The State could buy land directly for Coillte to plant trees on, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue has said.

Speaking on Thursday, he said such an approach is one option the Government and Coillte are “exploring very strongly” in order to support the semi-State body in its afforestation targets.

The Minister was speaking on the engagement he and Minister of State for land use and biodiversity Pippa Hackett have had with Coillte amid the ongoing controversy over its deal with UK investment firm Gresham House.

He said the Government is also exploring the potential for greater flexibility around EU state aid rules, which currently prohibit Coillte from accessing state grants and premia available to farmers and other landowners for planting trees.

He said exploring this potential flexibility from Brussels and buying land to transfer to Coillte are two options being looked at as alternatives to future investment fund deals.

Future deals ruled out

Minister McConalogue said such an approach, where Coillte has struck a deal with Gresham House to the tune of €200m, is “not the way we plan to go forward here”.

“What’s happening is we’re engaging with Coillte. Coillte are now assessing what approaches could work really well and that work is now ongoing and it is something we will be engaging with Coillte on very significantly and in depth on.

“It’s about supporting Coillte in being able to do afforestation alongside the vast majority of afforestation which would be farmer-led,” he said.

The Minister also did not agree with suggestions that the Coillte-Gresham House deal is a ‘land grab’ and refused to comment on whether or not he thought it might drive up land prices for farmers.

“I’m putting it in context that it’s 700ha a year and, as I said, it’s not the way we plan to go forward here,” he said.

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