Solving the afforestation debacle in Leitrim: ‘Leave the farmers to plant the trees’

A Leitrim farmer has indicated this week that the only way to solve the difficulties with afforestation in his native county is to allow farmers only to plant trees.

These sentiments were expressed by Kenny McCauley who together with his father Brian runs a suckler farm and wood-chipping business on the outskirts of Mohill.

The pair have also planted three on 4ac of marginal land on their farm with birch and alder trees over the last six years.

McCauley admits it was a good move for them and one that “works well for us”.

His comments come on the back of a statement made last week by Justin Warnock of ‘Save Leitrim’ who told AgriLand that “afforestation can work if it’s done right”.

Warnock has also called on the Government to put a stop to “the rapid growth of coniferous forestry” – most notably Sitka spruce plantations – that have sprung up in the county.

‘Coming to a head’

McCauley, meanwhile, said the forestry issue in Leitrim has “come to a head” over the last 18 months or so.

There has been anti-forestry campaigns going on in Leitrim since the 1970s and really the whole issue has come to a head over the last two years.

He continued: “That has possibly happened because of the changes to the forestry scheme that were introduced in 2014.

“That allowed non-farmers to engage in forestry. I do think, though, that the real reason for it coming to a head here in Leitrim, is because the county appears to have seen the highest rate of change in terms of the percentage of forest cover over the last 10 years.”

‘Competition and commercial potential’

McCauley then pointed out that it could also be argued that the opening up of the forestry scheme to non-farmers increased competition for land in Leitrim.

“So, if you want to farm the land – say traditionally it was farmed for beef or sheep for example – the land value is lower because it is not as productive as perhaps it might be in other areas,” he continued.

“Whereas with forestry it is probably one of the most productive sectors in the country now – especially for conifers like Sitka spruce.

“In one sense Leitrim has become a centre of excellence in Ireland for the Sitka spruce because of the fantastic growth rates; that, in fact, is what has made it very, very competitive.”

‘Notions and ideas’

According to the Co. Leitrim farmer a negative perception of forestry in Ireland has emerged over the years.

He says that in some circles it is regarded as a farming failure.

There is the idea that because forestry is taking place on marginal land – and this notion now is going back years – it is something negative.

McCauley continued: “It is being regarded as a symbol of failure in planting and a failure in farm operation.

“I really don’t think that is the case and I suppose there is a need to look at the glass being half full as opposed to being half empty when you examine this perception more closely.

“The land here in Leitrim is an extremely suitable land type for certain species of trees; however, in saying that, anti-forestry campaigns here would have come to light and become more prominent over the last 18-months or so.”

‘Leave forestry to the farmers’

The Leitrim man also pointed out that when the most recent anti-forestry campaigns began in his native county he “strongly agreed with a lot of the intentions the people involved had”.

Particularly, he added, when considering parts of north Leitrim and other areas like Cloone and Aughavass where there are high levels of afforestation.

In some cases entire townlands have been covered with trees and nobody in Leitrim wants to see that happening.

McCauley continued: “While myself and my father are not directly involved with forestry on the ground, in one sense we are a by-product of the industry because we are linked to it. I still would not like to see blanket afforestation.

“What would be ideal really is for farmers only to plant trees – they could continue to farm and put a couple of acres under forestry. In fact, this is the model that has proven to work well.”