On the question of sales of home-grown timber for ordinary commercial purposes, I am glad to note that a good deal of the old prejudice against native timber has died out. The practice that existed from time immemorial up to about 1948 or 1949, whereby the best Irish timber was sawn up and sold to the customer with the sap dripping out of it, did more damage than anything I know of. The result was that customers who burned their fingers with it would not touch it again. Since the starting of kiln drying by the Department in their mills, I am glad to note that other sawmills have installed adequate means of drying timber and of putting it on the market in as good shape as the foreign product.
The time has come for the Department to give a certain amount of protection to the name of Irish timber. It is not good enough to allow our own citizens, for the sake of profit and through carelessness, to destroy the name of one of our most valuable products. This is like the Department of Agriculture insisting that farmers, for their own good should rid their herds of T.B. and I think it would not be too much to ask those handling native timber to ensure that they do not damage its name or reputation simply through greed or carelessness.
I was very interested in the experiments carried out at my direction in the plantations established on the poorest quality peat land in the West of Ireland. There are three of them pretty close to myself and the Minister, one at Shrahmore. I think the name of the forest is Nephinbeg, a huge area planted on poor quality peat. There is a similar one at Cloosh in Connemara outside Oughterard and a third at Glenamoy in North Mayo. At Glenamoy, the quality of the bog is much better. The severest tests of the possibility of growing timber on poor quality land have taken place at Nephinbeg in Mayo and at Cloosh in Galway. The Minister might have referred to these in his opening speech and told us how they are getting on.
If I remember correctly, there must be about 5,000 acres planted at Nephinbeg where a large proportion of it is of a very poor type, so poor that when a small pilot plot was put down, the experts believed the trees could not survive. They got a little help by way of fertiliser. Even if we succeed in getting second quality timber to grow on such land, it will be well worth while and the shedding of the foliage of the first crop will condition the soil to produce a better crop in the following rotation. Would the Minister be good enough to tell us exactly what is happening there? His technical advisers will know all about these matters.
I was dealing before Question Time with planting in the west of Ireland. It is only right that the largest area of plantation should be along the west coast because there we have the greatest area of land suitable only for afforestation. While very fine plantations are established in Wicklow and some scattered places in the midlands, it is along the west coast that we must look for land for afforestation purposes. The Minister told us that something like 48 per cent. of the land intake during the year was along the west coast. I am very glad of that because of the very poor quality of the land there and it is from that area that the emigration is greatest. If we can use State money to establish plantations there and hold some of the people, we shall be doing good work. Such land is contributing a little towards agricultural output in providing sheep grazing but there is a factor now very noticeable to anybody going through the mountainous areas in the west, that is, the peculiar spread of ferns.
In 1950, Wicklow farmers told me that ferns had banished the sheep farmers off the land there and I see the same thing happening now in the West. It may be a climatic change. I do not know if anybody can account for it but more and more deaths of stock from fern poisoning are occurring. This, with other factors, discourages people on the mountain farms and timber seems to be the only thing that can be introduced. We cannot afford to leave such large tracts derelict. The situation will not be too bad if we can replace the livestock with timber after the ferns have done their deadly work of driving the farmers from the hills. Timber will hold some of the population.
I was very disappointed at the number of men now employed, 4,653, an average of 126 less than the year before. Although there is probably a very good reason for it, I find it hard to understand this fall. When I handed over the Department to Deputy Childers in 1957, if I remember correctly, the number of labourers employed by the Forestry Branch exceeded 5,000. At that time planting had reached about 17,500 or 20,000 acres and the number employed was over 5,000. Now when 5,000 more acres per year are being planted, the number of men employed has dropped. Is this due to the increased use of machinery?
Efforts to promote private planting have flopped, largely because the grants are insufficient. The cost to the Forestry Branch of planting an acre, including the purchase of the land, works out at about £108 per acre. That is calculated by taking the overall cost to the Department and dividing it by the number of acres planted. I admit there is not much comparison between private planting and what the Forestry Branch does, but the gap between £20 and £108 is too great and if we want to induce land owners to plant, we must sweeten the pill, so to speak, with better grants and also by offering to keep such land free of rates.
I take a great interest in this Estimate each year because I believe it is absolutely necessary to stop the outlay of £10,000,000 or £11,000,000 a year on imported timber and wood products. It is essential that we supply our needs from our own resources. We have the land, the people to produce the timber and a climate in which timber can be raised as successfully as in any other country. We must consider also the flight from the land and it is where the quality of the land is poorest that emigration is greatest. In those circumstances, the Forestry Section can do a very good job by keeping at least some of our population at home, even if it means changing from farming and wage-earning to a livelihood of complete wage-earning in forestry work. I have never known forestry workers, sure of getting constant employment, anxious to emigrate, although it is quite possible they could get better wages across the water.
I am very proud of our forestry development, although I feel a little embarrassment in speaking on this Vote each year, since I was largely responsible for bringing forestry to what it is today. That, however, will not prevent me from giving advice to whatever Minister is in office and from taking an active interest in forestry and trying to ensure that the baby I had in my charge for a while is thriving, thanks, not so much to the Minister, but rather to the officials of his Department who know their job and do it well.
The only thing the Minister has to be proud of is the fact that he did not tamper with the machine. He sat idly by and let the machine do the work. I offer him my sincerest thanks for not putting the machine off the rails; I congratulate him on leaving it alone. The Minister takes some interest in the Fisheries Branch. More power to his elbow. He should remember, however, that it is to the Land Commission and the Forestry Branch that many people look for a livelihood and for an improvement in their lot in life. The Minister should not stand idly by and devote all his attention to Fisheries, leaving the other machines to run as they will. I am glad he did not interfere with the Forestry machine, but, good as it is, there are still improvements to be made in it.
Steps will have to be taken now to absorb what I estimate at not less than 8,000,000 cubic feet of timber which will come out of our forests in seven or eight years time. I cannot see a local market for all that timber but it has to be remembered that we pay £6 million or £7 million every year to foreign countries for pulp produced from timber similar to what we grow here. Thinnings should be turned into paper, thereby providing very necessary employment and keeping so much sterling at home, while, at the same time, considerably decreasing our need for dollar currency. These are the things to which the Minister should turn his attention.
The planting programme of 25,000 acres annually initiated by the first inter-Party Government has been achieved and the programme is now running smoothly. I have complete faith in the officials of the Forestry Branch. I appreciate the difficulty there is in acquiring the necessary acreage each year to keep up the plantable reserve. There are some fairly big issues involved. One is the possibility of increasing the planting programme to 30,000 acres per year.
I impress upon the Minister the absolute necessity of making provision now for utilising the vast cubic footage of timber which will come out of our forests in the next eight or ten years. It will be a national crime if that timber is felled and allowed to rot, while we continue to pay £6 million or £7 million for imported paper, paper which we could produce ourselves from our own raw materials.
Finally, I should like to compliment the officials of the Forestry Branch on the excellent work they are doing, sometimes with very poor help from this House. It is only right we should acknowledge their work. In a few years time, this is one branch of Government activity which will pay its way. Instead of the Minister coming in here looking for money, he will be coming in with an account which will show a profit earned, a profit which he will hand over to the Minister for Finance.