Forestry Issues: Statements.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 188 No. 14

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An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Information on Paddy Burke Zoom on Paddy Burke I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Wallace, to the House.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Deputy Mary Wallace): Information on Mary Wallace Zoom on Mary Wallace I welcome the opportunity to make a statement to Seanad Éireann on forestry, for which I have special responsibility in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I intend to briefly highlight for the information of Members the importance of forestry to farmers, the economy and the environment in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on global warming. I will outline why it is vital that forestry be sustained in the years ahead through encouragement and incentives to farmers for new planting. I look forward to Members’ contributions on this important matter.

It is useful to put forestry in context. The area of the national forest estate is some 700,000 hectares, more than 10% of the total land area. While this has expanded significantly since the mid-1980s with the introduction of grant schemes aimed at encouraging private landowners, mainly farmers, to become involved in forestry, it is relatively low compared to our EU counterparts given that 35% of the total land in the EU is under forest cover. Of the national forest estate, more than 57% is in public ownership through Coillte and the remaining 43% is in private ownership. Some 25 years ago, 85% was in public ownership and 15% was in private ownership. Approximately 16,000 plantations are privately owned, predominantly by farmers.

There is no doubt that the full economic contribution of forestry goes far beyond the forest gate. Ireland’s forestry comprises a growing sector, a vibrant forest industry and a modern harvesting and transport sector. The growing sector comprises many small and medium sized enterprises that service Ireland’s woods and forests, including forest nurseries, consultants, self-assessment companies and forest contractors. The processing sector includes conifer and hardwood sawmills that rely on the growing sector as a source of raw material. There are nine large to medium sized fully automated sawmills and approximately 100 small sawmills. There are also four boardmill processing industries, which utilise a combination of small roundwood, recycled wood and wood waste. Finally, there is the harvesting and transport sector that forms the essential link between the growing and processing sectors. Total [1010]employment in the forestry sector is estimated at 16,000 persons. This all generates considerable economic activity and benefits in the wider economy and more especially in the rural communities.

The current processing requirement is just under 4 million cu. m. per annum and there is a current deficit of 400,000 cu. m. per annum, which has to be met through imports. There is an established and growing industry based on raw material from Irish forests and it is important that continuity of supply of this raw material is maintained.

Farmers are now the key people engaging in planting. Forestry is a realistic land use option where there are 100% establishment grants for the planting of trees and an annual tax-free premium of up to €573 per hectare for up to 20 years. An additional premium of up to €200 per hectare for five years is available to farmers in the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, who join the forest environment protection scheme, FEPS, and plant part of their land in accordance with that scheme. I was pleased to introduce a number of significant changes to the FEP scheme last week. The main changes were a reduction in the minimum size to five hectares for farms with less than 30 hectares and, in respect of bigger farms, to dispense with the sliding scale and pay a flat rate premium of €200 per hectare, for planted areas of eight hectares or more, irrespective of farm size. Based on what the sector has conveyed to me, these changes to FEPS should provide a boost to our planting figures. I was, therefore, pleased to be able to deliver this package as it is further evidence of the Government’s commitment to forestry and an acknowledgement of forestry as a positive contributory factor in the areas of the economy, rural development, climate change and renewable energy.

Forestry is a source of real income for the farmer in terms of an annual income from the premium, in the medium term from the returns from thinnings and in the long term from the end value of the crop. Last April, for example, almost €57 million was paid out in the annual forestry premium payment under the forestry programme. As I have already mentioned, this is an annual tax-free premium.

Due to the current strong market demand the price for timber in Ireland is very high. First thinnings that two years ago were sold standing for between €1.50 and €3.00 per cu. m. are now fetching €8.50, which makes it more attractive than ever to thin early. As the quantity removed at first thinning is usually between 40 and 50 cu. m. this represents an income of €340 to €425 per hectare. Where the harvesting of stake material is an option, a higher income will be realized. The national forest inventory, which we published in December after a two year survey of the Irish forest estate, estimated that 21,000 hectares of forest established in the private sector are at a stage where they could be thinned. There is an attract[1011]ive financial benefit in farmers and landowners taking immediate steps towards thinning their forests thus gaining income from thinnings and adding greatly to the timber value of their forestry assets. If I have two messages to contribute to today’s debate one relates to income value for farmers and the other is that 21,000 hectares are ready to be thinned and doing so is in farmers’ interests.

A number of producer groups have been established throughout the country, which are, with funding from my Department, currently promoting thinning and developing local markets for those thinnings. It is also important to note that while most forests are ready for first thinning from year 15, the crop may be thinned on a five-year cycle thereafter.

Another important return that is sometimes not fully taken into account when evaluating forestry as a possible enterprise is the end value of the timber crop. Currently, the estimate for the value of timber at clearfell stage ranges from €12,000 to €15,000 per hectare, depending on a number of variables including market prices, crop quality and species. It is important to note that income from sale of thinnings and timber at clearfell is tax-free. The increase in the price of timber by some 20% to 25% in the last 18 months was encouraging because as demand rises for this renewable product so too must returns to producers, primarily farmers.

Forestry should be encouraged because it offers a substantial income to landowners annually in both the medium term and long term. There are also other non-monetary factors to be taken into account such as the way in which various enterprises complement each other, the type of land and how labour intensive and time consuming an enterprise is, especially if a farmer is also working part-time off the farm.

Not only should we encourage new planting as a source of income for farmers, we should also appreciate the other significant benefits accruing from forestry. There is increasing awareness and appreciation of forestry vis-à-vis its role in climate change. Climate change is now a top political priority as we address ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on global warming over the period to 2020. Forestry has a distinct role in addressing climate change in the Irish context. Our existing forests represent a very significant store of carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas, and our recently completed national forest inventory has shown that it is many times larger than the total annual emissions of greenhouse gases. The store is growing rapidly, particularly in younger forests planted since 1990, which are removing over 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on an annual basis. These forests are well below their maximum annual carbon dioxide uptake with the result that the period to 2020 will see a rapid increase in annual sequestration to in excess [1012]of 4 million tonnes. National investment in afforestation, particularly since 1985, is the main reason that forests are contributing to climate change mitigation at this level. This is borne out by the fact that in the 23 years since the introduction of the forestry grant and premium scheme 200,000 hectares of new forest, over a quarter of the entire forest area of the country, have been established.

As well as reducing the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the new forests will lessen the cost of Irish compliance with our Kyoto Protocol targets. Over the five years between now and the end of 2012, estimates are that over 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide will be taken up by forests within the Kyoto Protocol framework, resulting in potential savings of more than €200 million to the State, at current purchase prices of €20 per tonne of carbon dioxide. Should the current carbon accounting frameworks continue beyond 2012, the annual contribution of forests to national compliance, in today’s costs, will be close to €100 million. To sustain this level of contribution to climate change continued investment in the afforestation programme will be required over the coming decade and beyond. Not only will forests remove carbon from the atmosphere, they will also make a sustained contribution to renewable energy targets and the development of the wood processing sector in Ireland.

