Gerry Lawson of the European Agroforestry Federation (EURAF) said that while Ireland has the lowest forest cover in the EU, we're lucky we have a lot of trees and hedgerows outside of forests which contribute to Ireland having the fourth-highest in terms of overall tree cover in the EU.

Portugal at 48% had the highest overall tree cover, while Ireland stood at 59.1%.

Lawson was speaking at the Irish agro-forestry forum conference at the West Lodge Hotel in Bantry, Co Cork, on Thursday.

Ash dieback

Officially opening the conference, titled ’Farmer-led climate mitigation and adaption - how trees on the farm can help', Minister of State for land use and biodiversity Pippa Hackett said that she acknowledged that ash dieback damaged confidence among farmers who could potentially plant forestry.

She said she hopes to bring a comprehensive implementation plan to Government shortly regarding the disease.

Necrotic lesions and discoloration on bark of young infected ash trees are the visual symptoms of ash dieback.

“Ash dieback is a disease that has not only damaged plantations, it has also damaged confidence and we’re acutely aware of that and how we deal with that will affect what farmers choose to do in future with trees.”

She also pointed out that agroforestry is an option available under the new reconstitution scheme for ash dieback.

The minister added that agroforestry provided “an opportunity to correct some of the ills of the past. We know there are so many reasons to plant trees. Agroforestry helps bridge the gap and has the potential to be a gamechanger at individual farm level and at a wider landscape scale."

Two-day schedule

Attendees at the international conference were treated to a jam-packed schedule, which featured a range of contributors from throughout Europe and beyond.

A number of questions from the floor centred around the permanent land use change of forestry.

Some suggested that in agroforestry, the trees planted fall under the forestry act, meaning that once the land is in forestry, it’s always in forestry and that this was proving to be a a big turnoff for farmers and if that regulation was removed there may be more uptake.

In response to this, Fergus Moore from the Department of Agriculture stated that the fact it will be a permanent land use change is the reason why the Department is able to secure the €1.3bn budget for forestry.

“When you put trees in the landscapes, you would encourage them to be kept there - that’s why we’ve got such good grants and premiums,” he said.