The European Commission has approved Ireland’s new €1.3 billion forestry programme.
The spend includes €308 million to support investments in afforestation.
The 2023-2027 programme was announced last year by the then taoiseach Micheál Martin and Minister of State with Responsibility for Forestry Pippa Hackett.
Irish media said it remained inoperational subject to EU Commission approval under State aid rules.
The new programme will see farmers benefitting from increased planting grants and extending annual premium payments from 15 to 20 years.
Non-farmers will get premia for 15 years.
The Irish forestry industry has been critical of the delays, with the new incentives coming in after this year’s planting season.
Afforestation is being pushed to lift Ireland’s forest cover
The government wants to increase Ireland’s forest cover – lifting forest cover from 11% to 18% by planting an additional 8,000 new forests annually.
In recent years, however, less than 2,000 hectares per annum were established, and in 2023, only a few hundred hectares have been planted.
According to Irish Minister of State Pippa Hackett, increased forest cover is critical to Ireland’s Climate Action plan.
“It has been designed so that planting trees can deliver for farm incomes, climate, biodiversity, water quality,” she said, “and for the production of high-quality timber for use in our homes and other buildings of the future.”
Farmers lack assurance about the viability of forest investments
The announcement was met with caution by the Irish Farmers Association.
According to the IFA, how the new Forestry Programme has been constructed “will turn many farmers off the programme”.
Jason Fleming, IFA’s forestry chair, said funding for the programme is “very strong”, but farmers lack reassurance about the commercial viability of forestry investments.
The scheme aims to support the expansion of the Irish national forest estate on both public and private land, to deliver lasting benefits for the climate, biodiversity, wood production, economic development, employment, and quality of life.
Premiums of up to €1,142 per hectare will be available, but Fleming said the government had not heard farmers’ concerns about the programme.
Farmers will be required to reduce their productive area by 32% for regions of biodiversity enhancement and broadleaves with only a 20-year premium despite the loss of timber earnings and the ecosystem services provided.
“This requirement also extends to the replanting stage with no grant, premium, or compensation for the lost productive area,” he said.
Forestry Industry Ireland has welcomed the programme’s approval.
“The deal has been far too long coming and has undermined afforestation in 2023,” said Mark McCawley, head of Forest Industry Ireland.
“Now it is critically important the Department of Agriculture quickly issues licenses to plant under the new programme.”