That Dáil Éireann:
— that Ireland has the second lowest forest cover in the European Union (EU) at 11 per cent, compared to a European average of 30 per cent and that the majority of the forests are monocultures;
— that the State forestry policy has been predominantly based on a rotation, clear-fell and replant cycle using monoculture;
— that the extent of hedgerows declined massively during the 20th century but has since recovered slightly;
— that having started from a forest cover of 1 per cent in 1923, the State and the forestry industry has grown substantially, and afforestation has brought major positive benefits including the development of a forestry sector and forest products industry that currently employs 12,000 people;
— that aspects of the current afforestation model, in particular the emphasis on largescale monoculture have, in some cases, had negative impacts on local communities, biodiversity, water quality and landscapes;
— that in the light of the need to address the challenges of the climate and biodiversity emergency, now is the time to move to the next stage in Irish forestry;
— that it is desirable for the forestry system to provide a range of services in a way which strengthens local communities, provides employment for a new generation of foresters and access for the public to more varied woodlands, which are rich in biodiversity;
— that there is a potential for higher value, higher quality wood products from Irish forests, including a potential for long-lasting products as low carbon inputs for construction and other sectors and as stores of sequestered carbon for the lifetime of the buildings and products;
— the declining populations in certain rural areas, the high average age of farmers, and the developing crisis in Irish agriculture; and
— the inappropriate nature of current land use in many parts of Ireland, including the inability to make a living from current farming models and the difficulty for young people who might want to work on the land to get access to land which they do not directly inherit;
— the impacts of biodiversity loss and the loss of ecosystem services, and the consequent economic losses and risks we face globally and in Ireland;
— the gravity of the global biodiversity crisis, including the loss of species, the loss of important populations of species and the undermining of ecosystem services;
— the vital role of land use in the hydrological cycle, managing flooding and drought, maintaining water quality and dealing with pollution and the role which changed land use practices must play in meeting the objectives of improving water quality in line with the EU Water Framework Directive;
— the vulnerability of even-aged monoculture plantations, e.g. to disease, fire and windthrow, especially given the increasing dangers of climate change;
— the role which changed land use practices must play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in sequestering and storing carbon, and in providing resilience to the effects of climate change;
— the essential role that afforestation, land use and soil carbon management must play in Ireland’s National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP) 2021-2030, which is to be drafted by the end of this year; and
— the commitments Ireland has entered into, in the context of the Natura 2000 network and the EU Birds and Habitats Directives to protect habitats and species, and the fact that Ireland is failing to meet those commitments and that biodiversity loss is continuing, as demonstrated in Ireland’s reports under Article 16 of the EU Birds and Habitats Directive;
— that Ireland was once covered by great forests and that our mild climate and the influence of the Gulf Stream make for one of the best habitats for trees in the world;
— that the Irish population wants to spend more time in nature and the public health benefits of enabling them to do so;
— the economic value of ecotourism and associated economic activities; and
— that the success of rewilding initiatives in other countries, and the plans for a recognised wilderness area in the Nephin range, as well as Coillte’s recent recognition of the amenity value of forestry in the Dublin and Wicklow mountains; and
calls on the Government to:
— make a fundamental change in forestry policy away from a narrow vision of 30 year cycle to a permanent woodland approach that would provide greater and more diverse social, environmental and economic benefits to society as a whole;
— move away from large-scale monoculture of fast-growing species such as Sitka spruce on ‘marginal land’ towards mixed, diverse forestry, with a wider range of forest types (short rotation, longer rotations, agroforestry, semi-wild) delivering a range of services and benefits and forest products;
— rebalance the premiums and payments made for planting and thinning to support this strategic change in Irish forestry;
— start the restoration of large areas of natural woodlands, formerly the dominant terrestrial ecosystems of Ireland, including the productive use of much of them through a system of continuous cover and close to nature forestry;
— begin a national programme of transformation of existing young, even-aged monoculture forests to continuous cover forestry;
— implement the recommendation of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Action, accepted and endorsed by the Dáil on 9th May, for a review of land use to inform a national land use plan;
— establish a system of local forestry plans, developed in an open participative process including all parts of civil society, in each county, informed by the national land-use plan, which would form the framework for Government support for small-scale afforestation in the county;
— use Strategic Environmental Assessment to develop these local forestry plans, to ensure the meeting of objectives, including carbon sequestration, water quality and hydrology, biodiversity protection and restoration, landscape and public amenity;
— provide for these local forestry plans to include financial support for small-scale afforestation with mixed woodland with a high proportion of native species in all parts of the country;
— provide budgetary support to enable every registered farm holding to plant a hectare of natural woodland on their land within the next five years, on agreed sites within the farm which minimise the effect on farm operations and maximise the biodiversity and ecosystem service benefits;
— develop opportunities for community ownership of and community investment in afforestation within national forestry policy and local forestry plans;
— reorient national supports and incentives for afforestation in line with the local forestry plans in the direction of forestry closer to nature;
— provide better support for the restoration and planting of new hedgerows to provide biodiversity corridors, carbon shelters and nutrients in our agricultural system;
— engage local authorities and local communities in a radical expansion of urban tree planting and neighbourhood and community forests and for urban trees and forests;
— resource the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the National Council for Forest Research and Development (COFORD) and forestry non-governmental organisations (NGOs) at a level appropriate for them to carry out all of their functions and develop new areas of responsibility;
— review the objectives and legal structure of Coillte to establish a new mandate for the company which delivers multiple benefits from forestry, including environmental and community objectives as well as the production of high-quality timber;
— establish better educational infrastructure and funding to support apprenticeship programmes in forest management in line with the new forestry policy;
— increase investment in higher and further education and training as well as for the modernisation of equipment available for craft apprenticeship provision to conduct such a transformation of existing strands; and
— promote the use of high-quality wood materials in new building construction, including by amending building regulations, and to encourage Irish enterprise agencies to further support the development of local enterprises which develop a wide range of products to use natural wood material.
