LAND JOURNAL

Opinion: Where does Irish forestry go now?

National forestry policy and programmes have successfully contributed to Ireland's society and economy. But now the sector is at a crossroads

Author:

  • Tom McDonald

25 March 2021

Irish woodland

Irish forestry programmes and targets are not satisfying all public or private stakeholders. As a new strategy has been published, there is an opportunity to reflect on the development of national forestry policy, and consider where it should go next.

Forest is estimated to cover 770,020ha of Ireland, or 11% of the total land area, growing from 89,000ha or 1.4% when the state was founded in 1922. This compares with the figure of around 34.9% of the current land area under tree coverage in the EU.

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Table 1: Make-up of Irish forestry by tree type. Source: Forest Statistics Ireland 2020

  Proportion of forest area
Sitka spruce (conifers) 51.1% 
Other conifers 20.0%
Broadleaved species 28.9%
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Table 1: Make-up of Irish forestry by tree type. Source: Forest Statistics Ireland 2020

  Proportion of forest area
Sitka spruce (conifers) 51.1% 
Other conifers 20.0%
Broadleaved species 28.9%

Sitka spruce – which as Table 1 shows is the most common individual species – is considered an integral part of commercial forestry in Ireland.

Table 2 meanwhile breaks down the ownership of forestry in Ireland.

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Table 2: Ownership of Irish forestry. Source: Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Publicly owned forests 50.8%
Privately owned forests 49.2%
Of those which are privately owned: 
Grant-aided forests 70.7%
Non-grant aided forests 29.3%
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Table 2: Ownership of Irish forestry. Source: Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Publicly owned forests 50.8%
Privately owned forests 49.2%
Of those which are privately owned: 
Grant-aided forests 70.7%
Non-grant aided forests 29.3%

Until the 1980s, almost all afforestation or large-scale tree planting was carried out by the state. However, the 1981 Western Package Scheme and subsequent initiatives have provided grants for the planting of forests, as well as annual payments, called premia, to farmers and landowners in compensation for lost agricultural land and income.

In general, the forest estate is young, with just less than three-quarters nationally consisting of trees of 30 years old or younger. This has important implications for carbon sequestration, as a tree's carbon absorption rate accelerates as it ages. When forests are logged, however, their immense stores of carbon are quickly released.

Therefore, when carbon sequestration is being calculated it is important to consider the part of the forest from which data is collected. For example, one part of a forest may give a positive or negative result, but carbon sequestration needs to be calculated based on the entire forestry holding.

Carbon concern

A recent development in Ireland illustrates this point well. A statement by Friends of the Irish Environment, claimed that managed forestry has become a net emitter of gases, and "any hope that new afforestation can miraculously be counted to meet short-term carbon budgets is misplaced".

It disagreed with the government's position that "Irish forests are a significant sink and carbon store". The statements were based on the report FRL 2021–2025: Ireland, a National Forestry Accounting Plan, prepared by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) for the EU.

But forestry minister Pippa Hackett robustly rejected the criticisms in a statement. She reaffirmed the government's position, which is that "Ireland's forests are not a net emitter of greenhouse gasses. They are and remain a substantial and growing store for carbon dioxide, and recent suggestions otherwise are misleading insofar as they are looking only at one subset of the estate."

We need to look at the make-up of Ireland's forests to understand this disagreement. These are categorised as two different types: afforested land or managed forest land. Afforested land includes forests planted since 1991, none of which are older than 30. Meanwhile, the managed forest land includes all forests that are or will be older than 30 years between 2021 and 2030.

Friends of the Irish Environment refer only to the carbon performance of the managed estate, and then only over a particular timeframe. Managed forest lands have become a small emitter in the short term, but the amount of carbon being emitted is far outweighed by what the rest of the total Irish forestry estate is storing and sequestering.

In January this year, Hackett also launched a new Forest Carbon Tool that provides indicative sequestration trends for grant-aided planting options under the current schemes. It also offers indicative carbon sequestration values for a range of selected species and groups.

Missing the targets

The government has an annual afforestation target of 8,000ha per annum, but this has been subject to some criticism as it is not deemed ambitious enough. In addition, there has been an annual decrease in planting levels between 2016 and 2020, as Table 3 shows.

