One of Ireland's leading forest management groups insists that the Government must address a series of challenges facing the industry in order for forestry to prosper further.
Forestry, with an annual budget output of €2.2 billion, is set to outperform beef in the near future. Government policy wants to increase forest cover in Ireland by 17 per cent by the year 2030. This policy has already been driven by the introduction of grant schemes to encourage land owners to consider forest as a worthwhile land use and investment and also as an alternative to agricultural production systems.
However, Padraig Egan, General Manager of SWS Forestry says much more needs to be done.
'Do we have to wait for a consultancy report in a decade or so hence to tell us of the missed opportunity, to tell us why we failed to reach the government objective of 17 per cent afforestation from 11 per cent currently, why we ignored a substantial report (COFORD 2013) that told us the availability of land was more critical than previously thought? Or, are we going to grab the opportunity now? These are very pertinent questions to which the government holds the answers.'
SWS Forestry has 25 years worth of experience in private forest management and has successfully managed over 36,000ha of private forests.
Joe Fitzgerald is the SWS Area Manager for Wicklow. The Garden County currently has the largest afforested land mass in the country with close to 22 per cent of the land covered in woodland.
Mr Fitzgerald feels forestry has proved itself to be one of the best investments any farmer can make.
'Those who invested in the industry 15 to 20 years ago are now set to receive up to €10,000/acre from the timber crop production. In addition the land value has increased. Those who took the longer term view will now see their investment returning dividends.'
He is also of the opinion that forestry may offer 'a far better bet for farmers who no longer feel they are getting an adequate return from beef.'
According to Padraig Egan, some 178,000 ha of 'unenclosed' land is currently 'sterilised' by the Government. The land in question generally consists of peat soils with low levels of existing agriculture productivity and would be perfectly suitable for afforestation.
'This land bank has got to be assessed in a positive way in order to maximise its potential for the land owners and the state. This asset will not affect the environment or agricultural production by its utilisation of afforestation.'
The use of forest residue to generate heat and power only stands at 1.3 per cent in Ireland, compared to 18 per cent in Finland.
'Forestry is the microcosm that will test the State's economic vision and in particular its commitment, or lack of it, to rural development. There is a sense in which the opportunity is talked about rather than acted upon,' concludes Mr Fitzgerald.