I welcome the opportunity to address the house on Ireland’s new Forestry Strategy.
I’d like to begin by commending my colleague Minister Pippa Hackett for her Trojan work in securing an unprecedented €1.3 billion to execute this key pillar of Ireland’s Climate Action Plan over the next five years.
As the Taoiseach told the IFA last week, the Forestry Strategy was designed to benefit rural Ireland, giving farmers the biggest opportunity to meet our forestry targets and ensuring the overwhelming majority of the economic stimulus it provides will be felt in rural Ireland.
As a rural TD representing a constituency with a proud agricultural tradition, it is particularly important to me that farmers are at the heart of Ireland’s response to the climate and biodiversity challenge.
They own and manage two thirds of our land, so it’s our responsibility as politicians to ensure that they are empowered and equipped to lead.
There are also benefits in the Forestry Strategy for nature, and I particularly welcome the provisions to substantially expand native woodland cover, ensure more diverse species mixes, address legacy impacts, restore afforested peatlands, and support Closer to Nature forest management.
We will have a job of work to do across Government to ensure robust ecological assessment procedures to safeguard habitats and species of ecological importance like the Freshwater Pearl Mussel, Marsh Fritillary butterfly, red listed birds, species-rich grasslands and other high nature value farmland areas, particularly in relation to the Native Tree Area Scheme, and I know this is to the forefront of Minister Hackett’s mind.
When we think of forests, what do we think of?
Stands of healthy conifers that will be felled for valuable sawlog to support the rural economy and national housing targets?
Beautiful non-native beech and bluebell woodlands that were established centuries ago on the old estates and that we now enjoy for walks with our families?
Or the soggy, biodiversity-rich temperate rainforests dripping in mosses and liverworts that might naturally occur on large swathes of our island?
I’d argue that we should think of all three.
But we should not forget about the other forests, either.
The islands of low-yield-class timber on peat soils along the western seaboard, many of which are uneconomic to extract. The ancient and long-established woodlands that are dying in slow motion, choked by invasive rhododendron and laurel that crowds out the next generation of trees. The dense monocultures of conifers that exclude both light and communities. The bare hillsides that might regenerate on their own through a succession of grasses, bushes and shrubs to natural woodland, were they not relentlessly grazed.
Social and economic policies of the past, which were undertaken for good and valid reasons at the time, have left us a difficult legacy when it comes to forestry.
The decision to ensure that the nation’s strategic timber resource never competed with agriculture, and so confined forests to the productively poorer lands, was made in the shadows of the Great Hunger.
The planting efforts on the vast peatlands of the west in the 1970s and 80s provided desperately needed rural employment and, for many, the only alternative to emigration.
The intensification of agriculture that overwhelmed wooded field corners and tall, thick hedgerows transformed the fortunes of many farmers.
And the planting and felling protocols of more recent decades pursued maximum economic productivity in the regions left behind, often to the detriment of environmental or social productivity.
The forestry of the future must take account of its history and we, as elected representatives, must ensure that the whole story is told if we are to make better decisions today.
In my role as Minister of State for Heritage, I’m keenly aware that the Ireland of today has a very different set of values to the Ireland that wrote the first hundred years of our forestry story.
These new values are very much to the fore in my own Department, which undertakes extensive work to conserve and restore existing native woodlands, create new ones, and restructure and rehabilitate the forests where a different habitat is better for nature.
In our national parks and nature reserves, from Glengarriff to Glenveagh, we’re restoring ancient oak, yew and alluvial woodlands, planting new native woodland, collecting seeds and establishing conservation populations of genetically unique tree species, removing invasive species like rhododendron, cherry laurel, beech and sycamore, restoring and rehabilitating afforested peatlands, erecting deer fencing and managing populations on an ongoing basis.
This work has been significantly ramped up thanks to increased funding provisions for the National Parks and Wildlife Service under this Government.
We’re also taking a longer-term, more strategic view to the management of these special places.
In Glenveagh National Park in Co. Donegal, we’re implementing a new Woodland Management Strategy with a 100-year time horizon, out to 2120. In Killarney National Park in Co. Kerry, we’ve just published a 30-year review of vegetation change in permanent native woodlands – the findings will inform future management, including the new rhododendron management plan, which is currently being finalised. In Wicklow Mountains National Park, a new deer management plan is expected to be completed later this year. And in Wild Nephin National Park, we’re at the beginning of a major ecological restoration project to bring a former conifer plantation back to healthy peatland, native woodland and riparian habitat, where natural processes are the driver of change.
At the national level, we’re almost finished a scoping study to map, monitor and protect Ireland’s ancient and long-established woodlands – a vital step towards a full National Inventory of these amazing habitats. We’re also continuing to manage deer hunting licences, with over 6,000 issued last year. Deer grazing remains an overwhelming pressure on the establishment and regeneration of native woodlands across many parts of the country, even despite the culling of upwards of 50,000 animals last year.
I firmly believe that long term, strategic and sustained approach to deer management is needed, led by the data. We need a deer census, we need the Deer Forum to explore all the management possibilities, including contracted service providers, and we need to promote venison as a source of wild, organic, lean protein and mainstream it in our diets. We also need to think more broadly about grazing in general, particularly sheep. Conservation grazing has a role to play in the management of our uplands, but what we have right now is not working for nature, water, climate, or people, and we need to rethink it.
Invasive plants like rhododendron and cherry laurel also present significant challenges and again, I believe that a major programme of work – based on sound science and best practice, and managed strategically on a site-specific basis – needs to be undertaken.
Communities can play a vital role in this work, and we’ve seen fantastic examples across the country of people coming together to support nature. An inspiring one is of a group of farmers who, through their participation in the Rural Social Scheme, are removing rhododendron in the Bundorragha catchment in Co. Mayo. I’d like to see much, much more of this.
It’s clear to me that we need big thinking, and even bigger action. The next five years in particular will be crucial.
The European Commission’s new Nature Restoration Law proposal is focussing minds on the challenge ahead and the implications for all habitats and sectors, including woodlands and forestry, are starting to become clear. Early analysis suggests that we’ll need to establish around 1,300 hectares of sessile oak woods and 500 hectares of alluvial forests every year to achieve the 2030 targets. This goes well beyond the scope of the new Forestry Strategy.
And while the role of Coillte has been much discussed in this house in recent weeks, a key question is yet to be asked: Is there not potential for Coillte to ring fence a portion of the profits it returns to State for creation of permanent, native woodland in support of the Nature Restoration Law? I’d like to see that explored.
Last month, I wrote an op-ed setting out my hope that we will be able to remove the fences that corral nature into so-called safe places, within my lifetime. If we’re to achieve that, or even move towards it, we need a clear sense of who and what our forests are for, where they should and shouldn’t be, and a sustained, targeted focus on how they are managed for the next hundred years.