Farmers ‘worried’ about level of foreign forestry investment

Farmers in Co. Leitrim have expressed worry over the level of afforestation in recent years, particularly by non-farmers and foreign investors.

The topic was brought to light on RTE’s Morning Ireland on Monday, September 24.

“If you’re close to forestry it has a terrible effect on your mental and physical well-being,” said Co. Leitrim farmer, Jim McCaffery, who also outlined that Co. Leitrim has the highest level of forest cover in the country at 18.9%.

Independent MEP Marian Harkin is calling for an end to the current government policy which offers substantial grant-aid and significant tax breaks for planting trees in rural Ireland.

She claims that these incentives are driving up the cost of land in rural Leitrim and pushing local farmers out of the market.

The average price of land in Co. Leitrim is somewhere around €4,500/ac to buy for agriculture – because of grant-aid and tax breaks, people can pay a higher price if they intend on planting the land.

“Therefore, afforestation – being driven by grant-aid – means local farmers cannot compete to buy land to extend, what is in many cases, their small holdings.”

She also said she understands that land is being planted largely by people outside the county – such as large pension funds and corporations who have the money to invest. She says they are pushing people out of the market.

Farmer-owned forestry

The Minister of State for Food, Forestry and Horticulture, Andrew Doyle, disagrees and says much of the land in Co. Leitrim is still owned by farmers.

Minister Doyle said: “Leitrim had the lowest land price in the country in 2017. Last year, there were 70 sites planted. 37 were planted by farmers and 33 were planted by non farmers.”

According to a survey, the non-farmers include recently retired farmers and next-of-kin to farmers and landowners who inherited land.

Doyle also explained that the average non-farmer holding under forestry was approximately 8ha and outlined that less than 1% of all forestry in Ireland is institutional or corporate owned.

Not abiding

Harkin explained that the government had to get permission from the EU under state-aid rules to allow for the 100% grant-aid and remarked that part of that permission was that they must ensure 30% of the planting is native species.

According to Harkin: “This figure is not even at 20% and they are not actually abiding by the commitments that they made to the EU as far as the type of tree they are planting is concerned.”

According to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), 28.7% of plantings are broad leaf and DAFM says it is confident 30% will be reached by the end of the year.

A farm lobby group in the area is calling for a stop to the afforestation of land with Sitka spruce until an environmental survey is carried out.

McCaffery concluded by saying: “I want an immediate stop to Sitka spruce plantations. We are the most heavily afforested county. We’ve taken our share. Go elsewhere and plant your trees.”