Wednesday, 27 February 2019
Update on Implementation of National Forestry Programme: Statements
I have a bit to go yet. I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Members of the Seanad for this opportunity to update the House on the implementation of the forestry programme. We had a very constructive discussion about forestry during my visit to the House last April. I recall that many positive contributions were made on the subject. As I mentioned at the time, the current forestry programme, which is the overarching framework within which forestry schemes are made available, runs to the year 2020. The mid-term review of the programme published this time last year resulted in the enhancement of a number of measures in the programme. These enhancements included an increase in certain grants and premiums and an increase in the minimum mandatory requirement for broadleaves per site from 10% to 15%. I propose to outline a number of other initiatives which have been rolled out over the last year.
Last year I established a forestry programme implementation group, which represents the forestry sector, State organisations, and environmental non-governmental organisations, to monitor progress on the implementation of the various measures and schemes under the programme, to identify issues relating to the delivery of targets, and to discuss how these issues could be resolved. This group also provides a forum for direct engagement between all of the various stakeholders, which is useful in gaining an insight into their respective concerns and priorities.
While the area of newly-planted forest for which payments issued in 2018 was lower than expected at 4,025 ha, 2018 was a particularly challenging year in terms of extreme weather conditions, with dramatic snowfalls this time last year and an extended period of drought over the summer. I remain hopeful that planting rates will recover this year. My Department will be supporting promotional initiatives which will encourage landowners to consider forestry as a viable use of land. There are many land-use options available to landowners and I believe that forestry is a strong contender, especially in view of the generous incentives currently available under the afforestation scheme.
In this regard, the attendance at the recent Teagasc advisory clinics was encouraging. Teagasc hosted the largest every nationwide series of forestry advisory clinics earlier this year, promoting the establishment and management of forestry as a sustainable and rewarding use of land on Irish farms. I understand new planting inquiries made up more than half of all consultations, with farmers and landowners seeking information on the many planting options offered under the forestry programme and the range of attractive establishment grants and annual premium categories available. The farm forestry approach, in which planting trees does not replace agriculture but works alongside it as part of the farming mix, deserves consideration. Last year I got the opportunity to visit a forest in County Kilkenny which had won the Teagasc farm forestry award 2018. It really demonstrated whole-farm planning, with the integration of a dry stock enterprise, forestry and GLAS measures.
I remind Members of the House that the forestry scheme is voluntary, with each individual free to decide if he or she wishes to plant forestry and avail of the grants and premiums available. There are no county or regional targets for forestry planting in Ireland. The forestry grants and premiums are available to landowners throughout the country. I do not propose to depart from such equality of access. It should also be noted that afforestation patterns are also subject to a range of variables, with soil quality and economic evaluation of various land-use options being significant factors.
As Members will be aware, I have commissioned an independent study on the forestry sector in County Leitrim. The terms of reference for this study have been agreed and published. I believe that they are sufficiently broad to address the views of all stakeholders. An evidence-based approach will be used to reach objective conclusions. Members will be pleased to note that public consultations will be a strong feature of the study, which will cover the entire county and which will assess the attitudes of people to a wide range of forestry impacts. This assessment will be based on local consultations with farmers, non-farmers, representative groups, and other interested parties. I look forward to the outcome of the study as its findings can inform us all, including local communities, policymakers, and other interested parties, of the impacts of the expansion of the forestry sector and any issues arising.
Turning to the new incentives rolled out under the programme, I am pleased that we were in a position to support current forest owners through the introduction of a knowledge transfer scheme. The scheme for 2018, which I launched last August, attracted a lot of interest and resulted in the formation of 33 groups totalling 605 participants. I look forward to launching a similar scheme for 2019 in the near future.
Last month I launched three new support measures under the forestry programme to support biodiversity in Irish forests. Members will note that one of the new schemes is to support continuous cover forestry, which allows for the production of commercial timber while retaining forest cover at all times. The other two measures were new deer tree shelter and deer and hare fencing schemes, which aim to support landowners who wish to plant broadleaves in areas in which there is a risk of deer damage. There are also changes to the woodland improvement scheme to introduce grant aid to carry out a second thinning intervention for broadleaf forests.
We are all aware of the many benefits from forestry, including employment, exports, biodiversity and recreational facilities. It is also important to recognise the role forests play in climate change mitigation. Forests not only sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere but also store carbon in the wood products they produce and can replace materials made from fossil fuels. The Irish national forest estate removed an average of 3.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year from the atmosphere over the period 2007 to 2016. With respect to our international climate change commitments, grant-aided afforestation will also make a significant contribution to our climate targets and could contribute to a reduction of up to 22 million tonnes of CO2 over the ten-year period from 2021 to 2030.
In addition, the Government recently agreed to the preparation of a new all-of-Government plan to make Ireland a leader in responding to climate change. The new plan will have a strong focus on implementation, including actions with timelines and steps needed to achieve each action, assigning clear lines of responsibility for delivery. A number of inter-departmental groups are currently examining areas of mitigation potential across a wide range of areas which include forestry. This plan will be presented to Government next month and will require a step up in ambition across many areas of our economy.
The Government proactively assists and supports the development of Irish forestry through the national forestry programme, with some €103 million allocated for this purpose in 2019. My Department, Teagasc and other forestry stakeholders continue to inform and encourage landowners to plant forestry to maintain and increase the level of benefits from Irish forestry. I have also established a forestry promotions working group to act as a forum within which ideas can be put forward on how to develop and promote the forestry sector in Ireland. My Department has also announced a call for proposals on forestry promotion which is due to close at the end of this week. I hope that this call for proposals will attract some creative and innovative ideas that will increase public awareness of the multifunctional benefits of forestry, promote a higher level of tree planting, and encourage existing forest owners to maximise the benefits of their resource.
The most recent national forestry inventory, the results of which I launched last July, found that forests account for 11% of the total land area of Ireland, with forest cover estimated to be at its highest level In over 350 years.We are currently benefitting from the investment in forestry, one of the results of which is a vibrant, export-led timber processing industry which employs over 12,000 people, both directly and indirectly. These jobs are almost all in the rural economy and often in locations where alternative employment opportunities are not plentiful.
It would be remiss of me, in discussing forestry here, not to mention Brexit as it represents a significant challenge for the forestry sector. The forestry sector, like all other sectors here, is keenly aware of the potential impact on its business, especially given that over three quarters of the output of the Irish timber processing sector is exported to the UK. A key priority for our timber processors is to ensure they can provide their goods to their customers in the UK on a timely basis. The Minister, Deputy Creed, and I have met representatives of Forest Industries Ireland on this issue and my Department is also liaising with them. I thank the House for giving me this opportunity to update Members on forestry-related matters and I look forward to listening to their contributions.