Fears about restrictions on forestry

THE hen harrier, one of Ireland’s rarest birds of prey, is back in the news with confirmation that plans are going ahead to designate areas for its protection.

But farmers in areas that are now being proposed for designation by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) are concerned that forestry will be restricted as a result.

The Irish Farmers Association believes that over 1,000 town lands in counties Clare, Cork, Galway Kerry, Laois, Limerick, Monaghan, Offaly and Tipperary are likely to be affected by the proposed designations. Local farmers are extremely concerned that any such restrictions will not only limit their range of viable land use options but could also potentially devalue the land in these particular areas. The breeding population of the hen harrier is mainly concentrated in the south-western counties, particularly around the Mullagharierk, Boggeragh, Ballyhoura, Nagle and Kilworth Mountains.

Scientific work to confirm the suitability of possible designation sites and define their boundaries is currently underway. These are expected to be published in January. A full public consultation process will be undertaken. Batt O’Keeffe, Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, has pointed out that the designation of land as a special protection area is not intended as an inflexible barrier to future development. But he accepts that it will be a complex task to balance and reconcile the requirements of afforestation, windfarming and nature conservation. They are not mutually exclusive but practical solutions will have to be found and implemented.

Mr O’Keeffe has stated that in general existing farming activities are likely to be fully compatible with the conservation requirements of hen harriers and other bird species. There is also a commitment to pay fair and reasonable compensation to other landowners for any actual loss shown to have been incurred as a result of any restrictions that may be imposed on existing activities consequent on designation of their lands. However, the IFA Farm Forestry chairman, John Jackson recently urged the Minister of State for Forestry John Browne not to take any rash decisions in relation to restricting forestry in areas that are proposed to be designated for the protection of the hen harrier.

Against this background, Mr Browne assured the IFA farm forestry national conference in Tullamore, Co Offaly, last Friday, that he is determined to ensure balance not only for the protection of the hen harrier but for the farmer forester as well. His assurance that farmer delegations will be afforded an immediate opportunity to present their case, ahead of the envisaged publication of the designated areas in January, is welcome.

“For my part I consider a more targeted approach to protecting the hen harrier is possible,” said Mr Browne, adding that clear designations must be introduced quickly to bring certainty and conclusion to the debate. “I am not in favour of wholesale bans on forestry preferring to rely on clear management conditions being set out for forestry planting and where necessary, environmental impact statements submitted. As of now I’m not sure what the designated hectarages will be but the plantable areas will not be as large as initially feared,” he said.

Minister Browne said impact assessments will be required for those potential afforesters in the sensitive areas from a date to be decided if Ireland is not to risk European Commission legal and financial disfavour. “The key now is to get agreed designated areas and conditions decided as soon as possible and this responsibility was made very clear to the Parks and Wildlife Service,” he said.

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