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Foresters demand u-turn in Coillte’s ‘farcical’ plans with investment fund

February 7th, 2023 10:30 PM

By Emma Connolly

Foresters demand u-turn in Coillte’s ‘farcical’ plans with investment fund Image
The Forest Owners Cooperative Society feels that forestry has been sold out by the Minister for Agriculture and the Minister for Land Use and Forestry. (Photo: Shutterstock)

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OUR fishing industry has been sold out, we gave away our beet industry and now the same thing is happening to our forestry. 

That’s how Abraham Kingston from Drimoleague summed up the situation he feels is facing the sector after semi-state body Coillte announced its partnership with a British investment fund. 

A meeting took place this week in Dunmanway, organised by the Forest Owners Co-Operative Society (FOCS) in response to the move, where local forest owners set out their concerns about the new Irish Strategic Forestry Fund which will provide up to €200m capital needed to create new forests. 

Agri groups have already voiced their fears, specifically that it will see them priced out of the market when it comes to land purchases. 

The FOCS is headed up by Skibbereen-based Dr Kathryn O’Donoghue, and it represents growers all over Munster. 

The group is demanding Ministers Charlie McConalogue and Pippa Hackett and local TDs come to the table in a bid to find solutions to what it is calling a ‘disgraceful joint investment venture.’

Mr Kingston, who attended the meeting, planted his first forest, comprising 120 acres, 35 years ago. He planted a further 30 acres around 10 years ago. He thought it would be a worthwhile venture and he was also motivated by climate awareness. He said that the fund will benefit from forestry grants and premia and to him it just ‘didn’t add up’.

‘The premiums this fund are hoping to draw down will come out of an agricultural budget, which will now be going to foreign investors, leaving the country. And if the land is being bought up, it will take people out of the community and the impacts will be widely felt,’ he warned. 

He also feels that forestry is already being treated like the ‘poor relation’ in agriculture, surrounded by bureaucracy, red tape and delays in felling licences.

‘It’s far more attractive for people to let their land to someone who wants to cut down on their nitrates than to forestry. In most countries a private forester can make a living, but that’s not the case here,’ he said. 

Dr O’Donoghue said they have ‘had enough’. 

‘Forestry has been sold out by the Minister for Agriculture and the Minister for Land Use and Forestry, as we look at the State’s performance in managing our forestry targets and a rural economy over the lifespan of this government,’ she said. 

‘If we can’t even create a system that will allow us to plant trees, what confidence do we have in our politicians in solving more difficult rural economic, climate and  farming issues?’ she asked. 

She said the FOCS has an obligation to insist they have a central role in resolving what she called ‘this farcical strategy’. 

‘We have a strategy in front of us which is as thick as two planks. There is no focus on local economy, none at all on the development of farm family communities, or the strength there is in rural Ireland to meeting climate and forestry targets.’

Minister Charlie McConalogue and Minister of State Pippa Hackett have met with senior representatives of Coillte, headed by Clonakilty woman Imelda Hurley, since its controversial announcement. 

 In a statement after the meeting, Minister McConalogue insisted that farmers will be ‘central to the success’ of overall forestry strategy. 

However, Ind TD Michael Collins called the new arrangement ‘a sickening dereliction of ministerial responsibility to protect the public good.’

‘Ministers are enabling a corporate entity listed on the London stock exchange (Gresham House), to proceed with drawing down tens of millions in forestry payments earmarked for Irish farmers,’ the Cork South West TD said.  

Deputy Holly Cairns of the Social Democrats said she had received hundreds of emails and messages from constituents who were concerned about the issue.

‘Farmers have been seeking supports in helping transition into sustainable forestry. However, the schemes and payments in this area are not competitive with other farm subsidies. Between 2015 and 2020 the number of farmers participating in new afforestation fell by 90%,’ she said. 

‘Commercial forestry is an important industry in West Cork, but it has endured massive challenges in recent years. Jobs have been jeopardised by the government’s failure to reform the licensing system which still has backlogs and delays,’ she added.

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