Co. Cork has the largest forest area in Ireland, according to a new report released on Tuesday, August 22. The report, titled Forest Statistics Ireland 2022, reveals that Co. Cork boasts 92,471 hectares of forest area, while Co. Louth has the lowest with just 2,428 hectares. This report also highlights a significant shift, as privately owned forests have surpassed publicly owned forests for the first time in the history of the state. The report indicates that in 2022, 76 farmers were responsible for afforesting 520 hectares, while 232 non-farmers, including landowners who are not actively farming, accounted for 1,754 hectares of afforestation. The total forest area in Ireland is estimated to be 808,848 hectares, which represents 11.6% of the country’s total land area. The report also suggests that forest cover is at its highest level in over 350 years. Of the total forest area, 49.1% is currently publicly owned, primarily controlled by Coillte, while the remaining 50.9% is privately owned. The breakdown of private ownership is as follows: 35.7% grant-aided private ownership and 15.2% non-grant-aided private ownership.
The report also reveals that Sitka spruce is the most prevalent species, occupying 44.6% of the total forest area, while over one quarter of the area is comprised of broadleaves. Pippa Hackett, Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) with responsibility for land use, believes that the report demonstrates the continued expansion of Ireland’s forest estate. She noted that 2,273 hectares of new forests were planted in 2022, but emphasized that this falls short of the target. Minister Hackett stated, “While these new forests planted in 2022 will ultimately form a valuable part of our national forest estate and will play an important role in sequestering carbon, providing timber, and creating new habitats, last year’s level of planting is far below where we ultimately need to be.”
Earlier this month, the European Commission approved a €308 million Irish scheme to support investments in afforestation, under EU state aid rules. This initiative is part of Ireland’s new €1.3 billion Forestry Programme 2023-2027. Minister Hackett believes that this forestry program will mark a turning point for Irish forestry, unlocking the potential for the sector to reach and exceed the target of planting 8,000 hectares per year. She added, “One of the trends we can see from this report is that in the years that most recently exceeded the 8,000-hectare target, farmers were planting the vast majority of new forests in Ireland.”
The Forest Statistics Ireland 2022 report highlights that farmers accounted for 82% of private lands afforested between 1980 and 2022. The average size of forest area planted by farmers and non-farmers since 2015 has been 6.3 hectares and 7 hectares, respectively. Furthermore, the report reveals that 78.7% of forest owners have planted only one forest, which accounts for 53.5% of the overall forest area. Since 1980, a total of 23,859 private owners have received grant aid for afforestation. Notably, nearly half of the area afforested since 1990 was by individual owners, and in 2022, 62% of the planted area was by individuals aged 60 years or older.
The report also provides data on felling licenses issued in 2022. The private sector received licenses for thinning on 10,252 hectares and clearfelling on 14,006 hectares, representing the highest recorded volume of timber ever licensed for felling in a single year. Public forest clearfelling totaled 9,003 hectares, while 14,836 hectares of forest were thinned.