Seanad debates

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Update on Implementation of National Forestry Programme: Statements


10:30 am

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Senators for their various contributions. At the outset, there are 12,000 people employed in the forestry sector and it is worth over €2.2 billion, with exports of more than€350 million. By 2035 the All Ireland Roundwood Production Forecast estimates that 50% of that will come from the private sector. There are 21,000 private landowners, mainly farmers who own plantations and are growing timber on their farms. I said at the outset that I want to see forestry as a whole-of-farm planning option and that it is integrated into such a plan. I am a perfect example of it myself. It is 27 years since I planted my first 8 ha and three years ago, I added another 10 ha on marginal land, which has not interfered at all with the output of the farm. All it has done is that it has tried to add some income support to it.

I will deal with a number of issues but will deal first with Senator Boyhan's point about Avondale. Coillte has plans and has secured planning permission for an investment totalling €8 billion in the first phase. It envisions two things, as it is seen in many ways as the cradle of modern democracy and the cradle of forestry. There will be a whole Victorian interactive "At home with the Parnells" experience in the house and surrounding grounds. The other part is about opening up the park and having a treetop walkway from which one can travel back down a lift, and then one can then walk around Lovers Leap, as it is called, as well as other areas. It will be a whole woodland experience there. It was Samuel Hayes who initially brought in species from all over the world and experimented with them in the 18th century when he owned the property.

As I noted earlier, forestry contributes in a significant way to climate change. To address Senator Mulherin's point, there are efforts to explore the idea of having combined district heating and power options. There are only so many major processing mills. There is one in County Galway and another in County Leitrim but there is not one in counties Mayo or Roscommon. There is one in the North, namely, the Balcas mill in Enniskillen. There certainly is scope for the development of regional district heating systems. In Finland, I have seen a pulp mill that ten years ago remained closed for nine months but which is now exporting material to China for the purpose of textiles, which is part of its bio-economy. China is replacing much of its fossil-based products with products from the bioeconomy, and from trees in particular.

I should point out that last year in 2018, following on from the mid-term review, albeit from a low platform, 27% of all new plantings were broad leaves. Farm forestry will be considered as part of the overall Pillar 2 CAP negotiations. The development of the new CAP programme will see a minimum of 30% of Pillar 2 funding being spent on climate and environmental-related measures. Some 40% of CAP's overall budget is expected to contribute to climate action, while at the same time providing what I believe is an economic benefit through the primary product of timber itself and its by-products to the local farms.

I would be the first to say that planting practices in the past were erroneous. The idea of a monoculture, close to the road, houses and rivers was an error, just like advertising for smoking. Let us be honest about that. I note a forest application and appeals system has been in place since the mid-term review and planting practice today insists upon 15% broadleaf, 15% by diversity, as well as setback distances from roads, rivers and houses. A lot of the plantations that are monoculture today will have, when clear-felled and replanted, a landscape that will look significantly different. It is also important to point out that even in monoculture plantations, once the roadway network is put in and it is first thinned, it is never a closed canopy again. It is reckoned that between years seven and 17 in a relatively healthy good-yielding conifer plantation is the time that the thicket closes, which is before the first thinning. Once that opens up, it is fair to say that it never becomes a closed canopy again.

The replanting obligation was mentioned on several occasions here and it certainly is an issue. I would ask that it be borne in mind that all revenue from the sale of timber is tax-free. This is called an afforestation programme, which is meant to increase the national forest estate. It is difficult to know if we would even be given clearance to do so, but if we were to say that we do not have a replanting obligation - even if it is the case that most people would not opt for it - one has to consider the implications of the tax benefit that has been given through the establishment grant and premium payments that have been made tax-free, and indeed from the sale of the product. One also needs to factor in, which is never mentioned, the carbon emissions that one will create by digging out and getting rid of root systems and returning that land to other use. There may something that can be done with it by way of an option if we get our targets raised, but I would not like to speculate on that at the moment.

On the Leitrim study, this is a broad range issue which we attempt to make as broad and as simple as possible. There is significant consultation. Anyone and everyone who has a point to make, be it about fire or planning permission or any related issue, including the groups that were mentioned, is free to do so. When we published this, we also published a website and contact details to which people can make their submissions. I would encourage everybody to do so. They will be taken on board and will be considered. As I said at the end of the presentation, this will inform us all, together with local policymakers and local communities, as to forestry policy as we move forward.

