A late-night text recently summoned farmers to a protest in Aughnasheelin, near Ballinamore, Co Leitrim. The next morning, at 7.30am, they began to quietly gather, holding placards. In the end 50 came.
Many of them probably agree with poet and fellow Leitrim man Vincent Woods’s take on the forestry planting that has gathered apace in Co Leitrim in recent years: a commercial and environmental boon for some, a social disaster for others.
Woods's poem Last House highlights the isolation many associate with afforestation:
“She was the last one left on the hill,
You’d see the light high up at night.
The neighbours sold to the forestry;
After a few years the light went out.”
The farmers in Aughnasheelin were there to support a neighbour hoping to buy land adjoining his property which was marked for forestry. They were led by Pat Gilhooly, a senior figure in the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA).
Aughnasheelin is not on its own. A few weeks ago 200 angry farmers attended a public meeting in Drumshanbo, where they demanded that Minister of State for Forestry Andrew Doyle come to the county to see first-hand the scale of the planting.
“It will be nearly all planted if he does not come soon,” says Gilhooly, “We have five livestock marts in the county but for how long more? Trees cannot go into the mart. Trees are replacing people now in some areas.”
The plantations, he says, bring no benefits to local communities and discourage tourists who come for the scenery. "Our young people have gone to Australia and the US, and some would like to come home but there will be nothing here for them."
Adrian Kelly's story is not untypical. The 34-year-old farmer from Cloone recently tried to get a bank loan to buy 25 acres of farm land which he had been leasing for six years following the death of the farmer who owned it.
To get loan approval he would have to put up €20,000 which he did not have.
“I was actually about to leave when the bank manager asked whether I had ever considered planting it myself, and pointed out that the forestry premiums would cover the repayments.”
The loan had not been ruled out even if he continued to farm the land, but Kelly and other farmers say that banks are making it clear that those opting for forestry are a more attractive option for the lenders.
Instead of adding to his holding, Kelly, who works part-time in
mart to supplement his farm income, has watched sadly as a forestry company planted the land that he had used for grazing.
He insists he has no gripe with the widow who sold the land.
"She did the decent thing and put it on the market fair and square, but I was not able to jump the ditch," Kelly told The Irish Times.
Farmers and others who opt to plant get a tax-free premium payment of €210 per acre each year for 15 years, while they can also retain the payments they get under the “basic payments scheme”, a significant portion of many farmers’ income.
“And they still own the land – they don’t even lease it to the forestry company,” says Kelly, emphasising that he does not want to tell neighbours what they can do with their lands. He just wants “a level playing field”.
There is a view, he says, that the Government will happily meet its target of increasing the proportion of land under forestry from 11 per cent to 18 per cent by allowing counties such as Leitrim, where the land is poor, to take more than their fair share.
“There are townlands around where there are no houses now,” says Kelly, who believes that 30 per cent of the parish of Cloone has been planted. “There used to be four primary schools in this parish and now there is one.”
Forestry has drained the life out of communities, creating no employment, he says. “How can you live with trees coming up to your door? Would you live in the middle of a forest?”
Maureen Murray, a former vice-chairwoman of the IFA in Leitrim, says the county is being "scapegoated" so the Government can meet its environmental targets by showing that it is doing enough to reduce the country's carbon footprint.
“I saw six shops in Cloone in my lifetime. There is one there now.”
Murray is no latecomer to the forestry debate. Her husband, Joseph, risked going to jail in 1999 when he and others protested for five days and five nights in a failed attempt to block a farm being planted.
Now she is worried by the tension forestry is once more causing in the community.
“We have farmer against farmer and that is the sad part of it,” she says.
The argument used to be with Coillte and more recently with private forestry companies. Increasingly, however, farmers, or those inheriting family farms, are opting to plant the land.
“Lack of consultation is another problem. Often you learn about a new plantation when the diggers move in,” says Murray, who is the treasurer of IFA Leitrim.
Her son Patrick (26) has a degree in agriculture and business, but is working as a manager in Tesco. "He would love to be here but there is no future for him."
Murray says she has no problem with trees.
“There are ash trees here for over 100 years, and I would lose my life if anything happened to them, but if this continues we will have no mobile phone signal and no television cover.”
IFA regional development officer Adrian Leddy says the organisation has stepped in to act as a mediator, helping to negotiate agreements where parcels of land are either swapped or sold to a farmer whose land borders a plantation.
The row in Aughnasheelin ended quickly when the land-owner agreed to sell the property to the farmer next door who wanted to extend his farm. However, Leddy says the forestry issue is causing tension in many parts of the county.
“People are moving out of communities and there is tension. I am worried that there will be confrontation.”
Andrew Doyle, Minister of State for Forestry, has repeatedly insisted it is mainly farmers – and not pension funds or big investors as has been claimed – who are availing of the forestry grants.
Some 81 per cent of the 513 hectares planted in Leitrim last year was undertaken by farmers, not by forestry companies, while 96 per cent of 272 hectares planted in 2014 was by farmers availing of the attractive incentives.
However, Leddy is sceptical about these figures. "Farmers may initially draw down the grant but we believe it is sold on in many cases."
Padraig Egan, general manager with Axe Forestry which has plantations in Leitrim and other western and midlands counties, says he will never proceed with planting until he has consulted all householders close by.
“I have walked away from sites where I felt it was too close to a house or that someone could feel boxed in. It is a matter of getting the balance.”
He agrees the issue in Leitrim is emotive. Farmland there can be worth as little as €2,000 per acre, but €4,500 if given over to forestry.
“I come across cases where land may have been in a family for generations and perhaps a bachelor farmer left it to a niece or nephew living in Dublin, who can plant it and get a return tax free.”
Egan says the tax-free premium of €210 per acre for 15 years is a good investment for those who get no return on their savings currently from a bank.
Planning permission is not required, but he points out that approval must be sought from the Department of Agriculture’s afforestation section. Trees must be 60m from a house – this can be reduced to 30m with a letter of consent.
Egan also insists that forestry is not risk-free as factors such as frost and flooding can affect crops.
But he says he does sympathise with those who feel overwhelmed by all the planting in Leitrim.
“I do sympathise. If I had a new house with a south-facing view towards the lake I would not like to see planting there, but I do knock on people’s doors and ask them if they have objections and I have seen lots of jobs stopped because neighbours objected.”
Egan says he does plant for those who use forestry as an investment “but I would say 80 per cent is for local people”.
He also questions the right of one neighbour to judge another’s decisions.
“Twice today I was contacted by elderly people thinking of planting. One man said he was getting arthritis and might not be able to farm in the future.”
Local Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny says afforestation “sterilises” the countryside.
“Trees are replacing homes. There is nothing to stay for. I understand the argument about CO2 emissions, but surely we have to ask, what about the people?”
Leitrim county councillor Mary Bohan (FF) wants planning permission rules to cover forestry. "After all you need it if you want to put a window in your roof."
Doyle says Ireland needs more trees, not less. Currently just 11 per cent of the country is forest, compared with the European average of 38 per cent.
Vincent Woods, however, still stands by the words of his poem.
“When you see more and more trees and windmills, you see less houses, fewer lived-in houses, fewer lights and less life.”