I will share time with Deputy Catherine Martin after 15 minutes. This motion is introduced as part of what I believe our response should be to the climate and biodiversity crisis this House declared before the summer break. Completely changing, upgrading, modernising and reinventing the model for forestry in Irish woodlands is the biggest way in which we can tackle the climate crisis. We need to suck carbon out of the atmosphere and the best solution technologically, economically and in a variety of ways is the planting and growing of trees. As we see in reports under Article 12 of the birds directive and Article 17 of the habitats directive - not Article 16, as cited in the motion - we are also in the middle of a biodiversity crisis. Changing the model of forestry is one of the best ways to address that crisis. I will set out the reasons for that view in my opening contribution.
I move this motion while holding in high regard everyone in Irish forestry down through the years. They have achieved a transition in our country. At the foundation of the State only 1% of the country was covered in native forestry, mostly in very inaccessible locations. We have increased that to approximately 11%. That, however, is a fraction of the covered area in most European countries. The average European forest cover is approximately 30% of land area. We have significant room, particularly as a country with some of the best growing conditions for trees in the world, to increase that cover to help us tackle the climate crisis. How this is done will be critical in tackling the biodiversity crisis.
I recognise the foresters who have worked in this industry over the years. They have done so with real intent and with proper motivation. They were engaged in a proper public service. We need to recognise a number of things, however. First, the level of afforestation carried on in the country has been declining dramatically for the last 25 years or so. In 1993 we were planting in the region of 23,000 ha of forest. Last year that was down to approximately 4,000 ha. There has been a continuous downward spiral over that 25-year period.
There are 12,000 people working in this sector and they are critical to our rural areas and the country in general. While I recognise and appreciate the work of everyone who has been involved in the forestry sector I believe that, looking back, we do need to change. We have already changed but we should recognise that the change was a mistake. Much of our initial forestry, particularly State-planted forestry, was carried out on marginal uplands. These could be got at a low price, which may explain why they were chosen. These were not the right places to afforest. This choice had massive consequences with regard to the drainage of our soils, often in wet peatlands, and with regard to biodiversity loss in those areas. We often created forests that are relatively inaccessible, difficult to harvest, and not in the right place to gain the full benefit from them.
The second thing we need to recognise is that the emphasis on plantations, particularly monocultural plantations, was also a mistake. I hope the Government recognises this but I fear its reported opposition to this motion shows it still does not. It was a mistake for a variety of reasons. The first is the loss of biodiversity it entailed. This is a complex issue. The science in this regard is interesting. It is very interesting to read, "The role of planted forests in the provision of habitat: an Irish perspective" by Cormac J. O’Callaghan, Sandra Irwin, Kenneth Byrne and John O’Halloran of University College Cork and University College Dublin. It sets out in great detail the complex interactions in these plantations. In some of these monoculture plantations some species have thrived. The red squirrel survives at the top of conifers in a way the grey squirrels cannot.
That has helped them to come back. It is the same with the pine martin. The monocultural forests we have planted may have been good for midges or aphids, but they have been really poor for other insects, including spiders, and for birdlife. We want that biodiversity back in our forestry model. Even where we have made changes, requiring a mix with 10% native trees or hardwood trees with conifers, the analysis from the academics is that the monoculture plantation system is still not rich in biodiversity. At the heart of the change we make in forestry must be putting nature first and returning to close to nature forestry management that restores biodiversity in every way possible.
