National forestry targets, while important in terms of meeting our climate action targets, must take account of community and local concerns, according to Irish MEP, Mairead McGuinness.
Speaking following a meeting with representatives of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA) recently, Ms McGuinness said that Irish targets to increase the area under trees from 11 per cent to 18 per cent risk not being achieved, unless we tackle perceptions among farmers about forestry and reassure certain regions that there is no national strategy to cover their territory with trees to the exclusion of people.
Ms McGuinness, who is also first vice-president of the European Parliament said: “Trees are a farming enterprise, not an anti-farming activity, with environmental and sustainability benefits for the community, but community concerns need to be heard,” she said.
Counties Leitrim, Cavan, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo have seen a significant increase in planting, according to Ms McGuinness, accounting for one third of the afforestation programme in 2016.
However, more than 30 per cent of planting is being undertaken by investors, with no links to local communities.
"This issue was raised with me by members of IHNFA when I met them recently,” Ms McGuinness said.
"Gerry Loftus, chairman of the forestry committee of the association expressed concern about the proliferation of plantations, without due regard to concerns of neighbouring farmers and other householders.
"Tax and other incentives are encouraging investors to look to forestry as a long-term investment. This is a cause of concern and in Leitrim, it is adding to a negative perception of forestry.
“Competition for land between local farmers who wish to expand their holdings and investors who want to plant the land is leading to resentment with forestry investors able to outbid farmers for land.”
She said there is also an issue about what is perceived to be a lax planning process for plantations. “Home owners express concern about being surrounded by trees, impeding their view and negatively impacting their way of life. In overall terms, Ireland has the lowest forestry cover in the EU, with about 10pc of our lands - some 750,000 hectares under trees.
“And we have a competitive advantage in growing timber, with growth rates of certain tree species more than double those achievable in other European countries.”
She said the total value of Irish industry to the economy is €2.3 billion, supporting almost 12,000 jobs primarily in rural areas.