Policies and measures targeted at increasing the use of a range of renewable energy sources, including wood biomass, are set out in the White Paper on energy and the biomass action plan for Ireland. Forestry is well placed to contribute to these goals by producing clean renewable wood fuels from Irish forests. The forest service of my Department and the National Council for Forest Research and Development, COFORD, an agency of my Department, have estimated that wood energy has the potential to contribute emissions savings in excess of 4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum by 2020 if the full range of measures envisaged, from heat, combined heat and power, and power generation are realised. Wood, once it is procured from forests that are sustainably managed, where trees that are felled are replaced and forest cover is maintained, is a carbon neutral fuel source. It can be renewed indefinitely. Harvesting, on the scale needed to supply both the traditional wood product outlets for pulp and sawlog and the emerging energy market, needs to be rapidly developed over the coming years. In recognising this need we have put in place capital grants for the purchase of wood energy harvesting equipment.

Wood energy harvesting, processing, installation and maintenance will create many new jobs in rural Ireland and, by displacing energy imports, will aid security of supply, one of the key objectives of Irish energy policy. Already a number of companies are involved in the supply of wood energy for heating. To date, Sustainable Energy Ireland has grant aided 128 biomass boiler pro[1013]jects, about 52 MW of capacity, 73 of which use wood chips, 45 of which use wood pellets and 10 of which use a combination. In addition 3,500 pellet boilers have been installed under the greener homes scheme and a further 1,500 applications are being processed. In line with these developments new pellet production and storage facilities are coming on stream, with two in the process of being constructed.

This wood energy market creates a market for thinnings from forests during their growing cycle. As I have mentioned, many of the farm forests that were established in the late 1980s and early 1990s are now close to thinning, which improves the quality and increases the size of remaining trees, allowing larger commercial timber to grow. The developing wood energy market will create an outlet for such thinnings. However, once these markets are developed there must be continuity of supply into the future and this is another reason it is necessary to encourage new planting. There are many factors affecting the rate of planting, both within and outside our control, and we need to address what we can. I requested Mr. John Malone, former Secretary General of this Department, to undertake a study on the factors affecting the rate of afforestation in recent years, given the many incentives to plant already available to landowners. I look forward to receiving his report shortly.

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I have concentrated on the significance of forestry as a source of income to farmers and its role in climate change and renewable energy. I am not overlooking the role it has to play in the environment, in the provision of recreation and to society generally. We are currently appreciating those benefits. We need to ensure forestry is still around in the years ahead to continue to provide those benefits to our children and to future generations. The time to act is now. There is ongoing coverage of the consequences of deforestation throughout the world. We need to ensure forestry remains a feature of the landscape and economy and continues to provide an income stream for farmers and a steady supply of material for the timber and energy sectors.

As Minister of State with responsibility for forestry, I am committed to the sustainable development of forestry and I hope Senators, as public representatives, will assist me in this objective through the encouragement of new planting and the development of the sector generally. I thank Senators for affording me an opportunity to outline the position of forestry in Ireland.

Senator Paul Bradford: Information on Paul Bradford Zoom on Paul Bradford I welcome the Minister of State, a former colleague of mine in both the Seanad and Dáil, to the House in which we both started our political careers in 1987. I wish her well in her new position, which is an onerous and interesting ministerial portfolio. Of all the work done by Departments, the development of forestry presents a win-win scenario. Forestry has a [1014]significant and positive contribution to make to farming, the environment, the economy, the timber industry, wildlife, energy substitution and the generation of new energy sources.

The Minister of State’s contribution was littered with statistics, which is usually a negative sign. However, the figures she provided were interesting and I noted some of them. I had, for instance, forgotten the proportion of the Irish landmass covered in forest. According to the Minister of State, the figure now stands at approximately 10%, compared to a European average of 35%. While we cannot expect to reach the EU average, there is significant scope for further progress. Having said that, a debate has commenced on the utility of food production versus energy crops. At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food this morning, I pointed out that from a global perspective food is becoming scarcer, with food production having been in deficit for the past five years. This imbalance will need to be addressed. While we cannot devote all available land in Ireland or Europe to forestry given the importance of food production, expanding forestry remains both necessary and feasible.

The first forestry grants were introduced approximately 20 years ago. The Minister of State cited an interesting statistic on the proportion of Irish forests planted since that date. While the figure is significant, one must ask the reason the response has not been greater, given the generous grant aid available to farmers to plant forests and the added incentive that income from forestry is tax free. Interest in afforestation has not increased as quickly as it should have. The REP scheme solved certain problems but created others, whereas the new scheme, which combines REPS farming and forestry, will be a useful step forward. I welcome progress in this regard and ask the Minister of State to ensure the scheme is developed further.

It is in the interests of the Government and rural communities to significantly increase the level of forestry plantations. If farmers and growing agencies do not respond to the substantial grants available, it may be necessary to increase grant aid or to offer further incentives, particularly in light of the timber deficit in the Irish market. Timber is one of the few agricultural products Ireland must import in significant quantities. The Minister of State should be able to sell to her colleagues in Government the case for increasing afforestation grants, particularly given the impact of forestry on income substitution, family farm income and the environment.

It is the environmental aspect of forestry that catches the public imagination most. Members of the public are tuned into environmental matters much more than in the past. Even the youngest schoolchildren now speak of global warming and climate change and everybody accepts that forestry plantations and planting trees have a posi[1015]tive environmental impact. We must consider the issue from this perspective.

Energy substitution and maximising the use of wood chip fuel and old-fashioned timber offers scope to reduce our reliance on oil and other imported fuels. The Minister of State referred to the green energy grants scheme which was welcomed by all sides. While Government revenues may not be flowing as freely as they did three or four years ago, it was disappointing that one of the first measures taken by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan of the Green Party, was to reduce the value of some of the grants available to householders to switch to more environmentally friendly heating systems. This decision should be reviewed. While it is not the Minister of State’s specific responsibility, the Minister should revert to the more favourable rate of grant aid. It is the Minister’s responsibility to make grant aid available and the Minister of State’s role to ensure the product, that is, timber, is available.

We should aspire to having energy friendly heating systems installed in all houses, old and new. The issue of supply was brought to my attention as soon as people began to install wood chip and wood pellet boilers. I am pleased, therefore, that the Minister of State indicated that a number of new plants are being established to meet demand for these products. There is little point in Members encouraging constituents to switch to an alternative or green fuel system if the product is not readily available. I understand most wood pellets are sourced from the North. The establishment in this jurisdiction of factories producing wood pellets would be a welcome development.

Forestry has a significant and expanding role to play in terms of the environment, which is an area people readily understand. We should encourage this development. As I indicated, the development of forestry is a win-win scenario. The more of it we have, the better it will be for rural areas, farming communities, rural sustainability, the environment and future energy supplies. The statistics speak for themselves. It is one of the few products we can grow naturally for which a gap exists in the market. We are not talking about European subsidies or any degree of false State aid. We are talking about simply supporting what we need not only for the present but well into the future.

