Wednesday, 27 February 2019
Update on Implementation of National Forestry Programme: Statements
I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive report on the forestry programme to date. Fianna Fáil is committed to developing the forestry sector in Ireland, which plays a very important role in environmental, economic and social policy. The growing, harvesting and processing of forests make a massive contribution to the economy. In Ireland, this is estimated to be in the region of €2.2 billion, with approximately 12,000 jobs dependent on the sector. Meanwhile, timber production is in the region of 3 million cu. m every year, with around 20% of that amount produced by private landowners of forests.
Forests cover some 11% of Ireland's land area, approximately 770,000 ha, but this is against an EU average of 38%, which shows the substantial progress that could be made in this country. The Food Wise 2025 strategy has set a target of 18% afforestation by 2050. It was under a Fianna Fáil Government that ambitious planting targets of 10,000 ha per annum were set out in the National Development Plan 2007-2013, with more than 8,000 ha planted in 2010 alone. However, regrettably, under successive Fine Gael-led Governments, annual planting targets have been downgraded to between 6,000 ha and 8,000 ha, which is significantly behind the Food Wise 2025 annual afforestation target of 15,000 ha per annum. The majority of what is being planted is replanted mature and cut-down forest that previously existed and is not new, virgin forestry. Ambitious planting targets for forestry must be achieved, with a premium put on native broadleaf planting. As the Minister mentioned, this is a major issue. Significant amounts of what is planted are non-national conifers but we need to put the emphasis on our native national broadleaf trees.
Proportional planting policy on a national and regional basis is key to wider afforestation policy and I am glad the Minister mentioned that. There is a lot of unrest in the north-west of the country, where the two Fine Gael speakers come from. I am sure they will mention this point. There is a feeling among farmers in those areas that we have gone back to the Cromwellian edict, "To Hell or to Connacht" in the area of afforestation and we need to address this. We need to open the island as a whole to afforestation and we should not demean certain areas by imposing plantations.
Data from the Department show that, in the past two years, the Government missed the afforestation targets set out in the national afforestation programme for 2014 to 2020. In 2018 just 56%, equivalent to 4,000 ha, of forestry was planted out of a target of 7,205 ha. Shockingly, last year the planting targets for the afforestation of native woodlands and fibre combined were missed by 98% and 100%, respectively. Overall planting targets were missed by 22% in 2017.
Forestry has a key role to play in reducing Irish carbon emissions. Afforestation is a vital tool for reducing our carbon footprint and the 300,000 ha of new forest planted since 1990 has absorbed a massive 18% of Irish agriculture's annual greenhouse gas emissions. Ireland's forests removed 4.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in 2015 alone. The inclusion of land use, land use change and forestry within the scope of the new EU 2030 climate change framework is a welcome development and represents a sensible approach. This broadens the tools available for Ireland to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through carbon sequestration. Land use, land use change and afforestation will enable Ireland to access the removal of 26.8 million tonnes of CO2 over the 2021-2030 period.
The Minister mentioned the groups he has set up and announced many ambitious targets but the time has come for implementation. Given the massive role afforestation can play in tackling greenhouse gas emissions, we need to start achieving our targets. It is vital that we look more closely at farm forestry to ensure greater regional balance in forestry and so that we can promote forestry in conjunction with traditional farming methods in the regions. We also need to look at some of our past policies. Although people generally replant a forest when it is harvested, the obligation to commit to do so 20 years in advance of the harvest is off-putting and is keeping a lot of people out of planting forestry. They do not want to sign a contract that almost constitutes a commitment on behalf of the next generation in 20 years' time. If we could remove this obligation from contracts, we would get more people to sign up to forestry.
I would also like the Minister and Coillte to look at the management of existing forests from the point of view of wildlife and biodiversity. Yesterday, the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine had a very good debate on the eradication of TB. Deer straying from forests, not least in the Minister of State's own county, are being blamed for the spreading of TB and we need to look at how we manage this issue. The Minister of State mentioned fencing and we need to introduce stricter conditions for the control of wildlife, particularly deer, in areas where TB affects the suckler and dairy sectors.