It should be a good year for afforestation, but farmers don’t think so.
IFA Farm Forestry Chairman Michael Fleming has voiced concern about the falling afforestation figures, following the publication of a Forest Service report that shows the area of forest established down 30% on this time last year.
If that trend continues, planting could be less than 4,500 hectares this year, compared to a government target of 6,600 hectares.
Mr Fleming says there are lots of barriers for a farmer thinking of planting a forest.
Forestry programmes falling short of target in recent years bear this out.
Only 6,252 hectares were planted in 2013, and the area was very similar in 2014.
These figures do not bode well for the 2015-2020 Forestry Programme target of 6,600ha in 2016, increasing incrementally to 8,290ha in 2020.
A better response is needed quickly to the new programme, which has a budget allocation of €482m, and a target to plant almost 44,000ha of new forest.
It was restructured to encourage more landowners to convert land from agriculture to forestry.
The grant rate for establishing forests (up to €5,750 per hectare) was increased 5%, this means the entire cost of establishment is covered by the grant.
The annual premium rate (up to €635 per hectare per year for 15 years) was increased 20%, and non-farmers are now entitled to the same premium rate as farmers.
Up to now, non-farmers received a fraction of the rate paid to farmers. New planting options were introduced, with agro-forestry and forestry for fibre measures targeted specifically at farmers, allowing them graze livestock alongside forestry or harvest harvest timber after 10-15 years, rather than the usual 35-40 years.
Significantly, a new taxation provision in Budget 2016 made income from forestry clear-felling free from income tax.
However, privately owned afforestation hovers at about one third of the 17,000 hectares in 1995 which was the peak of annual planting (in 1995, nearly 7,000 additional hectares was planted by Coillte, which still reforests some 6,000 ha annually after timber is harvested, but is not actively afforesting bare land).
Afforestation is accepted as the most significant Irish response to climate change, having young forests to balance out forest harvest and other decreases in carbon stock. It also supplies biomass for renewable energy generation.
Appropriately sited and well-designed and managed forests and woodlands can also reduce and control floodwaters. However, once the land is planted, it must remain in forestry in perpetuity, due to the replanting obligation.
So it’s a huge decision for a landowner, and IFA Farm Forestry chairman Michael Fleming indicates their interest has cooled ever since the 8% cut to forest premium in 2009. He says that ongoing land mapping issues which reduce the payable area have also led to forest premium worries.
Environmental requirements such as the protection of Hen Harriers and Freshwater Pearl Mussels also reduce the area available for forest. There is also local opposition where large forest plantings encroach on dwellings.
Further pressure now comes on the government to incentivise forestry, following the signing last week by Environment Minister Alan Kelly of the UN Climate Agreement, which includes an explicit call to nations to conserve and enhance forests and other biological carbon reservoirs.
Every acre of forest will counter Ireland’s relatively high carbon emissions, and will make compliance with the UN Climate Agreement easier.
The agreement will speed progress towards full recognition within the EU of the role that our forests play in carbon sequestration, which will be a crucial step in Ireland’s transition to a sustainable, low-carbon future.
Eventually, all carbon emissions and removals from forests and agriculture will be governed by an internationally agreed legally binding framework. Then, incentives to speed up our afforestation will look like money very well spent.
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