Seanad debates

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Update on Implementation of National Forestry Programme: Statements


10:30 am

Photo of Michelle MulherinMichelle Mulherin (Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State to the House to discuss this very important topic. As previous speakers said, the forestry programme is throwing up a number of issues in rural Ireland. Before I get into discussing that, I would like to pay tribute to a former Deputy from my own county, Mr. Joe Blowick, who served as a Minister for Lands. Prior to his election, there was no forestry programme in this country. It was his idea to establish such a programme and he has left a great legacy upon which we can build but it is important that we get it right.

In Mayo there is a lot of forestry, with 10% of our agricultural land planted. That puts the county 3% above the EU 2020 targets for the planting of forestry. Approximately 24,000 ha are in private ownership and the remaining 34,500 ha of forestry are owned by Coillte and the NPWS. Planting in Mayo is significant and it is estimated that between 300 and 340 ha are being planted in the county every year. The amount of land under forestry continues to increase, although most of the planting at the moment is being done by private landowners and not by Coillte. It is private landowners who are taking up the baton in terms of planting. Premia in Mayo are worth €3.65 million to participating landowners. By 2035, it is expected that timber production in Mayo will have trebled. These are all positive aspects of the forestry programme being pursued by the Government but a number of issues remain to be addressed. These are related to issues raised by previous speakers.

We see our forestry as an asset but it must be driving employment too. At the moment, notwithstanding the fact timber production will treble by 2035, most of the timber produced in Mayo is shipped out of the county to timber mills in the south, most notably in Waterford. Therefore, we are not adding value to the primary product in Mayo itself. The same is true in Leitrim, Roscommon and other counties of the west and north. Coillte owns and controls large tracts of land and must be challenged to deliver jobs locally. I am not just talking about in the growth of the forests but also in the timber mills and the production of wood chip. The latter has enormous potential in the context of district heating systems and renewable energy solutions, which is also one of the Government's objectives. There is capacity in this area but it is not being developed. The concerns arising in Leitrim would be lessened if locals could get jobs rather than just felling timber.

A balance must be struck in terms of land use. Senator Paul Daly made a very dramatic point about people being forced into forestry and said "To hell or to Connacht". That is not the true story, however. The true story is that more people are opting for forestry because of the problems in suckler farming and the depressed prices in that sector. We are encouraging farmers to increase beef and dairy production under Food Wise 2025 and the increased interest in forestry is more of a symptom of that than anything else. That said, I can relate to the social implications of being surrounded by forest, particularly when that forest comprises Sitka spruce and very little else. It is not particularly attractive and is quite depressing for communities. Communities have been articulating this quite well of late and have been stressing the need for balance. We obviously want to pursue our planting programme and more could be done to encourage farmers to plant on at least part of their lands, regardless of the type of farming in which they are engaged. In that way, we will get a better mix.

The Minister of State said in his speech that the Department is going to encourage more variety in planting, particularly of native trees, which I welcome.These are the sorts of issues the forestry promotion working group must consider. For the sake of biodiversity, it is important we get the right mix and that we not just looking at big industrial forests which, contrary to our intentions, are not as attractive for tourism as a properly mixed and put together forest.

Another issue is rural tourism. I welcome the development in Ballycroy, County Mayo, where Coillte has handed over 4,000 acres to the National Parks and Wildlife Service to allow a wild area to develop for the purpose of tourism. I welcome these very important and necessary initiatives from the likes of Coillte. We could benefit more from Coillte and the Government articulating their commitments to tourism in terms of forests that are used for amenity and leisure purposes by locals. Recently, there was much concern about Belleek Forest Park in Ballina, County Mayo, where Coillte felled a particular part of the forest. Many people were concerned that Coillte could do what it liked. The fact that Coillte did not go further was down to its benevolence as opposed to protecting a piece of the forest. I would say that Coillte acted properly in this case but boundaries need to be more clearly defined when it comes to the protection of forests, especially where local groups have invested a lot in these forests and enjoy them as amenities.

People have described how important forests are for the carbon sink. I already mentioned that there is a need to plant more trees and to have a greater mix of tree varieties. We must also encourage farmers to plant trees but there are a couple of obstacles, as was said. When a landowner plants trees, he or she must wait for them to mature, then fell the trees and replant, which is a major deterrent. The idea that one no longer has a say about what happens to one's land that is used for forestry is, for many people, not a choice. I ask the Minister of State to consider that, and that is aside from the fact that after year 15, people will not get an income. People's land is tied indefinitely to forestry and while they never choose to leave forestry, it is a negative aspect of the forestry programme.


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