As a participant in a Forestry Knowledge Transfer Group, I have discovered the merits of co-operation amongst 20 forestry farmers prepared to share their personal experiences about forestry growing with others.
As trees for carbon sequestration take on new importance, with the government pledging to plant 8,000 hectares per year, the Forestry Knowledge Transfer Scheme can help to make forestry an option for many more farmers.
Forestry Knowledge Transfer Groups (KTGs) are relatively new, introduced in September 2018 after a successful pilot scheme in 2017. Launching the scheme in 2018, Minister of State Andrew Doyle said: ‘‘KTGs are aimed at private forest owners that require additional knowledge to help them undertake appropriate management activities in their own forests.
Discussions will be facilitated by a professional forester and will incorporate both classroom-style learning as well as practical elements
The Killarney KTG that I am involved with meets weekly, accompanied by foresters Barry Fitzgerald and Pat Mungovan from Euroforest Ireland, who deliver the course and direct the discussions.
The practical side involves two-day events: One at a forestry plantation in Tubrid Well, Millstreet, graciously hosted by James O’Sullivan, and the other at the GP Wood sawmill in Enniskeane, Co Cork.
The learning side of the course takes place at night and covers all aspects of forestry growing, including applying for planting grants and premiums, getting approval, ground preparation and planting, forestry maintenance, thinning and clear felling.
There is also a lot of information about marketing of logs, from thinning or clear-felling. The KT course also covers applying for a felling licence, and new technology that Euroforest Ireland use to utilise forestry residue such as forestry brash, and treetops from thinning and clear-felling, which can be harvested and chipped, as biomass for power generation.
Forestry certification is also highlighted by forester Barry Fitzgerald as an important benefit at the clear-felling stage. He predicts that timber processors will pay an extra premium for logs from certified plantations, in the future. Barry strongly advises in favour of thinning plantations, even if they are not vulnerable to storm damage.
He says there is a good export market for pulpwood from forestry thinnings, which didn’t exist in the past. He is adamant that the net financial return from a properly thinned forest will be substantially greater than from an un-thinned plantation. Ideally, a KT group will consist of 20 forestry growers meeting once a week for seven weeks, and will cover the full forest growing process.
Besides learning how to make forestry more profitable, there are also financial incentives for doing a forestry KTG course, amounting to a maximum of €490, if all seven sessions are attended. Up to recently, forestry was excluded from the Certificate in Agriculture course for young farmers.
That has left a huge deficit of knowledge about forestry growing amongst farmers in Ireland, and a “fear of the unknown” mindset, typically amongst many older farmers, resulting in a reluctance by some to consider forestry as an option, which has much more to do with a lack of knowledge about forestry, rather than the merits or demerits of forestry growing.
As a consequence, forestry planting rates have continued to decline, leaving Ireland still with the lowest forestry cover in the EU, apart from the Netherlands and Malta.
Thankfully, Teagasc announced plans in 2018 for inclusion of a forestry module in Certificate in Agriculture courses. This will benefit young farmers, and is a major step forward in advancing knowledge about forestry growing in Ireland.
However, there is still a substantial number of older farmers relying solely on KTGs to acquire knowledge about forestry growing. This is a critical issue especially for cattle, sheep and beef farmers.
The recent beef factory protests showed that these farmers earn very little income from livestock, and may be interested in planting some of their land, to supplement their income and improve their livelihood. It is also important for any farmers who may want to plant some land to offset carbon emission from their main farming enterprise — which could become a requirement after the 2020 CAP reform.
Any farmer who contacts the Forestry Service or Teagasc about planting some of his land should be allowed to participate in a KTG course. Unfortunately, that is not the case currently; farmers must be existing forestry growers, as a current requirement for getting KTG approval.
Pledge to plant 8,000 hectares forestry a year needs scrutiny
A pledge to plant 8,000 hectares of forestry each year for the next two decades is part of the climate action plan announced by Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton last June.
This means doubling current planting rates, but full details of how this can be achieved weren’t in the plan.
It’s a significant shift in Irish land use, a fundamental policy change towards forestry for carbon sequestration, from forestry as a land diversification first implemented in the early 1990s in the MacSharry CAP reform.
The climate action plan report acknowledges a lack of enthusiasm amongst farmers for forestry. A key part of the plan will be to persuade farmers to designate some land for trees.
To date, there has been no commitment from the Government to increase incentives for forestry, or to remove current constraints. If the Government is serious about increasing planting rates, for carbon uptake, it should review the Site Classification for Irish Forestry (SCIF) criteria.
The original reason for promoting forestry was to create an alternative use for land other than food production, which is why higher incentive premiums were paid for planting good quality enclosed land. However, the key objective of the climate action plan is carbon sequestration, and planting unenclosed land may be as beneficial for carbon sequestration as planting good, enclosed land.
There is therefore a compelling case for increasing the premiums on unenclosed land, which would help substantially to increase forestry planting.
It will be crucial for the success of the climate change forestry initiative to eliminate other reasons preventing greater uptake of forestry planting. Ireland has the fastest growth rates for conifers in Europe, Sitka spruce can grow to maturity here in 30-35 years, because the Irish climate and soil type are ideally suited for Sitka spruce.
The current minimum hardwoods requirement in a plantation is 15%. But the climate action plan target is expected by forestry experts to require 70% conifer and 30% hardwood. A 30% mixture of hardwoods to be included in all plantations will only further depress planting rates.
It is also illogical to increase the setback areas from roads, rivers and small streams, and from watercourses with no water in them. The net outcome of this will only discourage farmers away from forestry growing.
Given the importance of climate change, it’s imperative that the forestry planting initiative in the climate action plan succeeds. The Government should therefore review the amount of Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas land currently excluded from forestry planting, and land designated for protecting the hen harrier, the freshwater pearl mussel, and areas of special habitat.
More than 800,000 hectares of land in Ireland, excluding rivers and lakes, have such designations. Inevitably, that will require tough choices to be made both by our Government and the EU, between maintaining nature and the environment, as required by current EU directives, and protecting populations from the effects of climate change.