Afforestation is in direct competition with the interests of young farmers in certain parts of the country, Macra na Feirme Agri-Affairs Vice Chairman Thomas Duffy said.

Duffy was speaking after Macra na Feirme launched its afforestation policy which challenges the current national afforestation policy and outlines the concerns of young farmers.

“We want to be clear that afforestation can help the rural economy, but only if afforestation is not in direct competition with the interests of the next generation of young farmers.

At the moment we feel this is the case for land in certain parts of the country.

Macra’s policy was recently presented to the Minister of State for Agriculture, Food and the Marine with responsibility for Forestry, Andrew Doyle, by both Duffy and the Macra na Feirme National President Sean Finan.

“From a young farmer’s perspective, Macra na Feirme is concerned about the current afforestation programme and questions the potential bubble being created by the current levels of forestry grant aid and premiums available.

“Macra na Feirme does not oppose forestry and believes it has a strong economic role to play and has a role in Ireland’s climate change mitigation strategy, but the current forestry programme needs to be re-examined,” Finan said.

Macra believes the current grants and premiums being offered under the afforestation policy are not sustainable.

These grants and premiums are providing unwarranted competition across the country for land between young farmers and a variety of enterprises, including private investors and forestry companies, according to Macra.

Main points of Macra’s afforestation policy

The young farmers’ organisation believes that greater demand for land suitable for afforestation is driving up the price of land.

This causes particular concern to young farmers dependent on access to lower priced land as they lack access to capital or credit, according to Macra.

The organisation proposed that there there should be a grant aid system based on yield assessment, with more grades so that land not suitable for agriculture is distinguished from land which has just become neglected.

Under Macra’s afforestation policy grant aid and annual premiums must be set at a level which allows young farmers to compete for land.

Macra is also concerned that those who are afforesting their land are not being properly informed that once land is afforested it cannot realistically ever be returned to agricultural use, as there is a requirement to replant.

Another concern which Macra raised was the environmental impact of blanket afforestation in areas deemed to be of High Nature Value.

Irish biodiversity is at risk in these locations if they are not farmed but turned into forestry, the organisation believes.

To avoid this Macra is seeking greater funding for practices which do not compete for land and allow farmers to avail of environmental and economic benefits such as agro-forestry.

‘Agro-Forestry needs to be Investigated Further’

Agro-forestry, agriculture incorporating the cultivation of trees, is something which needs to be investigated further, the Macra na Feirme Agri-Affairs Vice Chairman said.

Every farm has a portion of land which could be used for this.

Agro Forestry can deliver economically for farmers and could help address the climate challenges we face, Duffy added.

A strategic land use programme needs to be introduced to create a more sustainable afforestation programme, Finan added.

He hopes that this programme would complement, and not compete with, the other livestock and arable sectors, along with reviewing the current level of premiums on offer.