There’s a collapse in farm forestry nationally, and in the percentage of farmers planting.
The percentage of farmers who availed of afforestation grants in 2020 was 24% (compared to non-farmers); 50% in 2018; 64% in 2016; and 96% in 2014.
This trend shows the rapidly falling confidence that farmers have in the industry, says Marina Conway, CEO of Western Forestry Co-op.
She says farmers have “lost complete confidence” in forestry, because they can’t get licences to plant, fell or build the necessary infrastructure, they have become disillusioned with the process.
Ms Conway is gravely concerned about Ireland’s climate action targets, because of the forestry crisis.
She says the Government set afforestation planting targets in the Programme for Government, in the Climate Action Plan, in the “Forest Products and People” vision published in 2014, in the Foodwise ten-year plan for the agri-food sector, and the current DAFM Forestry Programme.
But “no targets have been met to date”, says the Western Forestry Co-op CEO.
“The Inability of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine [Forest Service] to issue sufficient licenses to deliver an afforestation programme means that farmers, who are the custodians of the land, are being forgotten and are subsequently losing out on their pension and investment for the next generation,” she adds.
“There has been a complete collapse of afforestation in Ireland, and this is because of the change to regulation processes in the industry, as well as the delays with the issuing of licences.
“We have these targets set by the Government, in five nationally endorsed policies.
“There are plenty of people who want to get involved in forestry, and they are being prohibited.
“But first and foremost the farmers must be the priority, because they are the landowners.”
Western Forestry Co-op focuses on empowering farmers to plant their land rather than sell it; teaches them how to get the best from forestry; and highlights the social and economic benefits of planting in the first instance.
In 2014, there were about 6,500 hectares planted in Ireland — most of which was planted by farmers — while in 2020, 2,500 hectares were planted.
“The question has to be asked of the Government, do you still stand behind the national targets?” says Ms Conway.
“If it does, then what is the plan to achieve them?
“Another aspect to all of this is that land is being sold because of the length of time it is taking to get an afforestation licence.
“And this is having a real impact on rural communities, because it is taking away the income and benefits from the forest to the locality. Because of the time delays, farmers can’t plan, they don’t know what is going on, and they have lost confidence in the entire industry. A fund can wait longer than people, they are not on a comparable footing at all, and that is having a huge impact.“
One of the recommendations in the MacKinnon Report included a planning grant, and Western Co-op worked on a proposal for funding that could be provided to farmers to cover the cost of ecological studies, NIS [Natura Impact Statement], etc.
“An NIS, for example, can be very costly, and investment companies can afford to get these done, whereas very often farmers, who plant smaller more diverse woodlands can’t,” continued Ms Conway.
“So, it’s a two-tier system. You pay for a NIS, you are guaranteed a licence within three to four months, you don’t pay, you wait and wait.
“The industry employs a very significant number of people, and is a very important one, it is just not getting the support that it deserves.
“We also process all the timber we produce in this country, and export 80% of that to the UK. “It is also a sustainable, renewable resource.”