The recent study of the UCD department of forestry and others examined the socio-economic impact of forestry in Leitrim. Some of the statistics on the current model were particularly interesting. All our attention is on lumber and producing timber, but if we ask how much carbon storage occurs, we learn that half the timber is effectively turned into sawdust, woodchip or bark. The latter products are used immediately, meaning they have no carbon storage potential. Of the wood that is processed, about 22% is used for fencing and 24% for pallets. Only one quarter of the wood we are growing is for timber products used in the construction of buildings or in other areas where the carbon is stored for a period. Other forestry systems around Europe, which have more continuous cover and are long term, achieve much higher value and get much better wood products. That is the third reason I believe we need to change.
That is what this motion is about. It is not about criticising those currently involved in forestry. It states it is now time for us to make an evolutionary leap. I want to set out how I believe that could take place. First, we need to move away from monoculture plantations with short rotations whereby we chop down the trees every 35 or 40 years in a clear-felling system and plant again, having left the land devastated. We need to move to multi-age and multi-species forestry. Continuous cover forestry, rather than being marginal, could be central. It is complex and the forestry management skills are very sophisticated. One of the advantages of this system is that it will require a generation of foresters to be very skilled such that they can look at a forest as it is developing and say a certain tree is the one with the best prospect of growing, requiring the removal of the surrounding trees to create light within the forest. It is light management as much as anything else in the new forestry systems that deliver very high-quality, long-term timber and biodiverse natural forest. This represents the leap and change we need to make. That will provide a lot of employment because it involves skill and is very labour intensive. It will provide a continuous stream of thinnings. It would also provide a more natural forest that is actually a joy to walk through rather than the current forests, which tend to be very dark and dense do not have a bottom canopy. Every 35 years, the latter are chopped down, with consequences for water run-off and soil retention. A range of other biodiversity losses come with it.
Second, there is a considerable and immediate role for the massive expansion of agroforestry. We should, as set out in the motion, tell all of the 120,000 Irish farmers that we want to give them a special premium, especially in this difficult time when we are facing all sorts of difficulties over Brexit and uncertainty over what we are going to do to the land. We should ask them to find, with their local advisers, those spots of the farms that could be converted to native woodland. It would not involve taking from the core farming system but would involve using the corner of the field. We do not want the farmers using the wetlands areas of their farms because we want to restore them for birds and for rich habitat reasons. We want the farmers to add to the hedgerows and connect them with the pockets of woodland in our farm system, particularly using native trees of local progeny. By doing this, we are connecting up the remaining 100,000 ha of native woodland, only 20,000 ha of which is really historic and ancient. It can be connected by using our farms and paying our farmers properly to engage in this sort of agroforestry. It provides shelter and nutrients that help the fields. It gives the farmers a wood supply, an energy source and a natural landscape that is very valuable and beneficial to us as human beings.
It is vital that this also be regarded as an urban issue. It was very interesting to note that there was a special meeting called by the Pembroke residents association in Dublin last Sunday. One could not get more urban than that. At the meeting, the botany experts from Trinity and UCD made the case that urban trees have a significant role to play. Large trees with a large canopy on a street act as an air filter. They take a lot of the particulate matter from traffic and other air pollution sources and filter it before the air gets to the house, just as with sand. They restore streets to being places that comprise a natural environment in their own right. We are not building our streets around the trees.
We just carried out a massive expansion of the docklands. The academics from UCD and Trinity showed shocking maps of where trees are. They are pretty much in the wealthy, leafy suburbs, and that is it. The Phoenix Park is an example. In the docklands, which we have just redeveloped, there is hardly a tree. The poorer areas across the city, which may suffer worse from air pollution and need and deserve a rich environment, have been left bereft of a green canopy. Dublin and every other city in Ireland is relatively low down the international scale in terms of trees. The canopy proportion is about 10% compared with Helsinki, where it is about 46%. That is what we should be aiming to have.
It was very interesting to listen to Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust giving a presentation in the audiovisual room earlier today. There is an increasing realisation across the world and in the modern, very advanced leading forestry systems that, rather than opting for a very expensive and intrusive system using pesticides, glyphosates and all sorts of interventions, including the plastic wrappers we put around new trees to help them grow, we can let trees seed themselves. A canopy of scrub or brush is allowed to develop low down and out of that native trees grow on their own. They will be well suited to their location because, over hundreds of thousands of years, they will have become more resistant to diseases such as ash dieback than the imported trees that caused such a problem in recent years. Rewilding will be one of the most significant ways to meet our carbon sequestration targets and restore a landscape of which people are proud and that is rich in biodiversity.
The Minister is smiling.