Carbon emissions from forestry planted on peat soils were seriously underestimated by the Department of Agriculture, a leading official has admitted.

Senior Department inspector Fergus Moore insisted that the exclusion of peatlands under the new forestry programme would not be reversed, even though the measure will add to the challenge of achieving the national planting target of 8,000ha a year.

He also warned that the forestry sector was likely to become a net carbon source, rather than a sink, from next year to beyond 2050.

“Forests on peat are emitting far more carbon than originally thought,” Moore told an Agricultural Science Association webinar this week.

“Currently, the forests we have on peat soils are probably emitting around 2m to 3m tonnes of carbon [annually],” said the head of the Department’s forest sector development division.

'Pressure from Europe'

Moore admitted that pressure from Europe was a factor in the exclusion of peatlands from the current forestry programme.

“In our last programme, there was a lot of focus on the planting of forests on peat soils,” Moore told the webinar.

“The focus of the European Commission was ‘don’t add to the problem that you currently have’. So, it really was a case of not planting peat soils in the future,” he conceded.

Moore explained that planting will be permitted where the peat cover is less than 30cm.

Anything greater than that level of peat cover “is not being planted in the new programme”, he said.

This move will restrict that available land pool for planting, Moore accepted.

Marginal land

However, he said the hope was that marginal lands that are currently farmed for beef and sheep might come into forestry and that farmers will plant areas of their holdings that are wet and therefore not the most productive parcels.

“Trees don’t need top-class agricultural land,” he said.

In terms of overall carbon emissions, Moore pointed out that Ireland’s forests would switch from being a carbon sink to becoming a carbon source from next year.

This was due to the age profile of the country’s forests, he explained, with an increased area of plantations maturing over the next two decades.

Harvesting activity would therefore increase during this period and emissions spike as a consequence.

The forest sector will remain a net carbon source “to 2050 and beyond” Moore, predicted.

The impact of this could be offset if we continued to plant new forests “at scale”, Moore maintained.