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Table 3: Tree planting in Ireland 2016–2020

2016 6,500ha
2017 5,536ha
2018 4,025ha
2019 3,550ha
2020 (estimated) 2,000–3,000ha
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Table 3: Tree planting in Ireland 2016–2020

2016 6,500ha
2017 5,536ha
2018 4,025ha
2019 3,550ha
2020 (estimated) 2,000–3,000ha

Clearly, this will not achieve the national target set by the state to provide forest cover of 18% for Ireland in 2046, or ensure a sustainable long-term roundwood supply for the expected increase in demand. All the afforestation from 2016 to 2019 was carried out by the private sector, but we cannot depend on this if we are to achieve the targeted levels of cover.

Over the past seven years, state bodies – including forestry management company Coillte, which owns around 7% of the land in Ireland – have only afforested 12ha. This compares unfavourably to the original figure of 388ha in 1923. However, unlike private companies, Coillte is not currently eligible for grant aid or premia for afforestation projects.

Other issues that explain the declining planting rates include:
  • competing farming enterprises that receive equivalent or more funding under the EU Common Agricultural Policy
  • conservation constraints
  • land classification.

The state has recognised some of these issues, and last year created a scheme to encourage public bodies to establish new native woodlands on suitable sites.

There is also some justifiable criticism of the Forest Service in relation to past handling of and the current backlog in granting felling licences. Presently, as part of the licensing process, all proposed forestry operations, including felling and road construction must be screened for their potential impact on Natura sites within 15km; that is, areas where habitats and bird species are listed in the EU Habitats Directive or Birds Directive.

But this can cause significant delays for applicants: a Natura impact statement may be required, costing up to €1,500, and this represents a big outlay when the average afforestation project is now only 7–8ha. It means projects can spend up to two years in the application process but then still be rejected, about which applicants are understandably unhappy.

Future forest strategies

In July 2019, the DAFM commissioned James Mackinnon, CBE, former senior planner with the Scottish government to write a report, following a similar review which he completed in Scotland on afforestation and related matters.

In its annex, this summarises 21 ways forward and recommends that, in the longer term, the state reviews the legislation on forestry and considers introducing a single consent covering planting, road construction, management and felling, which presently each require a separate consent or licence.

In November 2020, Hackett appointed Jo O'Hara – a former commissioner at the UK's Forestry Commission, chief forester for Scotland and chief executive of Scottish Forestry – to advise on implementing the report.

Conclusions

The Irish government's forestry policy can reasonably be said to have achieved some considerable success over the past 100 years. From small beginnings in 1923, it currently has a vibrant industry worth in excess of €2bn to the Irish economy, and which employs more than 12,000 people – many in rural areas. It has also contributed significantly to public goods through climate change mitigation, conservation, recreation and landscape value.

O'Hara's report, Implementation of the Mackinnon Report, focuses on the reorganisation of forestry activities and is based on Mackinnon's 2019 report. It is also partly based on learning from Mackinnon's 2016 Scottish report but tailored to meet Irish conditions. Irish land holdings are very different to those in Scotland and the UK, particularly in terms of size, tenure, income, legislation and organisational structure.

To begin implementing the forestry reforms, Hackett has created a governance structure called Project Woodland that involves four different workstreams, reporting to her through a project manager and a project board. The first workstream will focus on the backlog; the second on a vision for forestry; the third on devising a suitable organisational structure; and the fourth on streamlining the licensing process for the future.

Each workstream will be supported by a group made up from the minister's existing Forestry Policy Group, which itself represents 23 organisations including NGOs, farmers, nurseries, timber processors, forestry companies and government agencies. The minister has also asked national network Irish Rural Link, which aims to promote sustainability across the country, to study the effect of forests on communities

Also noted in O'Hara's report is the need for Ireland to do more to develop sustainable forest management, and to provide "environmental, economic and societal goals". The latter statement differs significantly from the current forest policy where the emphasis is on economic, environmental and societal policy.

Irish forestry and forestry policy are thus facing one of the most challenging times since the foundation of the state in 1922. Project Woodland hopes to resolve these issues: we wish it the best of luck.

info@tommcdonald.ie

Related competencies include: Forestry and woodland management, Land use and diversification, Legal/regulatory compliance, Sustainability

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