Seanad debates

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Update on Implementation of National Forestry Programme: Statements


10:30 am

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Statements are to conclude not later than 3 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes. The Minister of State will be given no less than six minutes to reply to the debate.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Am I up first?

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Yes, the Minister of State throws in the ball.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I was not sure. I usually have it thrown in at me.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I hear the Minister of State might be going to foreign soil, so we will give him a break today.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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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.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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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.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I acknowledge the enormous work the Minister of State has done in horticulture, forestry and other areas for which he is responsible. Last week I was in the wonderful house in Avondale. When summing up, the Minister of State might touch on the plans for that. In the context of forestry, we have to think of the bigger picture and that includes biodiversity and the potential for more jobs. We have to look at the training sector as it pertains to horticulture and forestry. We have spoken about broadleaf trees but we need to look at our nursery stock production for them.

There is the potential for jobs in this sector and training programmes are a part of that. I acknowledge what Teagasc is doing and anyone who reads the Irish Farmers' Journalregularly will have noticed the series of forestry seminars it has been running over the past few months, and the workshops it has held across the country to which huge numbers have turned up.

A lot of people are looking at setting aside a certain amount of land.Clearly we do not want good, productive agricultural land used for forestry. That would not be the way to go but there are marginal lands that are very suitable for forestry. There is enormous potential for job creation here. We must consider, in particular, the area of soft tourism. There are some amazing forest parks in this country, including Avondale forest park in County Wicklow where there is a master plan to do bigger and greater things at that location and rightly so. It is a beautiful place which was also the location of one of the State's first forestry schools.

There is a significant amount of potential in forestry. I wish to acknowledge the work of Teagasc in particular. Many young people who fall out of mainstream education would benefit from involvement in the forestry sector. We must develop more options such as apprenticeships in forestry and related horticultural areas.

When I mentioned to a few colleagues from Leitrim that I would be involved in this debate today they immediately referenced the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association as well as talking about lovely Leitrim. We all know that farmers cannot get money from banks to buy land. It is possible, however, to get loans from the European Investment Bank at 1% for investment in forestry. A young farmer wanting to expand will not be able to get a loan from a bank at 1%. We all know that and the arguments associated with it. The Minister of State knows, as someone who is involved in agriculture, that some of the lands in Leitrim are marginal. However, he also knows that weanlings and other livestock can be reared and can thrive on marginal lands at certain times of the year, as happens in County Leitrim. It is a question of looking and tailor-making what is happening. The monoculture of spruce is detrimental, particularly up there. A balance must be struck but if one is surrounded on three sides by massive forestry, what does that say? Leitrim is dying. Parts of Leitrim are dying but people are not listening. There is the potential to develop a balanced forestry sector there but it must be done in conjunction with the existing communities. I met a family who approached an auctioneer with a view to buying 50 ha or 60 ha in Leitrim last year. They were refused because they could not get enough funding. They went to owners of the land who were their neighbours. The owners said that they would love to sell the land to them but that a private investor wanted to buy it. The family could not compete against the investor who is buying up large tracts of land up there. It is sad and while it involved neighbours, it is all about money at the end of the day. We have already spoken about the need for broadleaf plantations. I know that people from Leitrim are tuning into this debate today and they want me to point out that there are disaster zones in that county. There are communities dying in Leitrim because of the policy that has been pursued in relation to forestry. That needs to be addressed.

I have touched on the issue of training and encouraging more forestry. As previous speakers have said, we need new forestry plantations. Of course we must replenish and replace but we must also set ambitious targets for new plantations. We can have a very comprehensive forestry plan which goes hand in hand with productive agriculture. However, we need to look at training and attracting people with the necessary skills to the sector. Having seen forests in Europe, particularly in Germany, I believe there is enormous potential for soft tourism around national forests. I know that this is outside of the Minister of State's remit but it is something that must be explored further. The capacity in this area is considerable, as is evident from forests in the Dublin mountains. South Dublin and Dun-Laoghaire Rathdown County Councils are working on cycling tracks, tourism trails and so on, which provide benefits to both locals and tourists. I urge the Department to further explore the enormous potential in this area. I thank the Minister of State for the comprehensive report he provided to the House today.

Photo of Michelle MulherinMichelle Mulherin (Fine Gael)
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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.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House.

The planting of large areas of land with trees, driven by grant aid and annual payments to landowners, has to be examined for its overall impact on communities and long-term impact on the land and the environment. The reason for very generous Government assistance for forestry is to encourage it as a means of reaching our commitments on climate change, as trees are viewed as the only way to absorb and store carbon. For a farmer struggling to make a living on wet and poor land in the west, it is an attractive option, as indeed it is for investment and pension funds. Land can be bought cheaply and planting it brings the security of State funding and the 15 years of guaranteed payments. As a Government policy, grant-aided monoculture afforestation is successful in getting more land under trees. The permanent change of land use is one of the clear consequences of this policy. However, communities living in areas where forestry is replacing farming as a model of land use suffer negative impacts as there is very little labour involved in growing Sitka spruce. In reality, it closes down the countryside.