I come from a county that up to last year traditionally had the highest level of plantation. We are now just marginally behind Leitrim. We have a bigger county so we have more trees. We have more people working in the industry but a lower percentage of the workforce due to having a bigger population. We have approximately 1.5% of our working population involved in the timber industry, which is nearly 1,000 people. Leitrim is estimated to have up to 5% of their people employed in the timber industry. One of the biggest employers in the county is a board mill plant with the supporting industries that go with that.

Somebody's mentioned Coillte and biodiversity. At the biodiversity conference last week, the chief operations officer for Coillte made the point that it has 70,000 ha, representing 10% of its overall estate, that are designated as a biodiverse area. Some 10,000 ha of this area are designated as pristine. It has a wild hazel wood project in Sligo - I do not think there is anybody present from Sligo - and it intends to enhance it and spend quite a lot of money in turning it into a nature park and biodiverse Mecca, which can be a model for other parts of its property.The Bord na Móna ecologist outlined its plans to re-wet some of the peatlands to bring them back to the original habitats. If they are re-wet the carbon can be trapped but if they are left exposed the carbon emits. Bord na Móna will consider other options, including wind energy, tree planting, biomass production and conservation, all merging into a total policy use for the land it is responsible for. It works hand in glove with Coillte on that.

When talking about conifers people talk about spruce, and not other conifers, such as Douglas fir and Scots pine which is a native conifer. Most people regard it as a broad leafed tree but it is actually a conifer. It is a slower growing one and is hardier - for example, it will resist frost in May whereas Sitka spruce will not. All these products have an enhanced value in timber use and production but Sitka spruce is the most versatile and, although it is nearly a bad term, it has the most commercial potential. If we are planting GPC 3, grant and premium rate 3, which is Sitka spruce, with 15% broad leaves, and up to 15% in terms of biodiversity areas, for every 100 ha we plant in Sitka spruce, we get 15 ha in broad leaves which is half our target. Native woodlands went up threefold last year. We have a woodland environment scheme which will allow corporate social responsibility from major investors to add to the attraction for landowners of planting native woodlands.

Among the other things we are trying to do to make landowners who have plantations that are more than 15 or 20 years post-premium is to make them aware of the value of the resource they have. I touched on it in my opening address. We have "Talking Timber", a timber marketing event, and a forest open day on wood mobilisation. These are information days, mainly driven by Teagasc but with the Department, the knowledge transfer groups and the producer groups to make people aware of the value of the resource. I hope that after the next Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, which will coincide with the next forestry programme, that we will be able to blend into the CAP an acknowledgement and a reward for people who plant trees because this is part of one of the environmental measures. It is not the only one but it is certainly part of it. I see no harm in the biodiverse area within a plantation allowing somebody to have, in that area which will not have any trees, a bee habitat and get paid for it. I do not see why that should not happen. It could blend in perfectly. That is an example of something I think could happen.

We have a NeighbourWood scheme which sometimes we do not sell too well but it is really good. There is one in Balla in County Mayo, one at Vartry Lakes and one in Dunmore East. The Department will support a community-led initiative to create a NeighbourWood scheme which is a walkway, recreation and information interactive setting. The grants are quite generous. There have been at least two information days. The one in Dunmore East generated a lot of interest and a significant number of applications from community groups around the country. It is estimated that that industry is worth more than €300 million not just forestry but recreation, in particular walking. It is an area that has great potential.

I agree there should be a land use policy. When I wrote the Fine Gael manifesto for agriculture in 2011, I said we needed to develop a total land use plan which includes food production, energy production, environmental and carbon mitigation and recreation and put all of that into a policy. I guarantee that we can achieve our forestry targets and protect communities that feel under threat. We can make it part of an overall land use plan that deals with all those key issues. Landowners need to see this as part of their own farm operations as opposed to being an alternative. That is the key to this. If everybody did a little and planted 5 ha, 6 ha or 10 ha, we could hit our targets and improve the economies of all those small holdings and be rewarded with the environmental climate change benefit which could be achieved from that type of initiative.


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