Coillte has been asked to consider working more closely with farmers, or purchasing land directly, as a means of meeting its target of planting 100,000ha of new woodlands by 2050.

Following a crunch meeting with senior Coillte management on Thursday, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue said a range of options must be considered by the State forestry body in its drive to ramp up afforestation levels.

The recent launch of a €200m forestry fund by Coillte and UK-headquartered asset management firm Gresham House has provoked a furious reaction from private forestry interests, farm organisations and rural politicians, who fear the new entity will outbid ordinary farmers for land.

The Irish Strategic Forestry Fund aims to purchase around 8,500ha of standing forests over the next five years and 3,500ha of bare land for planting.

Range of models

“We have asked Coillte to consider the range of models it will use to deliver on its targets for new forest creation between now and 2050, including potentially working more closely with farmers or acquiring land directly in a way that supports the environment, the rural economy and farm family incomes,” Minister McConalogue said after the meeting.

These sentiments were echoed in the Dáil by Tánaiste Mícheál Martin, who defended the independence of Coillte to enter into a joint venture with Gresham House but called for other investment models to be explored.

“I would favour more State acquisition of land for forestry. That is the position the leaders of the Government have discussed with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine," the Tánaiste said.

"Again, we have to be careful of State aid compliance in how we do all of that and that is the issue in terms of whatever we do,” he added.

Farmers 'primary beneficiaries'

Both Minister McConalogue and Minister of State Pippa Hackett insisted following the Coillte meeting that farmers would be the primary beneficiaries of the increased grants and premiums agreed under the new forestry programme.

“Farmers are at the heart of this ambitious and well-funded programme. In addition to single farm payments on afforested land, which other landowners will not receive, farmers will be paid 20 years of premium under the new programme, compared to other landowners who will receive 15 years of payments,” the Government ministers pointed out.

While the ministers pointed out that Coillte had a critical role to play in driving the overall level of afforestation in the coming decades, they pointed out that a number of investment mechanisms were being considered by the State body.

There is also potential for Coillte to deliver new forests at scale on public land

“We heard today how the Irish Strategic Forestry Fund is one of a number of models Coillte will deploy in contributing to our overall forestry targets,” the ministers explained.

“There is also potential for Coillte to deliver new forests at scale on public land, and in this context we are encouraged by the progress Coillte is making in engaging with local authorities and State bodies to identify land that is already in public ownership and suitable for forestry,” they added.

In related news, Minister McConalogue has accepted that Coillte had outlined its plans to potentially enter joint ventures with foreign investment firms as early as April last year.

In a reply to a parliamentary question tabled by Laois-Offaly TD Carol Nolan, the Minister stated that Coillte had kept ministers informed of its proposals to seek foreign investors to fund its ambitious afforestation programme.

“Coillte advised the Department of its proposed approach to increased afforestation during the development of their new forestry strategic vision, which was launched on 21 April 2022,” the parliamentary reply stated.

“A shareholder letter of expectation [was] issued to Coillte on 2 June 2022, which included a direction to the company to ‘develop initiatives to support and realise the planting of such forests to a meaningful scale in the years ahead, whether as part of their core business or as participants in a subsidiary or partnership enterprise’,” it continued.

“While the detail of an investment fund was not finalised or discussed in detail, Coillte indicated that it would be an enabler of new afforestation through the Coillte nature initiative for planting native woodlands and through their involvement in afforestation funds focused on commercial forestry.”