Economic and social activity around traditional farming has significant spin-off in the local area, with services being provided to the farm and products and materials traded with the farm. Normal farming activity creates opportunity, which in turn creates more activity. On the other hand, the farm planted with Sitka spruce never needs new gates, fencing or anyone to cut fodder, bale it and gather it or plough land for reseeding. There are no animals to feed or care for, and no need for a vet to look at an animal. There is no need for anyone to upkeep habitat or hedges, fix machinery or maintain sheds. Above all, a farm on which Sitka spruce is grown needs no farmer to go to the mart to meet other farmers or to call on neighbours when in need, because there are no needs. The planted farm becomes deserted, wild and uninteresting. The EU has stated that the main principle for forestry is that they serve environmental, social and economic purposes. As I just outlined, Irish forestry policy does not address these three criteria. The rural community that once survived on the micro-economy, which the activities of farming delivered in an area, suffers decline and also becomes deserted. The economic activity created by the planting, maintaining, thinning and processing of conifers is very low as much of the industry is highly automated. There is about one full-time job per 1,000 ha of forestry.

Another problem created by our afforestation policy is the transfer of land ownership from local farmers to international corporate interests, which engage forestry management companies to thin and maintain the forests. In many cases, when farmers plant the land themselves, they collect the annual grants for 15 years and, when the first thinning is carried out, they are offered a buyout by the forestry management companies on behalf of big corporate funds. Such an offer is hard to resist for ageing farmers as the next payment from the trees is 15 to 20 years away. This move to corporate ownership of forestry land is happening apace and is supported by Government grants for carbon sequestration reasons. We, in Sinn Fein, call for a policy that introduces a 50 km radius limit for establishment grant and forestry premium payments. This means that the recipient's main residential residence must be within 50 km of the forestry site. For companies, this should apply to their main headquarters to ensure that the economic benefits are retained in the local area.

On 15 February, the Minister announced the terms of reference for a Leitrim forestry study, which will be carried out by UCD. The study will cover the social and economic impacts of forestry, the impact on farm incomes and the state of regulation on Leitrim at present. The terms of reference have already been criticised - first, because local groups, such as Save Leitrim and the local branch of the Irish Farmers' Association, IFA, were not consulted, and second, because issues such as planning, soil carbon analysis, land prices, tax, local infrastructure and fire risk have been left out. Groups say that the terms of reference have clearly been designed to avoid critiquing the Government's wider forestry policy. I ask the Minister of State to please address these concerns in his reply today. Many groups are anxious to know where the Department stands in response to these criticisms.

At present planning permission for afforestation in Ireland is not required for plantations that are under 50 ha in size, which makes up the bulk of plantations. This situation has led to private entities purchasing peat bogland, which otherwise should contribute to carbon sequestration in order to plant large, commercial plantations. My Sinn Féin colleague, Deputy Martin Kenny, has proposed legislation to ensure that planning permission is required for any plantation over 5 ha. I ask the Minister of State to outline today whether he supports the legislation.

Photo of Grace O'SullivanGrace O'Sullivan (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. Before I respond directly to the matter in hand, I wish to bring people's attention to the issue of trees being felled in public and private areas over the past two weeks. I have received a flood of emails and tweets from just about every county, as has the Green Party, about the extent of tree felling around the country. There is a sadness and lack of understanding as to why trees are being felled and on such a scale. I have received reports from County Waterford, Dungarvan, Fethard, Faheen, Golden Road, Cashel, Bray, County Mayo, Westport, County Kerry, Killorglin, Hugginstown, Gorey, Carrigaline, Limerick, County Meath, County Roscommon and Fingal in Dublin.That has come to hand and I wish to draw the Minister's attention to it. I have tabled a Commencement matter for tomorrow for the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, because of the anger among the public about the trees and the fact that there appears to be a lack of social and ecological value attached to them. People are waking up and recognising the importance of trees and tree coverage in terms of ecological services and biodiversity. When we see reports that diversity is threatened the necessity for trees is more important than ever.

The idea that tree policy can be set by a single complainant to a local authority or that the benefits trees provide can be erased because of the inconvenience to councils of a single complainant is just not good enough. We can do better. We require a national biodiversity policy with a strong statutory basis that would mandate landowners, local authorities and bodies such as the ESB and larnród Éireann to have a better approach to managing trees in public areas. I hope the Minister will take this into account overall.

