Irish Senator Victor Boyhan has raised concerns about the state of the country’s forestry sector, stating that it is in a “state of crisis” and has lost confidence. He believes that the European Commission’s criticism of Ireland’s proposed €1.3 billion Forestry Programme needs to be made public. The proposed programme is subject to state aid approval by the European Commission before it can be implemented in Ireland. Senator Boyhan claims that the EC “needs to come clean on its criticism of the Irish government’s forestry policy” so that the necessary state aid approval can be obtained.
According to Senator Boyhan, the forestry planting targets will not be met this year due to the procrastination over the deal by the commission and the government. He believes that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine Forest Strategy 2023-2030 will be “100% exchequer funded”, with state aid approval “expected” from the European Commission. However, he added that “no one truly knows the extent of the issues holding up formal EU approval.” Senator Boyhan also called for a controversial collaboration between Coillte and Gresham House to be shelved, stating that it has left many people angry with Coillte due to how the transaction was carried out.
In January, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue confirmed that Coillte did not require ministerial approval for the new collaboration. London-headquartered Gresham House launched its new €200 million Irish forestry fund – The Irish Strategic Forestry Fund – at the start of the year. The fund, which is aiming for a portfolio of around 12,000ha of new and existing forests, is supported by the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF) which is managed and controlled by the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA). However, many forestry organisations have strongly opposed the tie-up between Coillte and Gresham House. They have warned that it could remove land from rural ownership, which they claim could be equivalent to 1,500 average family farms. Forestry groups have also warned that the collaboration could give venture capitalists an “unfair advantage” over existing, young, and new farmers and push them off the land.
The forestry sector in Ireland has been facing numerous challenges in recent years, including a decline in planting rates, an increase in tree disease, and a lack of investment. The Irish government has set a target of planting 8,000 hectares of new forests per year, but this target has not been met in recent years. The sector has also been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with many forestry workers losing their jobs due to a decrease in demand for timber.
In response to these challenges, the Irish government has proposed a new Forestry Programme for the period 2023-2027, which aims to increase the country’s forest cover from 11% to 18% by 2046. The programme includes measures to increase planting rates, improve forest management, and support the development of the forestry sector. However, the programme has faced criticism from some quarters, with concerns raised about the impact on rural communities and the environment.
The European Commission’s approval of the Forestry Programme is crucial for its implementation, as it is subject to state aid rules. The Commission must ensure that the programme does not distort competition or harm the environment. It is not yet clear what specific concerns the Commission has raised about the programme, but Senator Boyhan’s call for transparency suggests that there may be some significant issues to address.
The forestry sector is an important part of the Irish economy, providing jobs and income for rural communities, as well as environmental benefits such as carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation. However, the sector faces numerous challenges, and it is clear that significant investment and policy support will be needed to ensure its long-term viability. The Irish government and the European Commission must work together to address the concerns raised about the Forestry Programme and ensure that the sector can continue to play a vital role in the country’s economy and environment.