possibility of leasing land from farmers to grow energy crops, and their co-fired power plants that burn peat and biomass will soon require 2m tonnes of fuel annually. All of these facts point clearly to a steady increase in demand for wood for fuel use, sawmilling, joinery and other outlets.

We have the land and the willingness to supply this need but cannot do so without consistent and reliable state support.

The fact that this year's forestry conference was held in the fortress city of Kilkenny is perhaps significant in that it was a fitting venue given the mindset of our Government ministers and especially those in the departments of Agriculture and Finance.

We must increase our forest cover but can only do so by breaking down the walls of negative thinking prevalent among our civil servants and their bosses. The potential benefits to the entire nation of a thriving forestry sector are obvious. It remains to be seen if our leaders have the vision and determination to make this happen.

Irish Independent