In response to the Minister of State's contribution on the implementation of the forestry programme, like many of my colleagues I wish to address the Save Leitrim campaign. It is not long since the group protested at Leinster House and held a press conference about its concerns. The Minister of State is well aware of the points made by the campaign and the complaints about the approach of the State forestry agencies across the country. He will also be aware of the campaign's disappointment at not being able to discuss the terms of reference of the study of forestry policy in the county. The group has been campaigning for a moratorium on new planting in the area and for a well-designed study that would examine the cross-cutting issues around forestry and forest cover in Leitrim. Members of the campaign are dissatisfied with the terms of reference. They are narrow in scope and will limit the UCD investigative team to looking at only some of the areas affected by current policy. Fire risk, soil carbon analysis, local infrastructure impacts, land prices, tax and other issues are omitted, as are the health and mental health impacts of such major use of non-native coniferous forest planting on communities. The group is so disappointed in the process that it is also concerned about the outcome of the report given the lack of consultation with people and communities such as theirs.

The Green Party has always been passionate about forestry and tree cover in Ireland. Ireland has the second lowest level of forest cover in Europe and the lowest in the EU, but it is increasing. That is welcome. We want forestry to be an integral part of Ireland's response to climate change and the challenges to our biodiversity, to enhance biodiversity at a time when there is such massive global decline and to provide stable and good employment in rural areas. We want a policy that Ireland can be proud of, one that provides material for energy and green construction and for a high-value export product, crafted by a skilled and engaged emerging sector. That is far from what we have today. It could be better. Ireland has approximately 11% forestry coverage. Sweden, in contrast, has the highest level at approximately 69%. Our approach to forestry is to confine it to profit-orientated State-run and privately-run plantations, separate from the communities around them. We should develop and enhance the social knowledge in communities about the importance of tree cover.

We must have a positive vision for the future. Our vision is one of healthy forestry plantations across the countryside, of selected uphill areas being allowed to return to the tree cover they previously had before excessive grazing took over in some areas and of trees used in public areas and allowed to mature there and be left alone to provide shelter and benefit to life. Most importantly, we seek a national land use strategy. That is the single best way to deliver a strong vision for Ireland. I hope it is something the Government will engage with more, particularly in view of the pending report from the climate action committee. There are plenty of models in other countries that we could look to in terms of how we could do things better in Ireland. The Minister of State's intention is more or less what we seek, an increase in forestry and the opportunities that forestry can provide to citizens.

Photo of Maura HopkinsMaura Hopkins (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, for the update on the implementation of the forestry programme. We are all very aware of the benefits of forestry, but the issue is very much about achieving a balance between environmental needs and meeting the needs of communities. As the Minister of State correctly pointed out, it is an important mechanism through which we must tackle the issues surrounding climate change. There is also the fact that 12,000 people are employed in the forestry sector.

I live in north Roscommon and, as in Leitrim, people there are dealing with issues in respect of marginal land, farmers trying to manage within very tight margins and the issues with the increase in plantation in the region. We are all aware of the report the Minister of State has commissioned in an effort to address the communities' concerns. As Senator Grace O'Sullivan said, a number of people from Leitrim travelled to Leinster House recently. They are concerned about the increase in forestry and the increase in the amount of land being bought by people from outside the locality for the specific purpose of planting to avail of subsidies. There is great concern about that across the north-west region of north Roscommon and Leitrim.

It is positive that the report will allow for consultation with farmers, non-farmers, representative groups and other interested parties. The Save Leitrim group has concerns about the terms of reference but the fact that there will be consultation is positive. The outcome of that report will be important for how we achieve a balance not just in Leitrim but throughout the country. Teagasc also has an important role to play with regard to the interest and its advisory clinics. The Minister of State referred to increasing the minimum mandatory requirement for broadleafs per site. Again, that is positive. Obviously, there must be a focus on more species and habitat diversity, and the broadleafs are very much a part of that.

Finally, the concerns of the people in the north west are real.I will end where I started, whereby we are all very much in favour of the need to increase forestry in meeting our environmental targets. We also need to find that balance across our communities. As Senator Mulherin rightly pointed out, farming is going through a particularly difficult period at present, especially in the west. While there may be different land options, unfortunately things are really difficult in the beef and suckler sector. Farmers are struggling across very tight margins. We need to support them as best we can to ensure that the suckler sector can continue. That is difficult at present. I am aware that is not part of today's discussion but in many ways it does form part of it, because people are considering forestry instead of these sectors right across the north west. It is important that we achieve a balance nationally and not in just one particular area.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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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.

Sitting suspended at 1.35 p.m. and resumed at 3 p.m.