Thursday, 19 January 2023
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Micheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
I thank Deputy Cairns for raising what is a very important issue. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, are meeting Coillte today, and they will discuss Coillte's role in the Irish Strategic Forestry Fund and how Coillte should work closely with farmers and local contractors to achieve positive outcomes for the Irish forestry sector and for Irish farm families. They will also discuss other models, and I think other models need to be pursued, to help Coillte meet its overall target of planting 100,000 ha of new forests.
This has to be seen in the context of the overall challenge, which is enormous, in terms of where we are coming from and where we want to get to in forestry. As the Deputy knows, about two thirds of our land is farmland, so in order to meet that bigger target we have set ourselves nationally, farmers will have to be the biggest drivers of our afforestation effort. Our farmers will also be the primary beneficiaries of the new €1.3 billion Forestry Programme 2023-2027, the largest ever investment by a Government in tree planting. The premiums for planting trees will be increased by between 46% and 66% and extended to 20 years for farmers, so there are strong incentives for farmers to become involved in this new endeavour and agenda.
New forests on public lands will primarily be native woodlands, focused on biodiversity benefits, because we really have to get that balance of 50% of all new forests being broadleaf and native to respond to the biodiversity challenge and crisis. From Coillte's perspective, we need efforts from both the State and private investors, as well as from farmers, to get to a very different scale of afforestation from that which we have experienced over the past decade. In respect of its partnership with the Irish Strategic Investment Fund and Gresham House, Coillte is saying it equates to about 1% of the current Government target of 450,000 acres of new forests by 2050. Ultimately, the fund aims to own about 12,000 ha of forests. About 3,500 ha of that will be new forests, with the remainder being the purchase of existing forests that the fund will concentrate on. Coillte will not sell out any existing publicly owned forests to the fund, nor will any other public body sell land to the fund. Any land purchased by the fund will already be in private ownership and no private landowner will be forced to sell land to the fund.
The strategy we have outlined is still before Europe, relating to state aid and so on. We want to explore alternative models but we are going to need an awful lot more on board to get to the targets we have set ourselves.