Turning over a new leaf


Ireland is the European Union's least forested country. Despite having been covered in mixed broadleaf forest some 9,000 years ago, by 1905 Ireland's woodlands covered only some 100,000 hectares or 1 per cent of the land area.

By 1998, public and private forests covered some 570,000 hectares or 8 per cent of land area, according to the most recent (1998) annual report of the Forest Service at the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources.

The most afforested counties are Cork, Galway, Donegal, Mayo, Tipperary and Wicklow, while north-east Leinster is the least forested area.

When it comes to percentage forest cover by county, Wicklow is 19 per cent under forest, Waterford, 15 per cent, Laois, 13 per cent, Leitrim and Clare, 12 per cent each, while woodland constitutes 10 per cent of both Donegal and Tipperary.

Meath has less than 2 per cent under forest, while counties Louth, Monaghan and Cavan have only about 4 per cent woodland cover.

Countries in the European Union average 31 per cent forest cover, the most wooded being Sweden, 62 per cent, Austria, 46 per cent, and Greece, 44 per cent; the most denuded are Ireland, 8 per cent, the Netherlands, 9 per cent, and the UK, 10 per cent.

However, Ireland's rate of afforestation is the highest in the EU and the objective is to increase forest cover to 17 per cent of the country by 2035, requiring annual planting of some 20,000 hectares, says the Forest Service. Indeed, the national development plan for 2000 to 2006 earmarks some £592 million in Exchequer and EU investment programmes for forestry, comprising £500 million for afforestation, £80 million for forestry development and £12 million for forest sector training.

The main function of the Forest Service is as a grant agency.

Its wide responsibilities include "national forest policy, the promotion of private forestry and the administration of planting and other forestry grant schemes". Coillte, a semi-State commercial forestry company, has to adhere to the Forest Service's guidelines and it applies to the Forest Service for grants.

Coillte has schemes to encourage landowners and farmers into forestry, whereby the owner virtually lends the land to Coillte for the duration of a plantation.

The landowner gets upfront payments, payments over the course of the plantation and shares in its profits.

A spokesperson for Coillte says "We also offer to purchase land at very competitive prices or, alternatively, we have a private forestry service which offers a professional forestry service to landowners who wish to plant their land without getting into a partnership with us."