Forestry in the Firing Line
As reported on The Journal there’s positive news for the Forestry Industry as the Government’s Midterm Review increases planting incentives, but not everyone shares the enthusiasm for trees.
The community activists behind the Save Leitrim Campaign are highlighting the negative aspects of forestry expansion with protests and lobbying activity. They say they aren’t anti-forestry but claim that the expanses of evergreen forests are damaging both the environment and the community. Their Facebook page shows pictures of buildings and roadways overshadowed by tall trees – activists say frost can linger for days due to the sunlight’s inability to break through the canopy. Locals feel frustrated that they have little recourse in these situations and that their voice isn’t heard. The campaign also highlights the water pollution caused by conifers planted too close to waterways.
Some of the mistakes of the past have certainly been addressed by new planting standards. Bog and mountainous ground which would have been approved for planting in the past is thankfully no longer grant aided. Every new plantation must include at least 15% broad leaf trees and 10% naturally occurring biodiversity (hedgerows, wild green spaces etc). Conifers must be ten meters back from roadways and thirty to sixty meters from houses. Similarly trees must be set back from watercourses to avoid acidification of rivers and streams. And signs must now be erected on proposed planting sites to give the public an opportunity to voice concerns.
However Save Leitrim don’t think these measures go far enough and claim Forestry Inspectors are overworked and unable to ensure that planting adheres to the current standards with many sites repeating the mistakes of the past. Indeed their most pressing demand is an immediate cessation of all new planting to allow a full and thorough review of the facts around the proliferation of forestry in their County. But this seems unlikely given Ireland’s commitments on climate change and our low national forestry cover of 11% (as compared to 35% average in Europe).
Unsurprisingly foresters are highlighting the other side of the argument. VEON, one of the largest forestry management companies in Ireland outlined the many jobs created as a direct result of afforestation. They also point to the benefits of forestry: quality timber and biomass production as well as carbon sequestration. Veon are proud to be involved in an industry that represents a viable commercial alternative to selling family land or to traditional farming where margins are tight. And for small farmers hoping to sell their land to the highest bidder, forestry has increased the demand and the price for wet, rushy marginal land which might otherwise turn to scrub. Planting levels in Leitrim, Veon point out, represents the natural outcome of free market supply and demand and not some Leinster House plot to make the county a “sacrifice zone” for trees as Save Leitrim claim. Similarly despite claims that forestry is harming community in Letrim, firms in the industry point to the uplifting statistic that the population of the Wild Rose County actually hit a fifty year high in 2016.
Furthermore forestry proponents say some of the Save Leitrim campaigners have ulterior motives – representative groups such as the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association face a reduction in subscriptions as farmers hang up their wellies and move to forestry. Critics of the industry give the impression that the industry is the preserve of pension funds but the reality on the ground seems quite different with the likes of the Western Forestry Co-Op working exclusively for the farming community. And indeed many ordinary people in Leitrim and around Ireland either own forestry, have sold their land for forestry or benefit from the existence of the sector locally.
Other facts are also indisputable: Ireland’s mild wet climate gives us a competitive advantage in growing softwood forestry with Sitka Spruce maturing in around 30 to 35 years, around one third of the time as in Northern Europe. Broad leaf species such as oak take up to a century to mature and so investors tend to favour the shorter rotation varieties. And while environmentalists favour the blanket adoption of continuous forest cover (which avoids total clear fell of all trees on a site), forestry professionals say it can only be successfully applied to specific species, and unfortunately won’t work for Spruce.
Without doubt, both sides have fair points to make. And thankfully there is some common ground: both the Save Leitrim campaign and many in the forestry industry share a common grievance. As reported in the media in February 2017, low cost borrowing has been made available to an international investment fund to invest in Irish forestry assets. It’s is being interpreted by many as a sop to the vulture funds as it’s argued that the scheme places local investors at a relative disadvantage. In addition many in the forestry sector also agree that inadequate resources within the Forestry Department are causing unnecessary delays and increasing tensions. Appeals Committees and delays in the application process have been known to cause delays of six months and longer to make decisions. Such bureaucratic delays help no one.
So the challenge for all stakeholders is to address these area’s of common concern – and given that the regulatory and planning framework seems to lie behind many of the industries challenges, the first one who needs to pay attention is Minister of State for Food, Forestry and Horticulture, Andrew Doyle TD, otherwise the discontent is likely to linger long into the future.
For an article on one of Ireland’s most loved forest mammals, the red squirrel, click here.