Whenever one drives past a forestry plantation whether it be 40, 50 or 60 years old, one gets a great sense of where one is and one reflects on who planted it and the farmers who existed. This is another positive side to our forestry industry.

Five to ten years ago a difficulty existed in some parts of the country, in particular in the west of Ireland. Senator Ellis is present, and his previous constituency colleagues often spoke to me about it. I remember a former Member of the Dáil, Ted Nealon, speaking many times about marginally viable farming land put up for sale [1016]being purchased by people who planted forestry. This is one of the difficulties but we cannot have it every way.

The grants system gives a premium or advantage to the growing of forestry in less marginal areas and it is also making it more appealing in those parts of our island which previously were not deemed to be attractive for forestry growing. We are getting more balanced development, which I welcome. However, as in all walks of life we cannot have it every way. We cannot grow more trees from an environmental and energy point of view and bemoan the fact that farming land is lost.

We should not move away from the important food versus energy debate because it must be addressed with regard to food from a world perspective. We have scope at home to significantly increase our plantations. I look forward to the Minister of State’s ongoing interest and developments in this regard. The role may be deemed what is termed a “junior ministry” but it is extremely important to the development of rural Ireland, our energy supplies and our environment. I wish her well in her endeavours.

Senator John Ellis: Information on John Ellis Zoom on John Ellis Senator Bradford finished on a point I was going to make. I attended many public meetings — I am sure Senator O’Reilly was also called to many — on the problems caused by private afforestation companies backed by pension funds and other operations which did not need to make a commercial return. They forced a number of farmers out of business by being able to pay more for land for forestry because of the tax breaks available to them. This has had a major detrimental effect as far as certain parts of the west of Ireland are concerned. The land in question was not always marginal land as better plots of land were available and taken out by forestry companies.

The grant scheme was tiered so hardwood was at a higher rate than sitka spruce or pines. The net result of this is that 15 to 20 years ago every bit of reasonably good land in my part of the country was forced into afforestation. If one was not able to pay more than the private forestry companies one did not get the land. Rather than being able to expand one was put out of business because once forestry was introduced alongside one’s farm one had problems with vermin and other problems associated with forestry. Nothing can be done about this now but I predict that within 20 years all of the trees will be pulled out because the land will have to return to food production. It is becoming marginal as to whether we will have trees or food to feed the people on the planet. This is already happening in some cases.

Forestry plays a major role in helping to improve the environment. At one level, it is important that carbon is removed. However, nobody ever mentions a major negative caused in the west by indiscriminate planting beside watercourses and rivers whch is that all of the fish were [1017]killed. Whether people want to admit it, when the needles fall and rot an acid is secreted and seepage of this into our watercourses has killed off fish in many smaller rivers. We all know this and we must accept it happened. I do not know whether it could have been avoided but it might have been if we had proper planning regulations and people were only allowed to plant deciduous, hardwood or non-coniferous trees within 20 m of watercourses.

Grant assistance is of great value to those who receive it. However, as first thinnings are taken out after 20 years the first crop of any farmer who plants and maintains forestry is yielded after 15 to 20 years. After this, no income is received until the next thinnings. It is not a viable prospect for any farmer, although it is a viable prospect for investors or insurance companies. It is being peddled as a farm crop and it should be explained that the first thinnings will be after 20 years and the only income after this will be made from timber sales. People under 50 years of age see this as a cash cow for 20 years, forgetting their life expectancy can be up to 80 years and they will have ten years of no return.

Senator Bradford mentioned wood pellets. Many people discovered recently that at one stage this was a monopoly market and supplies were tight. The costs rose significantly from what was originally predicted 18 months or two years ago. While it is market-driven, it should be examined.

Problems with clear felling are arising now with regard to what was planted 20 or 25 years ago. Clear felling of land leaves scars on our landscape and should be dealt with. Tree-felling licences should be issued on the understanding that clear felling should not occur within 15 m or 20 m of roadways. Timber should be left to allow a new forest to build up or to be replanted. It should also be mandatory that tree felling licences be issued with the condition that replanting should be done within one year. Areas have been left for years before they were replanted. This is probably because grant assistance is not available to replant land which has been clear felled. I do not know what the departmental officials will state about this. Perhaps the Minister of State will clarify the matter in her reply.

Lack of maintenance of forests frightens us all. Once the fences went up and the gates were locked much of the land which was planted was forgotten about. A great deal of private forestry has been badly maintained. The net result of this is that only a fraction of a potentially decent crop is produced and this is wrong.

It is also wrong that people are paid grants without a proper annual inspection system. A farmer receiving a single payment grant can have two, three, four or five inspections per year depending on how it falls. One can have an inspection for the new suckler payment, for REPS, an area-based inspection and an entire stock check. Forestry is planted and cleared, [1018]checked over for the first year or two and after that the grant is paid without question. I could show officials sites which could be described only as scrub. Furze took over before trees got established. It is now the case of an odd tree coming up through the furze but the landowner is still paid the grant aid, which is wrong.

Proper provision must be made to ensure roads are not damaged during clear-felling. Leitrim County Council is always seeking moneys from the Department and elsewhere to cover damage done to roads by tree-felling operations. This also leads to communities becoming agitated and not wanting more plantations.

I note in the Minister of State’s projections the proposed figures are dropping. They will drop more despite her best efforts because people have copped on that while it may be attractive at the start, forestry plantations after 20 years leave nothing else but timber sales. They may be tax free, suit pension funds and those with a considerable income other than from farming. A farmer, however, getting into forestry planting will not see the returns down the line for which he would have hoped.

The Minister of State claims the average value of thinnings, the first crop between 15 years and 20 years, works out at €150 and €200 per acre. That is the total income other than grants for the first 20 years. I accept every five years, a certain amount can be removed from a plantation and the final clear-fell could be between €12,000 and €15,000 per hectare. However, having to wait for 40 years to reach the final clear-fell and taking in other factors such as felling costs, what one receives for the timber and an unreliable market means one is entering into an uncertain business. It is a tempting prospect for certain age groups. It is the way to go for those who are 65 years. A 45 year old farmer will see a reasonable income for 20 years. However, when he reaches 65 his concern will be his pension. He will not get any pension from the farm. If he had maintained it even as a farm, the leasing value would be much higher than the forestry income after 20 years.

The implications of forest plantations should be fully explained to those wishing to get involved. Forestry is needed from an environmental point of view but it is a two-edged sword. There is the environmental and structural damage from clear-felling. There is also the question whether the cost-benefit analysis will show it is worth it for the farmer in the long term. Those with marginal agricultural land should be encouraged to plant. It is not the best option for those with less marginal land, on the knife edge so to speak. I do not understand why Coillte leaves large tracts of clear-felled land unplanted, leaving the countryside scarred.

Deputy Brendan Ryan: Information on Brendan Ryan Zoom on Brendan Ryan The latest figures to hand indicate the forestry industry accounts for approximately 0.3% of annual gross domestic product with some 16,000 people employed, [1019]either directly or indirectly, in the sector. In excess of 16,000 private plantations have been established, the majority, more than 14,000, established by farmers.

