Tuesday, 20 May 2008
The number of privately owned hectares of forestry planted in each of the past 20 years has been set out in tabular format and will be included in the Official Report. It ranges from 2,954 hectares in 1987 to 6,947 hectares last year. I fully acknowledge the contribution made to the forestry sector to date by private landowners and farmers with the vision to adopt forestry as a viable land use option. I am eager to ensure that even greater numbers will continue to do so in the future.
The Government is fully committed to forestry as evidenced by the allocation of €126 million this year to further the national afforestation programme. At present, approximately 15,000 farmers and landowners are enjoying the financial and other benefits brought about by their involvement in the afforestation programme. For example, in March the Department paid out €52 million to private farm foresters in respect of their annual forestry premiums. This represents a significant cash injection into the rural economy.
Since the significant State and EU supported afforestation schemes came into operation in the early 1980s, more than 226,000 hectares of privately owned forest has been established. I am committed to building on this significant achievement and encouraging further private landowner participation in forestry.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
|Year||Privately owned hectares|
Although the target is 10,000 hectares per annum, the Minister of State has stated the planting programme has declined in recent years, falling as low as 6,000 hectares last year. While the current planning obligation certainly is deterring farmer planting, I will return to this point in the next question to be taken. The planting threshold of eight hectares is too high. I understand it is clear, from the applications in hand in the forestry service, the present scheme simply is not attractive to farmers in the west of Ireland or in other areas in which farm sizes tend to be smaller. On the other end of the scale——
——the tiered structure makes the forest environment protection scheme, FEPS, less attractive on larger REPS farms. The fact that unenclosed land cannot be planted also is restricting the scheme from large areas in the country.
Deputy Sheehan will be aware of the Malone report, which examined all of the issues mentioned by him, as well as a number of other issues that affect the acreage being afforested each year. The report contains 18 principal recommendations, some of which are being implemented at present and some of which refer to the FEPS programme. One recommendation, which specifically proposed the reduction of the minimum area to be planted from eight to five hectares, is being implemented at present. In addition, a working group is to be established in fulfilment of one of the main recommendations and the Department looks forward to working closely with it to deal with the issues raised by Deputy Sheehan and others to try to ensure the target rate of planting can be achieved.
The legislation will examine this issue, as well as a considerable number of other issues. The Deputy and Members from all sides in both Houses will have an opportunity to make a case on scientific grounds, on the basis of the Malone report and other evidence, whether economic or otherwise. A judgment will be made on that basis.
I refer to the Malone report and the basis of the five hectare limit. Is this over-prescriptive and is there scope for further reductions in this regard? A ministerial prerogative is available to reduce it further, if necessary, in certain locations.
I assure the Deputy this is one of the issues to which the working group will give close consideration. It will be interesting to ascertain the impact of the reduction from eight hectares to five hectares. In the event of the working group making a recommendation in this regard, I certainly will look on it favourably, if possible.