When the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture resumed last month to discuss challenges for the forestry sector, including ash dieback, chair Jackie Cahill TD said the committee now hoped to be in a position “to put together a report and recommendations to the Minister on the sector”.

“This committee will not go away,” he said in his concluding remarks.

“We will continue our serious scrutiny of the performance of the forestry section in the Department.”

Deputy Cahill’s commitment was welcomed by the sector, including Pat O’Sullivan of the Society of Irish Foresters, who complemented the committee on its “detailed approach to issues affecting the performance of the forestry programme”.

He said the emphasis now should be on “seeking solutions in meeting the challenge of afforestation and land availability for forestry, licence approvals, wood mobilisation and ash dieback”.

While the felling and forest road licence debacle continues, its partial improvement was acknowledged. However, all stakeholders consulted by the Irish Farmers Journal outlined their dissatisfaction with the lack of a proactive approach by Department officials in providing solutions, especially to the continuous decline in annual afforestation, which has fallen to 2,488ha, well down on the Government’s target of 8,000ha.

Land availability for forestry

The Department’s response to land availability for forestry – in particular the exclusion of unenclosed land – drew heavy criticism. Planting unenclosed land has virtually ceased since it has been limited to 20% of the total area planted.

The committee was told by Seamus Dunne that this was “a departmental decision made in about 2010, but I will refer back with a detailed written response to the question on unenclosed land.”

Pat O’Sullivan said the Department’s response must contain the findings of its own commissioned report Land Availability for Afforestation.

Co-authored by Dr Gallagher and Dr Niall Farrelly, the report identified “180,000ha of productive unenclosed land” as suitable for forestry.

“If you exclude 60,000ha of cutover bog, there are 120,000ha of unenclosed land – without environmental restrictions – capable of growing up to yield class 26 [m3/ha/annum],” said Dr Gallagher.

“Apart from producing quality wood, planting this land would sequester approximately 800,000t of CO2 annually. In addition, it would ensure a more geographically balanced forestry programme, without negatively affecting agricultural production.”


The licensing system, which was the most contentious issue at the Oireachtas committee meetings, should reflect the scale of forestry in Ireland, according to John Roche of Arbor Forest Management.

“In future, to have a licensing system that is fit for purpose, the Department needs to change how it deals with standard forestry operations,” he said.

“The average afforestation project is 7ha and a typical forest road is 370m. The idea that works such as this are likely to impact a natura site up to 15km is not credible. The 15km threshold needs to be reduced immediately.”

The Depart­ment’s requirement of a Natura Impact Statement (NIS) to fast track approval for almost all afforestation, felling and roading licences has been questioned. Marina Conway of Western Forestry Co-op maintains this has introduced a two-tier licensing system. Conway says the cost of an NIS – up to €1,500 – is prohibitive for farmers with small-scale afforestation and felling projects.

“The forestry sector has come together to provide the Department with a woodland environmental planning grant proposal – based on a recommendation in the MacKinnon Review – which would only pay the NIS grant on those licences that proceed,” she said.

“This approach would be better value of taxpayers’ money than the current system, which is clearly not working.”

Broadleaf planting continues to decline since ash dieback was detected in 2012

Despite an increase in the percentage of broadleaf planting last year over 2019, the annual broadleaf afforesta­tion programme has dramatically declined since the 1990s.

At last month’s Oireachtas committee meeting, topics included broadleaf afforestation and ash dieback. Both are interlinked, as broadleaf afforestation has fallen dramatically since ash was removed from the list of approved species after the disease was detected in 2012.

The performance of broadleaf afforestation last year was presented as a positive outcome in the Department’s opening statement to the committee: “Broadleaf trees made up 34% of all new planting in 2020,” it stated.

“This is an increase from 21% just three years ago and means that the 30% broadleaf planting target set out in the Forestry Programme has been exceeded for the first time since the start of the programme.”

Without mentioning the time frame of the current programme, which began in 2014, the performance of broadleaf planting in 2020 has been interpreted as a record year for planting broadleaves in Ireland.

Even Matt Carthy, Sinn Fein’s agricultural spokesperson, who has been forensic in his contributions to the committee, fell for this interpretation.

“It meant the 30% broadleaf planting target was met for the first time,” he said. If he and the committee had been supplied with historic afforestation data, they would have known that the 30% broadleaf target had been achieved for eight successive years from 2005 to 2012. Up to 3,000ha were planted annually with broadleaves (Figure 1), compared with 846ha last year, the lowest programme for over a quarter of a century.

Historic data would also have partially answered his follow up question: “Do the [Department] officials accept that, to balance out years of historic failure in this regard, we need to substantially increase that percentage [of broadleaves]?”

The “historic failure” reference has been questioned by foresters, as the predominantly high percentage of conifers planted by the State in the last century matched the poor land that was made available for forestry, which would not support quality broadleaves.

When the private sector – mainly farmers – replaced the State’s afforestation programme in the 1990s, better quality land was made available for planting and annual broadleaf afforestation rapidly increased to 2,000ha.

This trend has continued since 2000 (Figure 1), both in area and percentage of total planting. The introduction of ash dieback in 2012 resulted in an understandable change of strategy towards planting broadleaves, because of high risk and the State’s response when disease strikes.

Farmers with ruined ash woodlands who have been exposed to this risk and who have rejected the inadequate ash reconstitution and underplanting scheme (RUS) found little comfort in Seamus Dunne’s reply to Oireachtas members: “There are no plans to review the grant and scheme,” he said.

Asked by Senator Daly about “the plan of action” for the 250 RUS applications made since June 2020, Dunne replied that “a handful of approvals have already been issued under the scheme”.

Ash dieback has illustrated the need for a partnership approach between the State and forest owners in establishing broadleaf woodlands for future generations.

Abandonment by the State, when a disease strikes during its watch, should never be an option.