‘Government policy makes it easier to plant trees than build a home’

Government policy on forestry is “decimating the social fabric” of Co. Leitrim and requires an “immediate and effective response”.

This is the view proposed by Marian Harkin, an independent MEP, following recent discussions with groups of the county’s rural residents that are adversely affected by afforestation.

Those impacted have voiced their determination to challenge policy which, they contend, encourages pension funds, corporations and large farmers from outside the county to purchase native land for planting.

“Such investment was designed to provide either carbon credits to offset future charges that could arise from intensive farming; or to avail of substantial grant aid and tax-free returns on investment in forestry,” said Harkin.

This is a serious issue for farmers – and their communities – who, under present government policies, cannot compete for land needed to ensure their future viability in farming and vital to the retention of population to ensure local community viability.

Harkin contends that when land is planted under current regulations “it can never again” be brought back to support food production.

As such, she warns that current policies are resulting in the “cutting off” and “displacing” of families and communities.

“It is very clear from planning policy on afforestation that it was much easier to plant trees than build a home,” she said.

Environmental Impact Assessment

“There are other important issues around the non use of the Environmental Impact Assessment directive, as the cumulative effects of forestry are not adequately taken into consideration; I will be raising this issue with the European Commission,” she said.

The government’s national strategic plan for forestry in Ireland is to expand from 11% to 18% of the land area by 2046, in a bid to offset carbon emissions.

According to the latest EU targets, Ireland must achieve a 30% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 2005.

“The prospect that Ireland faces substantial EU fines for failure to meet emissions targets has further encouraged policies which incentivise blanket forestry, with little diversity of species,” said Harkin.

“Grants and tax breaks effectively meant that farmers wishing to achieve future viability could not compete for land in the areas concerned.”

‘Out-of-date figures’

The most recently available statistics indicate that Co. Leitrim has the second highest acreage of forestry at 16.7%, just behind Co. Wicklow at almost 18%.

These figures are out-of-date and evidence on the ground from speaking to people strongly suggests that this figure of 16.7% has significantly increased.

“Every county needs to take responsibility for contributing to the afforestation effort; but, what was happening in Leitrim is totally disproportionate.

”What about the ‘polluter pays’ principle, where CO2 emissions are concerned? Leitrim shoulders far more than its fair share and this must be tackled immediately,” she insisted.

Harkin urged all those concerned with the issue of excessive afforestation in the county to come together to develop a structure to assist farmers looking to acquire land for sale – particularly where the land for sale adjoins their own.

The Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA) will address the issue at a meeting in Carrick-on-Shannon on Friday, January 19.

Community concerns

Meanwhile, Irish MEP and first vice-president of the European Parliament said that national forestry targets, while important in terms of meeting our climate action targets, must take account of community and local concerns.

McGuinness was speaking following a recent meeting with representatives of the INHFA. She explained that Ireland’s targets to increase the area under trees from 11% to 18% risks not being achieved, unless we tackle perceptions among farmers about forestry and reassure certain regions that there is no national strategy to cover their territory with trees to the exclusion of people.

“Trees are a farming enterprise – not an anti-farming activity – with environmental and sustainability benefits for the community, but community concerns need to be heard,” she said.

She outlined that five counties – Leitrim, Cavan, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo – have seen a significant increase in planting, accounting for one third of the afforestation programme in 2016. As well as this, over 30% of planting is being undertaken by investors, with no links to local communities.

McGuiness continued: “This issue was raised with me by members of the IHNFA when I met them on Friday.

“Gerry Loftus – chairman of the forestry committee of the association – expressed concern about the proliferation of plantations, without due regard to concerns of neighbouring farmers and other householders.

Tax and other incentives are encouraging investors to look to forestry as a long-term investment. This is a cause of concern and in Leitrim, it is adding to a negative perception of forestry.

“Competition for land between local farmers who wish to expand their holdings and investors who want to plant the land is leading to resentment – with forestry investors able to outbid farmers for land.

“In overall terms Ireland has the lowest forestry cover in the EU, with about 10% of our lands – some 750,000ha – under trees. And we have a competitive advantage in growing timber, with growth rates of certain tree species more than double those achievable in other European countries,” she concluded.