Family farms have been granted a “significant advantage” over investment funds in competing for forestry land in the State’s new €1.3bn forestry programme, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue has claimed.

Minister McConalogue responded to an Irish Farmers Journal question on the matter by saying that allowing farmers to draw down annual forestry premiums for five years more than non-farmers gives farm families the upper hand when it comes to forestry land.

The minister’s comments come after it emerged that Coillte is planning on partnering with the UK investment firm Gresham House to see the fund acquire existing forestry and lands suitable for afforestation over the coming years.

“Our objective here is to empower farmers to grow more trees and make forestry very attractive to them and that is the key objective of the new forestry programme and the €1.3bn that is there,” Minister McConalogue stated.

“That is why in relation to the premiums in the new forestry programme, obviously they are increased by over 60% in the first place, but we have taken the step to increase the amount of years family farms can benefit from premiums to 20 years while if you’re not a farmer, it’s 15 years.”

Minister McConalogue did not respond to whether he would raise farmer land ownership concerns with Coillte during a planned meeting with the agency when the possibility of doing so was put to him by the Irish Farmers Journal.

He did not acknowledge farmer concerns either when pushed on the issue, instead repeating that his priority was to encourage farmers to plant more trees.

Coillte plans

Coillte’s hands were tied as EU state aid rules excluded the agency from benefiting itself from forestry payments in recent years, the minister went on.

“In the past few years, they haven’t been doing afforestation themselves and the reason being it wasn’t economically viable n the basis that European law prohibits Coillte, unlike in the past, to be able to draw premiums on the new afforestation they do.

“They are also now seeing how they can actually get into the afforestation space again and they have been looking at options as to how they can do that.”

Minister McConalogue and Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture Pippa Hackett will be meeting with Coillte “shortly” to discuss their plans and to “tease them out further”.

He said that the 12,000ha understood to be involved in the Coillte-Gresham House plans to be acquired over 10 years represents a “very small proportion” of overall afforestation and land.

“My objective as minister is to empower farmers to do afforestation and that is why we have tilted the balance in favour of farmers.

“That is my primary objective to encourage that and give farmers the upper hand to how afforestation happens.”

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