In 2005, €57.8 million in forestry premiums were paid out to forest owners. As well as the timber benefits, non-timber benefits are becoming increasingly important such as recreation, carbon storage and the biodiversity benefits of forestry. This is approaching a value of €100 million per annum.

Some 25% of our forestry cover is now broadleaf, a massive shift from the traditional conifer forestry. This change is as a result of the Government’s grant aid policy which financially encouraged woodland owners to plant broadleaf species. The Minister of State confirmed 43% of forest estate is now privately owned. The pattern of Irish forestry has changed to one of smaller forests with greater species diversity. Also, it is gradually coming down from the peat uplands to the lower lying mineral lands.

I welcome these developments as they will bring about a significant and positive change to our landscape and facilitate the development of a widespread wood culture. It will bring about a mixture of different habitat types and contribute to the increased biodiversity of our countryside.

Despite these notable advances, all is not as rosy as one might think. The forestry service’s recent detailed survey of our forestry indicates a forest cover of just 10%, well below the European average. The Government’s strategic plan, entitled Growing for the Future: A Strategic Plan for the Development of the Forestry Sector, published nearly 12 years ago, set an annual target of afforestation of 20,000 hectares until 2030. This target has never been achieved, neither in this century or in the years leading up to it. The level of afforestation was as low as 7,000 hectares in 2007, 35% of the target set out in the Government’s strategic plan. This is an indication of the level of ongoing interest the Government has in the industry, in developing it and in supporting the 16,000 people who derive their livelihoods from it. The figure of 35% is not even a pass rate. It is a shameful record.

In the era of peak oil and ever-increasing energy prices, the value of a renewable and home-grown wood energy takes on an increasing importance. Ten years ago the cost of a barrel of oil was as low as $20; now we are hitting $100 a barrel. What will a barrel of oil cost in another ten years? It is time for the Government to be proactive, increase investment in the forestry industry and assist it in realising its full potential.

Climate change has become an issue mentioned in the House every day and has permeated many debates. Forestry makes a significant contribution to our environment. It is accepted by all sides in this House that forestry plays a key role in delivering our targets under the national climate change strategy and the national biodiv[1020]ersity plan. New forests established under grant aid since 1990 will qualify as areas that will contribute to Ireland meeting its emission reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol. Forests planted since 1990 will absorb approximately 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year over the next four years. This can be used to offset greenhouse gas emissions.

This highlights the need for the Government to show more initiative in adopting an appropriate and well-thought out strategy for the development of the forestry industry. It should reward woodland owners for the environmental benefits that accrue from their forests. In doing so, the Government undoubtedly would entice more farmers and landowners to commit their most valuable asset — their land — to forestry.

The IFA’s farm forestry committee put forward an interesting idea of a green forest payment. This would be paid annually to woodland owners for the wide range of non-timber benefits which their forests provide. Currently, the Kyoto Protocol provides no mechanism to reward woodland owners financially for the positive environmental and non-timber benefits provided by their forests, a good concept worthy of serious consideration. I urge the Minister of State to consult with her Cabinet colleagues, with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and with other stakeholders to see whether such proposals could be introduced.

There are some grave shortcomings in the management of our forests. The Forest Service has pointed out that 87% of private plantations are not thinned. This is an alarming figure. It has been speculated that if we thinned half the plantations that are currently suitable for thinning, we would obtain more than half a million cubic metres of wood. At a time when we are trying to encourage alternative energy projects such as wood chip burners, it seems incredible that we are content to leave more than half a million cubic metres of wood in our forests. The Government should encourage private woodland owners — financially or otherwise — to thin their forests, and we should make use of this perfectly good resource that nature has provided. That this resource is out there unused and untapped is a great shame.

We are blessed with perhaps the healthiest forest estate in Europe, but we must continue to do everything to ensure the good health of our forests. We need to maintain the strict regulatory policies that have protected our plantations. I urge the Government to continue to insist on the most stringent regulations regarding the importation of timber and timber products. We have seen that the Government has recently been less rigorous in the area of cattle importation and has allowed cattle to be brought here from different regions of the world. This has resulted in the introduction of diseases that were never here before and has raised fears about the overall health of our herd. I would not like the same to [1021]happen in the timber industry. Imported timber must be accepted only from pest-free regions of the world. The task is great, and climate change will not make that task any easier. The increases in temperature mean that insects and pests are on the move. We need to be prepared and vigilant.

It is also worth noting that we are the biggest importers of rain forest timber in Europe. We need to be adamant that all timber imported into Ireland comes from sustainably managed woodlands. The Labour Party believes that sustainable forestry is of huge importance in securing the continued viability of rural Ireland. We are convinced that forestry remains a major option for effective land use in this country. Our forests contribute enormously, and beyond simple monetary value, to the economic, environmental and social well-being of our society. For these three reasons, I urge the Minister, and particularly her Green Party colleagues, to commit themselves to action on this, to follow through on their commitments to the industry and to encourage increased forestry cover in Ireland.

Senator John Carty: Information on John Carty Zoom on John Carty I wish to share my time with Senator Ann Ormonde.

Acting Chairman (Senator Fergal Quinn): Information on Feargal Quinn Zoom on Feargal Quinn In what way would the Senator like to divide the time?

Senator John Carty: Information on John Carty Zoom on John Carty Five minutes and three minutes.

Senator Ann Ormonde: Information on Ann Ormonde Zoom on Ann Ormonde That would be lovely.

Senator John Carty: Information on John Carty Zoom on John Carty I welcome the Minister of State to the House and congratulate her on the introduction of the forest environment protection scheme. The Minister introduced the FEP scheme on a pilot basis in early 2007, and it is testament to her eagerness to have it implemented that she has brought it forward so quickly — we are now only in the first months of 2008. I particularly welcome it because it gives people in my area, where land is marginal, an opportunity to plant. I especially welcome the reduction in the minimum size to 5 ha. for farms with 30 ha. or less. For bigger farms, the sliding scale has been dispensed with and instead, a flat rate premium of €200 per hectare will be paid for planted areas of 8 ha. or more, irrespective of farm size. This is good news for both small and large REPS farmers with enhanced incentives. It is also good news that their entitlements will not be affected, which is very important in that part of the country.

I ask the Minister of State to consider the fact that some very marginal land has been planted in years past and this has been of little benefit, especially in the north west and west of the country. Large areas have been planted but there has been no great return from this. People have received grants, but the planting is a blight on the landscape from a sightseeing point of view. Many [1022]of these trees were planted on virgin bog. If the land had been left alone it would have been of equal use.

Senator Ellis also alluded to the condition of roads and fences left by forestry activities. I concur that there should be some provision to deal with this. At the moment, when trees are felled and removed from the forests the roads are sometimes left in a terrible condition, but people still have to use them. I know there are grants in place in this regard but they are not being used properly. In west Mayo, which is the most scenic area of the county, trees have been removed in the past four or five years without being replaced or the areas refurbished. It is an eyesore. Large numbers of tourists go through this area and they ask why this has happened. The local population is also angry about it.

