Tree planting in the State will rise four-fold over the next 15 years, the Government believes as its launches a €1.3 billion plan to reverse the sharp decline in new forests over the last 15 years.
The 2020 Programme for Government set a target of 8,000 hectares of new forestry each year as part of efforts to meet ambitious climate change targets, but just 2,106 hectares were planted last year – the lowest figure recorded this century, according to Central Statistics Office figures.
Under the new plan, which is particularly targeted at farmers, grants to encourage the planting of all types of trees have increased by between almost 50 per cent and 65 per cent.
Saying this is the biggest effort ever made by an Irish government to encourage forestry, Minister of State for Forestry Pippa Hackett said landowners will get an extra five years’ worth of premiums for growing trees, 20 years compared to 15 years under the present scheme.
Farmers will be particularly backed to plant up to one hectare of native woodland on farmland, and along watercourses. Crucially, this will fall outside of the forestry licensing process, making it much easier to do. The one hectare will attract a €2,000 annual premium or over €22,000 over the ten-year duration of the premiums.
“It’s hugely attractive for farmers who will now begin to think of afforestation as a viable option,” said a Government source. “We need them to plant to get to the 8,000 hectare yearly target figure.”
Grants for native trees will rise from €6,744 a hectare from €5,620, with a yearly €1103 premium payment, up from €665 today. In all, farmers will get €220,000 over 20 years for planting 10 acres of native trees.
The fall in afforestation has come about because of backlogs in licensing, lack of take-up by farmers, and complicated rules for both planting and felling. The Department of Agriculture has been criticised by the commercial forestry trade for the delays, but the department insists the backlogs have been substantially reduced.
Ireland has the lowest forest cover in Europe, with just 11 per cent of land under trees compared to 40 per cent elsewhere.
Conservation and environmental groups have broadly welcomed the scheme, with caveats.
The Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT) said it was glad to see extra State money to encourage tree planting, especially the extra payments for native forests, trees to protect watercourses and a rewilding payment to encourage “emergent forests”. But it expressed concern that most of the funding will go to private landowners, not State-owned bodies.
“Dramatically increasing the extent and the ecological quality of Irish forests has to be the main priority,” it said.
“Our approach to forests in Ireland remains predominantly commercially-focused and based upon planting trees. This has led us to the many mistakes, including from diseases and loss of biodiversity, that hampers forestry to this day.”
The IWT said it was disappointed that rewilding would be limited to a “tokenistic” 50 hectares annually, compared to 4,645ha of Sitka spruce monoculture.