Minister must act now on the 30% drop in forestry planting rates

Despite generous grants, the sector is languishing, due primarily to the legal obligation to replant forests in perpetuity

Minister must act now on the 30% drop in forestry planting rates

A recent Forestry Service report showing a 30% drop in the forestry planting rate amounts to a serious setback for the forestry industry.

It’s a frustrating result for stakeholders promoting forestry as a suitable option for marginal land use in Ireland.

It’s the first full year of the 2014-2020 private forestry programme which has generous planting grants for both farmers and non-farmers.

The new programme should offer an attractive alternative land use for the substantial number of farmers who strive to make a livelihood from cattle and sheep in marginal land.

However, for reasons best understood by farmers themselves, the forestry planting option continues to languish.

Probably the single greatest afforestation deterrent for these farmers is the statutory replanting obligation implemented by the Forestry Service.

Most farmers would be reasonably disposed to tie up their marginal land for 35 or 40 years, in order to produce a mature crop of conifer trees. However, many landowners have serious issues with being legally obliged to replant their land in perpetuity.

This obligation extends forestry to second and third generation ownership, and beyond.

That creates problems in ownership succession and in transfer of forestry property to family members who become legally obliged to replant the inherited property at substantial cost, without planting grants or forestry premiums to assist them.

Replanting grants and premiums for second rotation forestry after clear felling could revitalise the afforestation programme, by helping to neutralise the replanting obligation disincentive.

These payments would give new owners inheriting forest land the resources to plant and properly manage a second rotation crop.

Government grants and premiums for second rotation forestry would also encourage timber processors, who currently have to import logs from Scotland, to supplement the limited native supply.

Of course, there are many other forestry issues for farmers, and they include plantation damage by wind-blow and storms.

This is likely to develop into a subject for major on-going debate in the industry.

Since November 2015, at least six active storms hit the south and west, accompanied by torrential rainfall — creating the exact conditions to facilitate wind-blow damage to forestry.

Since Storm Darwin in February 2014, there is an urgent need to re-appraise the tree species we plant in exposed sites, especially along perimeter areas exposed to the prevailing winds from the south, south west and west.

Storm Darwin damage to Irish forests was put at 1%, but it amounted to 100% in some plantations in the south and west of Ireland. Substantial areas of semi-mature forestry had to be cut away and replanted, causing significant financial loss to owners.

The only similarity between forestry and cereal crops is that both can be badly affected by storms and heavy rainfall.

However, today’s tillage farmers have advanced technology and improved management to prevent lodging of cereal crops. This outcome is also achievable in forestry, if effective measures are taken at the planting stage.

The expensive lessons learned in Storm Darwin suggest that Sitka spruce fared poorly and, in many instances, couldn’t survive the storm in exposed areas with wet ground conditions.

In some of these plantations, Sitka spruce consistently blew over, taking a mat of shallow ground surface with it.

In my experience, a mixture of larch and Scots pine coped best, possibly due to a deeper rooting structure than Sitka spruce.

Sufficient flexibility for innovative anti-storm measures is required in the broad partnership between land owners, the state and planting contractors.

For example, innovative measures I have recently seen to prevent storm damage in a newly-developed plantation included a special wind-break of trees along the perimeter exposed to the prevailing wind.

The wind-break had seven rows of trees. Three rows of poplar (chosen for their deep roots) are planted along the outer perimeter of the windbreak, with two rows of Scots pine in the centre, and two rows of larch on the inside.

The rest of the plantation inside the storm break was planted with Sitka spruce, and a small amount of larch and Scots pine.

Another measure was to construct water channels or drains in a north west to south east direction, to facilitate thinning without exposing the plantation to the prevailing south/south-westerly winds.

Planting grants should be adjusted to take account of the extra cost of implementing these measures.

From a farmer perspective, the urgent need to prevent wind-blow and storm damage shows that we need an advisory forum with input from the best expertise in the forestry industry — drawn from bodies like the Forestry Service, Coillte, COFORD, Teagasc, and timber processors.

Coillte, a state-owned company, manages the largest plantation in Ireland, as owners of 485,000 hectares of forestry, and has accumulated considerable knowledge. It is vital that the knowledge pool gained by Coillte from years of experience be made accessible to private forestry owners. The new forestry Minister needs to look at this.

Given that large-scale private forestry planting only began in the 1980s, there is still a substantial knowledge deficit amongst farmers in relation to many aspects of forestry growing.

An advisory forum in conjunction with farmer grower groups would be invaluable for delivering knowledge directly to farmers, and is one of the most effective ways to reverse the decline in planting rates, in addition to increased funding for forestry (PRSI and USC charges should be abolished, and forestry premiums should be restored to 20 years duration).

Confidently looking forward in forestry

As a timber pallet manufacturer based in mid-Cork, Diarmuid Cohalan soon became aware of the importance of forestry — which can be grown on marginal land, maturing at 35 years — providing saw-logs to the timber processing industry, and creating an additional income stream to farmers.

He says forestry growing is an essential component of an important indigenous industry, with high-grade saw-logs currently worth €70-75 per tonne on the forest roadside.

As a forestry grower and member of a large forestry growers group, he is convinced that with increased investment from the state, much more of our marginal land will be considered for forestry growing in the future, when increased afforestation can play a crucial role to offset greenhouse gas emissions, which could otherwise incur huge national fines.

More forests, more jobs, and less greenhouse gas

Long before climate change became an urgent issue, we knew forestry absorbs and stores carbon from the atmosphere, for as long as the forestry crop is still growing.

The COFORD forestry research body estimates that new forestry plantations established in 1990 sequestered 2.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year to the end of 2012.

In terms of Ireland’s fines for exceeding carbon emissions from 2020 onwards, the new 1990 forests would have saved the Irish Exchequer more than €40 million per year.

Forestry is one of our best options to counter-balance our carbon emissions, an even more pressing need since the Paris climate change summit of December, 2015.

Meanwhile, forestry and the timber industry are worth €2.29 billion per year to the Irish economy, according to the Irish Forestry and Forestry Product Association (IFFPA).

IFFPA says the sector employs over 12,000 people, mostly in timber processing in rural Ireland.

Department of Agriculture Food and Marine (DAFM) statistics at the end of 2014 showed almost 21,000 private forestry owners in Ireland. When spouses and family members are taken into consideration, this figure could be well over 60,000 people depending or partially depending on forestry growing for an income.

A study in 2014 by University College Dublin estimated that an annual afforestation programme of 15,000 hectares would create 490 jobs, mostly rural, in forest establishment, forest management, timber harvesting, road haulage, and timber processing.

For every 100 of these jobs, an extra 70 full-time equivalent jobs would be generated elsewhere.

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