Demand for timber is high. In the west there are a number of facilities producing wood stakes, which have provided employment in these areas. For example, the Gaeltacht Co-operative in Corr na Móna, was set up by our former colleague, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, before he became a TD or a Minister, and there is the facility at Hollymount. These employ quite a number of people in the production of these raw materials. This is important to the local economy, which does not have a high employment rate.

I ask the Minister of State to consider the proposal that many more broadleaf trees be sown on good land. The Forest Service is considering this. These trees are vitally important and they look good. I know they take a long time to mature but we must look to the future. We may not be around to enjoy them but they would be good for the country and the economy.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House and for her introduction of the new scheme. Many farmers in my part of the world will welcome the extra payments that will be given out.

Senator Ann Ormonde: Information on Ann Ormonde Zoom on Ann Ormonde I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. It is my first opportunity to wish her well in her role. I know very little about forestry. Many years ago the area of forestry was covered by the Department of Lands and Forestry, but it suddenly faded out of the picture and I no longer heard any discussion of this issue. When I heard the Minister of State was to receive this new brief I thought she was in a win-win situation. Forestry is good for the economy, for farmers and for the environment, especially in view of climate change. The Minister of State has a major role to play here. She can turn it into anything she wants but it will be a success story. I know she is working towards this in all of the areas I mentioned.

I love trees. I love walking in the environment and looking at old trees and talking about them. They offer a whole new way to consider our environment and our archaeology, and the world out there wants wooded landscapes. We do not [1023]want to be surrounded by flatness but to have the feeling of woodland. It is beautiful to see the old trees in blossom. The Minister of State has a golden opportunity to improve the environment.

We know the introduction of the new FEP scheme is good for farmers, and Senator Carty has talked about this. The Minister of State has spoken about the various grants that are now given to part-time farmers to supplement their incomes. This is a golden opportunity for the farming industry and an opportunity to rethink the area of agriculture from the point of view which used to prevail many years ago. It is good to see it coming back into play and to see that the Minister of State has been given a significant role in changing it for the farmer and industry.

It is terrible that we import wood because I love hurling. I am always talking about hurleys, particularly my team in Waterford which I love to see. Yet we import this timber when we have a golden opportunity, particularly in respect of ash which is needed so much. There will be considerable interest from now until next October, so the timber is needed. We have the hardwood saw mills about which the Minister of State spoke. We talked about the transport aspect of it and how important it is for the economy. We can turn this industry into a world industry. We have the potential to make it a real industry for the country.

I wish the Minister of State well. I admire what she is doing and will fully support her endeavours.

Senator Joe O’Reilly: Information on Joe O'Reilly Zoom on Joe O'Reilly I join in the general welcome extended to the Minister of State. We served together on an Oireachtas committee some years ago to good effect. We must be concerned about the statistic that 10% of the land in Ireland is under afforestation, while the EU average tends to be in the range of 35%. Bearing in mind the food shortage and all other considerations, we should still aspire to having a greater proportion of our land planted.

We must also put more emphasis on native tree species. We may have an over-reliance on non-native softwood species. These are falling in price and, in some instances, are being imported more cheaply. We must affect something of a balance between hardwoods and softwoods and tilt the balance more in favour of hardwoods. I recognise that softwoods produce a more immediate income and that they have a shorter developmental span, which is important in terms of creating an economic return. However, an emphasis on hardwoods is necessary. We have traditional hardwoods in Ireland which are very much part of our original landscape. I recommend that the Minister of State looks at strategies to achieve that. I understand that only 3% of our planted land is planted with traditional hardwoods, which bears consideration. We should be concerned about the fact that we import Canadian and US hardwood and ivory.

[1024]We need to put more emphasis on regular felling, which is not happening in our forests. There needs to be more regular thinning and there should be an outlet for that. Pellet burners are an obvious outlet for tree thinnings. It is important for the health of forests that regular thinning be carried out. It should also be an important economic factor in terms of getting a return from the thinnings, creating jobs and contributing to our GNP. The fact that we do not have sufficient output from thinnings and the potential for jobs need urgent consideration.

We should be promoting hardwoods. Afforestation contributes so much to absorbing carbon emissions. I understand that it saves approximately €200 million annually in respect of carbon emissions absorbed by our forests and not having to pay fines imposed under the Kyoto Protocol. As we approach 2020 and try to reach the new agreed levels of carbon emissions, afforestation must be a very important strategy in that regard. The potential of our forests to absorb carbon emissions is of considerable importance. It will be of considerable importance in respect of hardwoods because despite their long developmental life, they would be very useful from that perspective.

Senator Ellis mentioned the fact that fellings are taking place and are not being replaced, particularly by the State agency. I agree with him because I have witnessed it on occasions. I suggest to the Minister of State that this needs urgent attention. We cannot leave an eyesore or allow under-productivity or no activity on the land in question. In the context of global warming, it is almost criminal if this is the case. It does not happen too often but it should be monitored.

The climate change element is very important. If we are to reach the proposed level of emissions and the European target of a 20% reduction for 2020, it will take a combination of strategies, of which afforestation must be one. Afforestation and our forests’ contribution to recreation, our tourism infrastructure and our quality of life cannot be underestimated. At the risk of sounding parochial, my experience of dealing with Coillte in this regard has been positive. I found Coillte to be proactive in terms of maintaining its forests and making them attractive to tourism. I understand that the element of Coillte’s budget that is devoted to the development of forests as a local resource could be looked at because there may be the potential for more development there.

At the risk of sounding parochial, there is a very beautiful area called Castle Lake at Bailieborough where I live. While these matters are local, they have national relevance. The Dun an Rí Forest Park is located nearby. The renowned Lough Key Forest Park is located over in Roscommon. Castle Lake is in a very beautiful setting and contains very nice forest walks. There has been considerable development there hence my reference to my experience in dealing with Coillte, which has done very good work there. [1025] However, this needs replication. There is further room for improvement.

There is enormous potential for areas like Castle Lake in Bailieborough and Dun an Rí Forest Park to be resources for a local community, particularly in terms of health considerations and more free time, and to be resources that improve our tourism product. I invite the Minister of State to visit the Castle Lake area in Bailieborough. It is worthy of examination because it is a very beautiful example with further potential for development in which more money could be invested.

The IFA has made a number of recommendations to Mr. Malone’s inquiry. I understand it is proposing that it should not be obligatory to reforest after the life of a forest has expired. I suggest the Minister of State takes this recommendation on board. Farmers do not like the idea of committing themselves, their children and their children’s children to afforestation. It is enough to commit to one life cycle of trees. The likelihood is that they will continue in the vast majority of cases but the option needs to be there.

A green forest payment as an extra incentive in the context of the expenditure that will be necessary to reach our Kyoto Protocol targets needs examination. A green forest payment and the removal of the replanting obligation would be good incentives to develop the forestry sector.

