Voices of Forestry presents analysis and insight from people working all across the forestry sector. This issue, Con Little, a forester with around five decades of experience, argues big changes need to be made to rescue Irish forestry from a spiral towards failure.

THE future of forestry in Ireland will depend on how the state manages the role it has in it.

If you go back to the 1900s when the British Forestry Commission was set up, the wisdom from London was that ‘we will have a state forest service (the Forestry Commission) but also we will encourage private investment’. I imagine partly that was because they had big, landed estates and a voice in government.

When we got independence, the civil service decided farmers weren’t interested in trees, partly because of their association with the landed gentry (i.e. the English) – who we’d just managed to get rid of. They didn’t even want to try to encourage farmers to grow trees.

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That only really changed in the 1980s when surpluses came about in items such as milk and eggs.

The government decided to introduce these grants to encourage farmers to plant trees.

That worked reasonably well and now nearly half the state is private forestry, but it’s in tiny fractions – only an average of six hectares apiece.

You can’t run that. It’s not compatible with the modern industry we have now. How do you get all these little bits harvested and hauled? That’s going to take innovation. This is where I think the tale of woe now starts coming in.

The Forest Service has spent a lot of European money and Irish taxpayers’ money to convince people to plant trees, but then it’s all hooked up in licences. It has gone overboard in trying to regulate the industry.

There is a quote I always come back to. The single biggest failure of this government is that they haven’t abolished the licensing system for forestry. You can move from barley to wheat and, provided you comply with the regulation, no one is going to say boo. But if you want to move from barley to trees, you’ve got to go into a process which is impossible for farmers.

Farmers who took the grant to plant see no future in it and they are selling out. As a forester, even I find it hard to persuade people to plant trees – because what are you doing? If your land is worth something around here, you can sell it for (up to) €40,000 an acre.

The department has just announced a €1.3 billion investment as if that’s some big amount of money. Divide that by whatever number of years and it’s very little.

If you do plant, then suddenly this thing that was worth, let’s say, €15,000 per acre (potentially) is worth €2,000 per acre because it’s stuck on forestry forever and 30 per cent of it is going to be held up in broadleaves.

A major downside of the system is the reasons not to pay the grant only apply after costs are incurred. So you run the risk of it being on your own head even if you just get something slightly wrong. I think it’s crazy.

If you want to put in a forest road, you have to get it approved by the county council. Why is that? My view is the act is wrong. If we are planting all of this stuff, then it should be part of the due diligence before you are planting, not after. It’s not fair to leave these guys with no income.

The 2014 Forestry Act was designed so that the farmer could apply for the licence theirself without even having to pay a forester or an ecologist, or a barrister, or some other ‘ist’. When applying now, they want to know the felling information, the plot numbers, the harvest type, etc. All these details they already have, but you have to fill it all in again.

Forestry Journal: Con Little at his home in Ireland Con Little at his home in Ireland (Image: FJ)

Now you have to hire a forester – who probably also has to hire an ecologist – and you have to pay for all that. And they won’t accept paper forms anymore. It has to be done online, with all that information included.

It’s become a mug’s game. All of this is driving people out of the industry. It’s killing innovation and they are driving people out. They want me, as a forester, to be totally responsible for all of this.

A new Forestry Act should be drafted and enacted, and it should include the following:

1. Every application for new afforestation projects should have a complete due diligence on the suitability of the land and the site for the purposes of forestry.
2. In this, all social and environmental issues – such as biodiversity, water and drainage – should be completely investigated. These findings should also declare any mitigations that should be undertaken at afforestation.
3. By default, all approvals for afforestation projects should include legal right of access to the public road system. They should also include the right and obligation to effectively manage the crop by thinning and clearfelling and, ultimately, the obligation to replant the woodlands without the repeated need to seek licences. In this way, the existing, scandalous licensing system should be eliminated and replaced.
4. All existing woodlands should be evaluated in the same way by the Department of Agriculture.
5. All existing grant-aid packages should be eliminated and replaced.
6. The state should pay the woodland owner for the carbon sequestration of the woodlands.
7. Eliminating the existing grant-aid system would save the cost of this entire waste of effort.
8. An immediate benefit of replacing the existing system would be to free up the talented resource of state foresters and ecologists to focus on actually improving forest management in Ireland.

The current system is a bad use of our money for a country that doesn’t have a lot of it. We’re not exactly taking oil out of the ground.

(The above is an edited version of a transcribed conversation between Con Little and Forestry Journal deputy editor Jack Haugh.)

DISCLAIMER: Our columns are a platform for writers to express their personal opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the writers’ own organisations or Forestry Journal.