There are fears that a plan by Coillte to source land for a UK investment fund will sell farmland from under the feet of Irish farmers, and now there are calls for the government to intervene
FARMING groups have condemned a plan by Coillte to enter into a partnership with a British investment fund to acquire land suitable for commercial forestry, over fears it will increase competition for land and see them priced out of the market.
Gresham House, specialist asset managers working with the semi-state body Coillte, have established the Irish Strategic Forestry Fund, which will provide up to €200m capital needed to create new forests.
Coillte, headed up by a West Cork woman, says this will make significant contribution to Ireland’s Climate Action Plan.
The fund will also acquire existing forest assets and, when fully deployed, will represent a portfolio of approximately 12,000 hectares of new and existing forests. It has already attracted €35m from Irish investors, including a €25m cornerstone investment from the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF), Ireland’s sovereign development fund. Coillte will source land, plant trees and manage these forests as part of its overall forest estate. The fund will benefit from forestry grants and premia.
Clonakilty native Imelda Hurley, Coillte chief executive, said that Coillte was pleased to work with Gresham House.
There is an urgent need for Ireland to meet stretching climate action targets and creating new forests is integral to the achievement of these targets, she added. ‘The Government’s national afforestation target is 8,000 ha per annum and the long-term target is to achieve 18% forest cover. Currently forest cover in Ireland is 11.6% compared to an EU average of 40%.
‘The new Irish Strategic Forestry Fund represents an important first step towards accessing the capital required to enable the creation of new forests which will deliver the multiple benefits of forests for climate, nature, wood and people,’ said Ms Hurley.
However, ICSA president Dermot Kelleher has said he is alarmed at the proposals and has demanded an urgent rethink of government strategy when it comes to achieving forestry goals.
‘Any proposals that centre around selling Irish farmland from under the feet of Irish farmers are unacceptable to ICSA,’ he said.
‘Such a deal would disproportionately affect suckler and sheep farmers and make land availability – which is already a problem – even worse,’ he said
The West Cork farmer said nowhere in the Climate Action Plan did it mention the sale of land equivalent to 1,500 average size farms to foreign investors to meet our goals. ‘Neither did it mention driving environmentally sustainable drystock farmers off the land, but that is exactly what these proposals would do by pricing local farmers out,’ he said. He also said it was ‘deeply concerning’ that the Irish Strategic Investment Fund is being used by foreign investors.
‘ICSA is clear that any trees planted must be planted by Irish farmers and must be done so on a voluntary basis and for the benefit of Irish farmers. ‘It is beyond unacceptable that any sitting government should facilitate the large-scale purchasing of land by foreign investors at the expense of Irish farmers and a rethink on the whole forestry strategy is now urgent.’
Meanwhile, Social Democrat TD Holly Cairns said while the partnership between Coillte and Gresham House looks good on paper, ‘the reality is that this will most likely involve planting thousands of Sitka spruce and other species that return the most profit quickly, but have very negative environmental consequences.
‘At the same time many West Cork farmers are being disincentivised to plant forestry. We all agree on the need for more forestry, but this is not the way to go about it. Imagine the difference a €25m investment in ordinary family farms would make? I have consistently called for competitive funding to help farmers plant trees, especially broadleaf native varieties.
‘Current afforestation incentives are not competitive with other farm subsidies and schemes. This means West Cork farmers are being pushed away from planting trees in favour of beef and dairy.’
IFA farm forestry chair Jason Fleming said the focus of the State planting programme, as well as exchequer spending, should be on farmer planting.
‘This has the greatest positive impact on the economy, as the majority of the money generated from forest premiums and timber sales is spent locally, fuelling economic growth and supporting jobs and businesses in towns across Ireland,’ he said.
He said that the main opposition to forestry in recent years has been driven by foreign investors coming in and buying land for forestry, distorting the land market, and making it increasingly difficult for local farmers, particularly young farmers, to compete.
Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue said he will meet with Coillte, but insisted family farms had advantages over investment funds when it comes to planting trees.