I hope the Minister of State will accept my invitation to Castle Lake in Bailieborough to look at it as a practical example of what has already been achieved by Coillte. It is a resource that is greatly used by the local community and is attracting visitors. It has so much potential for further development. That could be the pilot study in which the Minister of State could invest heavily and from which she could extrapolate nationally.

Senator Déirdre de Búrca: Information on Déirdre de Búrca Zoom on Déirdre de Búrca I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, to the House. I congratulate her on her new portfolio and wish her well with it. I have no doubt she has various ideas on the way she would like that portfolio to develop and change. Perhaps I could be so bold as to make some suggestions to her.

The Green Party has long been interested in the issue of forestry and we now find ourselves a party of Government along with the Minister’s party. We have made several commitments in the programme for Government, which I will mention, that I believe will be positive in the area of forestry, but in a general way I hope the Minister might examine the area of forestry and the narrow commercial focus that has been brought to bear on forestry in recent years and begin to change that somewhat.

Previous speakers pointed out that there are many other benefits and dividends from forestry that are not just the narrow economic and commercial benefits we might focus on when discussing forestry in a debate such as this one. There are a range of environmental services such [1026]as fresh air, clean water, fertile soil and climate stability. Trees help prevent soil erosion, drought and flooding and as previous speakers pointed out, only 10% of our land area is tree covered even though the average in other European Union member states is approximately 30% to 35%. It is something we must consider in terms of encouraging forestry but also examining its value and the returns it provides for this country in a broader way than the narrow economic way it is sometimes viewed.

Previous speakers spoke about climate change. What we are doing regarding the Kyoto Protocol and the emissions reductions targets we have agreed to is factoring carbon dioxide emissions into the economic cost-benefit analysis when we are examining any economic activity. It has been pointed out that trees provide a carbon sink; they are what we might call carbon assets. The non-timber benefits of forestry must be emphasised and previous speakers spoke of proposals that have been made where farmers might get financial support in terms of the non-timber benefits of the forestry projects in which they engage. In the light of the Kyoto Protocol and other commitments this country has made, we should examine that because if we do not we will end up paying fines for being in breach of the targets to which we signed up. It is much more positive to do something constructive such as encouraging more forestry with all of the other environmental and recreational benefits to which people have referred. Trees have an aesthetic value and contribute to landscape character and improving the quality of all our lives. I hope the Minister might take that broader approach to developing forestry in this country than has been taken to date.

I refer to a study the Minister of State’s Department commissioned and that yielded interesting information. A national forestry inventory was carried out by her Department and it involved a detailed field survey of Ireland’s forests to assess their composition and also the condition of the entire national forest estate, both public and private. It established that there are 2.4 billion trees growing in forests in the Republic and that they contain 30 million tonnes of carbon assets, which is considerable. My county of Wicklow emerged as the county with the highest percentage of forest cover, at 18%, while Cork had the largest forest area with 77,700 hectares. The inventory took three years to complete and established that 10% of the State’s total land area is under forest. It found also that 57% of the forests in the State are now in public ownership while 43% are held privately. Interestingly, of the private forests, 30% were grant aided and 13% were held in other ways.

The survey also found that almost two thirds of the national forests are under 20 years old, which is worrying and suggests that the newer planted forests are part of the shorter-term commercial forestry as opposed to the longer-term approach to forestry mentioned by previous speakers that [1027]involve the planting of broadleaf trees, preferably native ones, and forestry that will be longer-term in its duration and lifespan than the short rotation commercial forestry such as the Sitka spruce and other commercial forestry.

The inventory also gave a breakdown of the type of trees that are being grown and established and pointed out that 25% of the national forests are broadleaf and the remainder, 75%, are conifer tree species. It established also that more than 20% of the afforested area was planted with native tree species and one quarter of the forest stands had three or more tree species present. Of major importance was the discovery that there were no significant threats to the health and vitality of the forests, which was a welcome finding.

In the programme for Government we have committed jointly to promoting a diverse forestry culture with an emphasis on native trees, and the Minister of State indicated her intentions in the area of increasing the supply of native trees. We are also committed to ensuring forestry continues to give an important income stream to farmers through the forest premium scheme that has been substantially increased under the partnership process. We have agreed to develop new markets for thinning linked to the increased need for renewable energy sources. We have agreed also to promote forestry plantation to increase biomass production demand in the building and fuel markets and to provide carbon sinks to combat climate change. We have agreed also to review the forest environmental payment schemes pilot, which is under way, with a view to a full roll-out in the years ahead, and to reviewing the forest premium levels and ensuring a minimum of 30% broadleaf will be planted annually by 2012. I hope that when this target for broadleaf is being achieved we emphasise the importance of native broadleaf and not just broadleaf generally. We have agreed to initiate a review of the Forestry Acts and programmes to reflect sustainable, social and environmental objectives. That is a welcome objective.

An important report was drawn up recently of which I would like to remind the Minister of State. I understand she is aware of its existence. It was the joint COFORD-EPA report, Biodiversity in Irish Plantation Forests, which made 57 recommendations, including a call for the establishment of a biological record centre. Some of those actions would involve the Department of my colleague, the Minister, Deputy John Gormley, but I hope there would be close synergy between the Minister’s Department and that of the Minister, Deputy Gormley, in terms of complying with some of those recommendations.

The bioforest project, which was one of the largest undertakings on biodiversity research conducted in Ireland, concluded that in general forestry plantations could make a significant contribution to biodiversity if they were properly planned but, if not, would have a negative effect. [1028] The study also found that each local authority should establish ecological advisory units. It pointed out that in the past local authorities have not had the in-house technical expertise available to comment on conservation issues pertaining to grant applications, particularly forestry related conservation issues. However, the appointment of heritage officers has begun to remedy that deficiency and the establishment of ecology units would rectify the situation.

Another far-reaching recommendation of the report was that semi-natural habitats should not be afforested unless there were mitigating circumstances. It recommended that, where possible, improved grassland or arable land should be used for afforestation instead of semi-natural habitats, especially in landscapes that were dominated by intensive farming.

  4 o’clock

I will put to the Minister of State one or two of the objectives from the Green Party’s manifesto in the area of forestry, which ties in with the objectives we have agreed in the programme for Government. The Forestry Act 1988 should be reviewed to restructure Coillte, so that it gives equal consideration to the social, recreational and environmental objectives necessary for a sustainable forestry programme. An immediate restructuring programme of existing plantations should be implemented to address the problems apparent after a policy of planting non-native, fast-growing conifer monocultures and a research project should be set up to identify the range of broad leaf species with economic potential.

Senator Denis O’Donovan: Information on Denis O'Donovan Zoom on Denis O'Donovan “Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmaid? Tá deireadh na gcoillte ar lár.” This is true in contemporary Ireland. Our philosophy in the 1930s was one more cow, one more sow and one more acre under the plough but that has changed over the decades. This is a different Ireland under the EU. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, with whom I had many dealings in her former portfolios. I have happy memories of her visiting west Cork with a different brief. She acquitted herself well and people still talk of her visits to CoAction Bantry.

