There has been a 95% decrease in the land area afforested by farmers since 2010, from 7,929ha in that year to just 360ha in 2021, according to the Central Statistics Office (CSO).

Overall, the afforestation area planted by all applicants, including farmers, non-farmers and the public sector, has declined from 8,314ha in 2010 to 2,016ha in 2021, representing a decrease of 76% over the course of the decade.

The CSO findings show that farmers are moving away from planting forests at a greater rate than non-farming landowners. In 2010 farmers planted 95% of the total land area afforested whereas in 2021 farmers planted only 18% of the total land, in what statistician in the environment and climate division of the CSO Niamh Shanahan described as a “sharp decline”.

There were also 1,008 afforestation “parcels” in 2010, according to the CSO. This number decreased to 284 in 2021.

The average size of each land parcel planted has also decreased over the decade, dropping from 8.2ha in 2010 to 7.1ha in 2021.

Licensing issues

The decreases in the land area afforested come off the back of what forestry stakeholders have consistently described as licensing issues and a lack of incentive to plant forestry on Irish farms.

However, earlier this month Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity Pippa Hackett told the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee that the Department of Agriculture is issuing forestry licences at three times the rate it is receiving applications at present.

Minister Hackett said that by the end of the second quarter of 2022, no licence application predating 2021 will remain to be processed, an achievement she described as “something significant”.

County breakdown

All counties have seen the area of land afforested decrease over the last decade; however, this decline has been greater in some counties than in others.

Just 5ha of forest was planted in Co Laois in 2021, a drop of 97% on the 178ha planted in the county in 2010. Similarly, just 9ha of forest was planted in Co Carlow in 2021, a drop of 91% on the 100ha planted in the county in 2010.

Only 360 farmers planted forestry in 2021. \ Claire Nash

Even bigger counties, known to have more upland areas suitable for forestry and less prime agricultural land, have seen the area of land afforested decrease. Kerry, which had 736ha planted in 2010, had a far lower 121ha planted in 2021, representing an 84% decrease.

The county which had the greatest area of land afforested in 2010, Cork, at 1,157ha, has seen this drop consistently since then to 343ha planted in 2021. The CSO analysis shows a reduction of 814ha or 70%.

Cork also accounted for 17% of the total afforested area in 2021, followed by Roscommon (9.4%), Clare (8.6%), and Cavan (7.9%).

Broadleaf plantation

Broadleaf species comprised 41% of 2021 afforestation area, according to the CSO. This equated to 829ha, with the most common species being birch and alder at 128ha and 77ha respectively.

In 2010, some 3,149ha of broadleaf trees were planted, representing 38% of the total afforestation for the year. At the start of the decade, the most common broadleaf species planted were ash and alder, with 762ha and 544ha planted respectively.

Some broadleaf species were planted in very low quantities in 2021, with 1ha of beech, 2ha of red oak, 1ha of silver birch and 6ha of sycamore reported by the CSO.

Sitka spruce remains the dominant conifer tree planted in Ireland, with 1,018ha planted in 2021, some 86% of the total 1,187ha planted with conifer trees.

While 539ha of Norway spruce was planted in 2010, only 62ha of the conifer species was planted in 2021. Japanese larch has moved off the planting books almost completely, with less than 1ha planted in 2021, a drop from 806ha in 2010.

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