The Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT) has raised concerns that the significant transfer of public funds worth €1.3 billion to a private industry will not come with the reforms needed in the forestry sector.

Despite welcoming the increased grant and premium rates under the new Forestry Proramme, the IWT has warned that money alone will not address all problems in the sector.

The Irish forestry sector has lost public faith and remains burdened with unresolved legacy issues that are detrimental to biodiversity, water quality and climate, according to the IWT.

The new Forestry Programme coming into effect from January 2023 will include grants and premiums for the planting of trees, which will be between 46% and 66% higher than the previous rates.

Higher payment rates, as well as an extended duration of payments from 15 to 20 years will help to resolve problems in expanding Ireland’s forest cover, the IWT said.

“We particularly welcome the high rates of payment for native forests, forests for protection of water courses and the introduction of a new ‘rewilding’ payment that will incentivise ’emergent forests’.

“Although, unfortunately, the payments are much lower than for other schemes that require planting of trees,” according to the IWT.

Forestry programme

The new Forestry Programme and Ireland’s draft Forest Strategy are currently up for public consultation until Tuesday, November 29.

The IWT said that currently native woodland covers less than 2% of the country, and much of it is in poor condition due to over-grazing and alien invasive species.

Dramatically increasing the extent and the ecological quality of Irish forests has to be the main priority to meet biodiversity and climate goals, according to the IWT.

The trust continued: “Rewilding, i.e. the natural regeneration of forest ecosystems through the self-seeding of trees, is the quickest, cheapest and most effective way of restoring forests.

“Yet, our approach to forests in Ireland remains predominantly commercially focused and based upon planting trees. This has led us to the many mistakes, including from diseases and loss of biodiversity, that hampers forestry to this day.”

The IWT criticised that the document currently out for public consultation suggests there will be no significant change to how forests are to be managed, and that rewilding will be limited to 50ha per annum (compared to 4,645ha of Sitka spruce monocultures).

Calling on Minister of State with responsibility for forestry, Pippa Hackett to ensure that the new Forestry Programme delivers real change, the IWT said the new strategy must aim to achieve the following:

  • Protect important biodiversity features such as bogs, sites of ground-nesting birds or species-rich grasslands;
  • Control grazing, particularly from sheep, goats and deer, that is preventing the natural regeneration of native forests;
  • Restore habitats where plantations were wrongly planted, particularly on peatlands;
  • Move away from the destructive cycle of planting monocultures which are then clear-felled to the detriment of soil, water, carbon storage and biodiversity;
  • Ensure that regenerating native forests are protected over the long term;
  • Ensure that perverse incentives are not encouraging forests to be grown for biofuel.

“There is an urgent need to incentivise landowners to not only create, but to pass on to the next generation, healthy forests that will continue to provide biodiversity habitat, clean water and store carbon in perpetuity,” the IWT said.