In Ireland we have a sad record on the plantation of forestry compared to Europe as a whole. I am delighted with the Government’s initiatives to support afforestation. As a farmer’s son, I have been an advocate of the REPS scheme for years and have encouraged people to get involved in REPS 1 to 4. A significant amount of farmers work in an environmentally friendly way. They are encouraged to do it and it is good for areas such as the Sheep’s Head, the Mizen Peninsula and the Beara Peninsula where there is a mixture of tourism, scenic routes and afforestation. In areas such as Glengarrif there is a natural wood where Coillte has done much good work. I am encouraged by the announcement of extra grant aid to farmers.

[1029]I do not wish to rehash the points already made. For someone who was involved in setting up the Sheep’s Head way, a renowned walkway on the peninsula, it is wonderful that €4 million has been provided by the Minister for Community, Gaeltacht and Rural Affairs. The same marked walkways exist in Beara and Kerry.

I support developing forests, as well as the point made by Senator de Búrca on greater balance. We had a tendency to plant conifers rather than our native deciduous trees 20 or 30 years ago. I am glad to see our native types encouraged. We had wonderful oak forests before my time and before the history of this State. We must examine what is native to Ireland. I am not anti-conifer but it is a Scandinavian breed of timber.

Only 20% of the dairy farmers who farmed when I was a child are left today in places like west Cork. Dairy farming has become more intense and the farmer with 15 cows is no longer at the races. Such farmers are dying out. These farmers are engaged in REPS, which is the type of support needed to encourage people to remain on the land. Afforestation has great potential in creating jobs. Not before time there is a tendency in the construction industry to build a type of house that is environmentally friendly, with less wasted on heating. I recently examined the possibility of a wood chip burner for the house in which I live. These are very efficient compared to the days of the huge coal fires. We have an obligation to the next generation to ensure we have an environmentally friendly way of dealing with issues.

Afforestation has a significant role to play in this. I am pleased to see the Minister of State take a proactive approach to encourage afforestation in a sensible manner. We do not wish to destroy our landscape. I was a councillor for nearly 20 years and received complaints about country roads near Gougane Barra, the Borlin Valley and the Ballydehob area where the harvesting of trees damaged roads. This matter has been resolved due to an arrangement between local authorities and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that ensures that roads are repaired after huge trailers transport logs to the timber processing plants.

In the next 20 years I wish to see greater intensity of afforestation. With the concept of setaside, there are arguments that with much of world grain being used for biofuels we may have to row back and decide that land should not lie idle because of some EU regulation. We may be forced to use it to grow wheat or barley. There is more land than ever in my lifetime available for afforestation. This is due to the changing patterns of farming. This can be handled in a sensible way.

What I like about the proposals is that, under FEPS, a small farmer with some mountain and some lowland can grow up to eight hectares and receive grant aid assistance. Under the FEPS premium, it is payable in addition to the existing [1030]afforestation scheme. In addition to grants and premia, a farmer planting eight hectares or 20 acres for the duration of FEPS can earn an annual tax free forestry premium of up to €6,000 without affecting his or her single payment. It is a wonderful suggestion that should be promulgated more. Many farmers in remote areas of Ireland may not be aware of this. I appeal to the IFA, an organisation for which I have great respect, to use and promulgate these schemes to add a sense of security to subsistence farmers. These are not commercial farmers, they have a place in rural Ireland and I love to see them supported. I support the initiatives of the Minister of State and wish her well.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Deputy Mary Wallace): Information on Mary Wallace Zoom on Mary Wallace I thank Senators for their contributions. The use of statements by the Upper House of the Oireachtas provides an opportunity to outline the contribution of forestry and the reasons it is vital to sustain the industry in the future by encouraging new planting now. All Senators outlined the importance of forestry and the new planting story. Some made suggestions on what we should do. If I had addressed this House three years ago, I could have pointed out that one of the key things people were saying at that time was that much of the land that was not available for food production, such as mountain land, was planted and that the next step was to make it attractive for the farmers in the rural environment protection scheme by including forestry on the REPS land. Many speakers, particularly Senator Carty, referred to the changes in the REPS. Last year we announced FEPS as a pilot scheme and it made a huge difference in encouraging REPS farmers to get involved in forestry. One of the key messages that should be conveyed from this debate is the value to the farmer of planting forestry, especially the REPS farmer.

Initially, the farmer or landowner could calculate that the cost of planting was 100% covered and that there was a premium of €550 or €570 per hectare for 20 years. However, that was competing with the REPS payments for environmental farming. That is the reason we introduced the FEPS pilot scheme last year and rolled it out this year. The extra €200 top-up is what makes it really attractive for REPS farmers in 2008 to consider new planting. I had the pleasure this week of visiting a farm in County Meath. The farmer is going into forestry for the first time. This farmer was involved in cattle and sheep farming as well as holding down a part-time job. He was having difficulty maintaining his farm. He has decided to plant 50% of his farm and the key advantage for him is that he will keep his single farm payment and get the additional money from forestry.

Senator Ellis made an important point about the income flow through the years from forestry. In the case of the farmer I mentioned, for the [1031]next 20 years he will receive the original planting grant, the forestry premium and FEPS for five years as tax-free income in addition to his single farm payment. Furthermore, the farmer does not just thin on the fifteenth year but can thin every five years thereafter until clear-fell. There is an income from thinnings. Ten years ago that income was not as good as it is today. Owing to wood energy and the use of wood pellets and wood chips, thinnings are now a real source of income for farmers. There are 21,000 hectares of forestry available now for thinning on land planted 15 or 20 years ago. Farmers should thin those forests now and avail of the income from the wood energy market.

At least four speakers, including Senators Ellis, Carty and O’Reilly, raised the issue of Coillte. They mentioned the positives and negatives of the agency and the State planting programme. On the positive side they mentioned the recreational issue and the importance of recreation. On the negative side they mentioned the issue of replanting and the protection of roads. These are important matters. If Senators are aware of any examples where Coillte has left land for longer than 12 months without replanting it, we would like to know about it. There is an obligation to replant the land. We talk to Coillte regularly about the protection of the county roads. The roads element in which we are involved is funding and grants for forest roads so the timber can be taken out of the forests. We do not wish to see the local authority roads abused. We certainly are anxious to know more about the replanting concerns.

I was delighted to hear Senator de Búrca make substantial references to the national forestry inventory. We published this document before Christmas. It is a two-year survey of forestry in Ireland and an important work. I am delighted the Senator took the trouble to read it in such detail and to quote from it. It is an important statistical document which tells us exactly what the situation is and what must be done. The Senator drew some important statistics from it. She also referred to the importance of working closely with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley. It is important and, in fact, I and my officials are due to have a meeting with the Minister soon. Forestry is an important issue for the environment. Senator Ellis also raised environmental issues.

