The secretary general of the Department of Agriculture has said that it is a “big leap” for landowners to set aside part of their land for forestry.

Brendan Gleeson was speaking at a recent sitting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture and said that the Department is developing a communications strategy to encourage more farmers to plant trees on their land.

“The policy we have is to give people choices about what they do with their land and this is a choice.

“It stacks up very well for a proportion of people's land, but it is also the case farmers have a very deep attachment to the traditional activities they do on land and this is a kind of leap for many farmers because they are setting aside part of their land for a good economic return, but in perpetuity.

“That is a big leap for a landowner to take. We understand that,” he said.

Damaging narrative

Gleeson said that part of the damaging narrative of switching to forestry has been that this is an alternative to farming.

“If we present it in that way, we will never succeed in persuading people to engage in forestry. That is part of the challenge.

“We have to change the narrative here. We have to get everybody promoting this as a remunerative activity on a land asset that can be used for multiple purposes. We cannot push people into this; we have to ensure the incentives are attractive enough,” he said.

Planting conditions

It is the case that the conditions around planting in this programme are more onerous from an environmental point of view than they have been in the past and it is the case that we have had problems with licensing, Gleeson said.

“I think I said the last time I was in here that from my perspective, what people need is confidence [that] the licences will be issued within a specific period. That is far more important than saying we will issue licences within three months and then failing to do it.

“We are making a commitment now under licensing that we will issue licences under the new programme within six months if no appropriate assessment is required and within nine if an appropriate assessment is required.

"People can apply for that now with confidence that, barring something unforeseen, it will be the time period. Then we have to communicate the relative benefits of forestry to people. The economics stack up if you are a landowner,” he said.

When asked if Ireland would meet its 8,000ha planting target for the year by Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice, Gleeson said he believes it is “extremely unlikely” that the target will be met, unless there is “an explosion in demand”.