Irish forestry consultants have made a formal complaint to the European Commission, alleging that the Government is in breach of the bloc’s competition rules by funding and operating a forestry advisory service which is offered free of charge to farmers and landowners here.
The Association of Irish Forestry Consultants (AIFC) claims the 190 forestry consultants it represents cannot compete with the free forestry advisory service operated under the aegis of State farming agency, Teagasc, and are therefore restricted to offering “limited technical advice” to landowners and submitting grant applications to the Department of Agriculture.
In its complaint to the commission, the group claimed that the lack of a proper forestry advisory service in the Republic was one of the principal reasons why forestry plantings here were continuously below national targets.
Forestry is the largest land-based climate change mitigation measure available to Ireland in its bid to radically reduce carbon emissions by 2030. The Government has a target of planting 8,000 hectares of forestry each year out to 2030. The actual out-turn last year, however, was just 2,016 hectares.
The association also claimed that “the current failure of public policy and programmes for afforestation and forest management has direct and significant implications for climate change targets and sectoral emission restrictions and Ireland’s ability to meet the unprecedented challenges and costs of climate change measures and restrictions”.
Association chairman Dermot Houlihan said: “There are substantial parcels of land that can be used for forestry with significant and long-term financial benefit to landowners without interfering with agricultural output.”
Despite the low and decreasing rate of forestry planting “there are up to 20,000 forest owners, mostly farmers, and as much of the area planted is relatively young, there is a great need for these areas to be effectively managed in order to achieve their full potential,” Mr Houlihan said.
“The AIFC have repeatedly raised these matters with the Department of Agriculture but without success and were left with no option but to lodge a formal complaint the EU Commission,” he said.
The Department of Agriculture said it was aware of the complaint to the commission and would engage in any formal process.
“The department provides funding to a wide range of organisations, land owners and forestry companies which provide services aimed at improving the management of forests and encouraging more land owners to establish new forests,” it said, noting there were more than 23,500 private forest owners who have established forests since the 1980s.
“Teagasc provides forestry independent advisory services and continues to promote increased awareness of forest management and encourage new land owners to consider forestry as a land use option,” it said.
“The direct establishment, maintenance, road construction and harvesting of forests is carried out by land owners who may engage the services of consultants. Teagasc do not carry out these direct activities which are carried out in the main by forestry consultants and companies,” it said.
A spokesperson for Teagasc said the agency was “examining the detail of the correspondence” while taking advice on the issue.