It is important we do the right thing for the environment but it is also important to have a proactive approach to planting new forestry. In various parts of the country where there is acid sensitive land, people are concerned they are being refused the opportunity of planting on their land for environmental reasons. We are working closely with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and if a real environmental issue arises, we will work together on it but if not, we must examine ways of planting [1032]the land. An example that arose last year was with regard to the hen harrier. We discussed this extensively and found a regime within which planting could take place in hen harrier areas. It is important for the future that we can plant land where possible.

Senator Bradford and Senator Ormonde described forestry as a win-win enterprise. I am delighted to be the Minister with responsibility for forestry. It is a fabulous story and an area where we can make a real difference. The timber is needed in the timber industry while forestry is good for recreation and the environment. From the farmer’s point of view it offers a good income and forestry is needed for wood energy. There are many reasons to promote it. There are gaps in the market for the product and those gaps, if they do nothing else, emphasise the need for new planting.

Senator O’Reilly referred to native hardwoods and softwoods and Senator Bradford mentioned the gaps in the market for them. Senator Bradford said my opening statement was full of statistics but I hope they were useful. I will offer some further statistics now which I hope also will be useful. It is important to see where we are going. The figures show why forestry and the timber industry is important. The softwood market in Ireland, which provides trusses, floorboards and skirting, grew a great deal as more houses were built. In 1995, Ireland was using 307,000 cu. m. of softwood while in 2006 it used 825,000 cu. m. However, 60% of that wood was imported. Senator Bradford spoke about importing wood when we should provide it from our forests. The hardwood market is of greater concern in many ways. In 2006, the sawn hardwood market in Ireland used 3,435 cu. m. and 95% of that was imported. Those bald statistics demonstrate why forestry is so important.

We are planting an average of 7,000 hectares per annum but I agree with Senator Ryan that we must plant more. That is the reason we are providing so many incentives for planting. However, what are we clear-felling? We are clear-felling 8,000 hectares per annum. The wood products sector provides direct employment for 6,500 people.

If we are clear-felling 8,000 hectares we need to be planting more than that. That is one of the reasons I am so pleased we are having this debate because we were able to highlight the benefits which exist today for farmers considering getting involved in forestry. If there are any gaps in what the Department is doing, we are glad to hear from Members about them.

Some Members referred to the report the Department is undertaking under Mr. John Malone, the former Secretary General of the Department. Before Christmas we asked Mr. Malone to undertake this report and we expect him to come to us shortly with his findings. Some Members referred to the IFA document that was submitted to the report and to the many others [1033]who also made submissions. We are looking forward to the report and are always open to ideas. We are in a business where ideas are important. In this regard we are only too glad to give strong consideration to ideas that were brought up by Senators during this debate.

Senator Bradford also raised the fact that much of the agricultural land used for forestry was not suitable for food production. From our point of view, it is important to make mountainous land attractive to the REPS farmers, and also the other lands that are available for forestry.

I would fully encourage biomass and the mainly wood industry of pellets and chips. I agree with Senator Bradford that the incentives are good and that we needed to go a little further with the creation of FEPS. We are always interested in looking at what more can be done.

Senator Carty made a point about FEPS. As he is from Mayo, I must tell him we made big changes to FEPS following many calls, particularly from people in Mayo, on the provision regarding the minimum of eight hectares. We brought that minimum down to five hectares with the view to encouraging smaller farmers. I should point out that FEPS has been such a success story for us in the pilot that we also made changes at the bigger end to allow farmers access to the payment of €200. The changes we made have been encouraging.

Senator Carty referred to broad leaf, as did Senator de Búrca and others. It benefits from the higher rates of premium. We have reached the 30% level in terms of planting of broad leaf, which was the balance in the mix referred to by Senator O’Donovan and others.

Some Senators commented on the roads. I agree with the points made regarding the protection of county roads. I also agree with the point made on the importance of replanting from clear felling. Senator de Búrca and others asked about the replanting obligation in that regard. It is an issue we are looking at in the present review of the legislation. We are not here concerned with the removal but the relaxation of the planting obligation.

I thank the Senators, including Senators O’Reilly and de Búrca, who referred to tourism recreation, which is important. The neighbour wood scheme and the visit to the forest are important but our main focus this year is on new planting. There will be no forestry for our grandchildren if there is no new planting today. The reason we are able to enjoy the benefits of forestry from an environmental and recreational point of view is because our ancestors planted in days gone by. Senators also referred to the importance of forestry in the context of climate change and I agree with the views expressed.

Regular thinning of the forestry was mentioned by many Senators. It is one of the important messages we would send from today’s debate. I was fortunate to visit a research site in Wicklow where one could see the difference. There was [1034]one forest which had been regularly thinned and there was another where the gate had been closed. They were next to each other. In the first there were tall trees full of good solid timber which was wonderful to look at. In the second there were small, bushy trees. They were both planted on the same day but without thinning, the trees in one were not allowed grow. The impact upon the timber of the trees not allowed grow was considerable. Today it is worthwhile because of the income the farmer could get from the thinnings.

Senator Ryan made an important point regarding vigilance on imports with which I agree. Our plant imports are subject to EU law, as is the entire timber store. I agree all of that is important. The Senator also referred to the fact that the management, including the thinnings, must be done on a professional basis. I agree with that.

A number of Senators referred to the 10% cover and I agree with their call that it should be greater. My Department is providing the incentives to encourage more farmers to plant.

Senator de Búrca referred to the situation regarding narrow commercial forestry. While we are focusing on the importance of new planting, we are not ignoring the important issue of the environmental and other benefits. I agree with the Senator that the policy must be science based. COFORD, as an agency of my Department, is involved in the research area. The more research we can do, the greater the benefit to those involved in forestry and also to those involved in the environment, including the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley. We can work together on a science-based approach and are supportive of it. I dealt with the point Senator O’Donovan raised about broad leaf, the 30% being achieved and its inclusion in the programme for Government.

On the question of COFORD and the EPA report, a biological record centre was set up in Waterford two years ago. For the information of Senators, the forest service has full-time ecologists and archaeologists, which is an important area for us to address.

If I have not answered any questions important to Senators, I ask them to let me know. I hope I have covered everything. I have taken substantial notes and we will consider the ideas the Senators came up with during the debate. The forestry section of the Department is always open to ideas because it is a win-win situation for the economy, for the farmer who gets involved in it and for the environment. On those three grounds alone, we must be open to ideas in the future. I thank the Senators for holding this debate and for being so supportive of forestry. We should encourage farmers to be aware of the new incentives to plant, especially the REPS farmers. We would ask farmers to work with us in using the cash that we are now providing to encourage them take up forestry. We would ask them to work with us, as [1035]the farmer in County Meath did this week. He is retaining his entire single farm payment, planting half his land and getting all of the incentives.

I also ask those who planted 15 or 20 years ago to work with us now in terms of thinning those forests. It is in farmers’ interest to do so and it is also important from the point of view of both wood energy and the future of timber.

My message to the House is that this is a solid, win-win issue. I thank Senators for their contributions to this debate.

Sitting suspended at 4.30 p.m. and resumed at 5 p.m.

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