Ireland’s level of forest planting is “far below where it needs to be”, with “Ireland now lagging behind EU member states” for forest establishment.
In 2022, Ireland oversaw just 2,273 hectares of additional forests, with forest cover now covering 11.6% of the country – up from 1.4% at the foundation of the State 100 years ago.
This week, the Department of Agriculture published the Forest Statistics report, which included a National Forest Inventory of Irish forests for the first time.
According to Ms Pippa Hackett, the report “brings together reliable, up-to-date forestry statistics that are useful both for my department and forest stakeholders”.
Ms Hackett, the Irish Minister of State, said spending on forestry activity, primarily encouraging private landowners to plant trees, has increased for the first time in almost a decade.
“While these new forests planted in 2022 will ultimately form a valuable part of our national forest estate,” Ms Hackett said, “last year’s level of planting is far below where we ultimately need to be.”
According to the Irish Independent, spending on forestry is lower than in 2002. That is, despite the Irish Government stating on multiple occasions that encouraging tree planting is a crucial part of its climate change mitigation strategy.
Irish investment in forestry peaked at €125m in 2008 but has declined consistently year-on-year since then, besides a once-off increase of 1.5 per cent in 2014 compared with 2013.
The 2022 number, €75m, rose from 2021 to €69m but was roughly equivalent to 2002.
The spending targets afforestation maintenance grants, grants for forest road infrastructure and annual premium payments.
Most of the money, some €50m, was spent on premium payments paid to landowners who plant trees on their sites.
The relatively low spending comes at a time when Ireland is struggling to hit its afforestation targets.
Ireland ranks among the countries with the lowest forest coverage rates in Europe.
Ireland has missed its afforestation target every year for at least the last decade, and tree-planting rates have dropped sharply since the onset of the financial crisis.
Earlier this month, Wood Central revealed that increasing forest cover is crucial in achieving the State’s climate action goals.
The European Commission has approved Ireland’s new €1.3 billion forestry programme – which includes €308 million to support investments in afforestation.
Ms Hackett is confident that the new €1.3 billion forestry programme will mark a turning point for Irish forestry.
“I believe that the programme will unlock the potential for the sector to get back to planting 8,000 hectares per annum and more.”
Ms Hackett said farmers planted the “vast majority” of new forests in Ireland.
“The supports we have put in place for farmers will reignite forestry as a real option as part of the farm enterprise,” Ms Hackett said.
“I am pleased to see that the proportional area of broadleaves afforested in 2022 represents 42% of all afforestation.”
The Irish target is to reach 18 per cent forest cover in Ireland by the end of 2027 – which can be achieved by planting 22 million trees annually.
However, even that goal is too low according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has warned that next year’s target needs to be higher and increase further after that.
It commissioned research that suggests 13,000 to 40,000 hectares of new forestry will need planting every year from 2025 to 2050.
The report found that forestry is essential for climate action and halting biodiversity decline.
Forest soils, growing trees, deadwood and leaf litter store around 323 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – about five times the country’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions.
Using wood products instead of more carbon-intensive materials can also help reduce emissions in the construction industry.
Figures for 2022 show, however, that the amount of carbon being sequestered and stored has reduced annually in recent years.
Ageing trees, fires, and soil disturbance from clear-felling all reduce the ability of forests to store carbon.
In 2022, felling licences were issued for the thinning of 25,044 hectares and the clear-felling of 23,009 hectares.
“This is the highest recorded volume of timber ever licenced for felling in a year,” according to Ms Hackett.
“In the private sector, clear-fell licences increased significantly from 8,278 hectares in 2021 to 14,006 hectares in 2022.
“This increase is encouraging as it highlights active forest management from private forest owners and allows the mobilisation of timber for harvested wood products including house building.”