The afforestation schemes provide attractive grants and premiums to incentivise the planting of agricultural land by farmers and other landowners, to support the continued development of a viable and sustainable national forest resource.
All applications submitted to my Department for approval to undertake afforestation are examined regarding the suitability of the site from a silvicultural, productivity and environmental perspective. This includes an evaluation of site productivity issues such as soil type, fertility, exposure and access, and an assessment of any potential environmental impact of the project on water quality, nature conservation, archaeology and landscape.
Certain sites are less suited for forestry. Poorer quality site types are predominantly peat and are often characterised by poor fertility, high elevation and constrained by poor access, wind stability issues, high fire risk, etc. These poor site types are also very sensitive from an environmental perspective and have limited timber productivity. In the current economic climate, my Department is not prioritising the use of limited Exchequer funds to support the establishment of new forests on such sites, on silvicultural, site productivity and environmental grounds.
My Department has a legal responsibility to ensure that every hectare approved for afforestation complies with requirements set out under various environmental European Directives such as the Birds and Habitats Directives, the EIA Directive and the Water Framework Directive, and with corresponding national legislation. This will ensure that the ongoing expansion of the national forest resource is compatible with the protection of Ireland's environment. My Department is in regular communications with the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), Inland Fisheries Ireland, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and with other bodies, to ensure an ongoing streamlining of procedures to ensure the afforestation programme is compliant with the legislation outlined above. Changes to the restrictions in place to enable more farmers to plant are continually being looked at by my Department within this context.
A Working Group will be established shortly by my Department to examine the future management of existing forests on peatlands. The group will also be examining the afforestation options with regard to unenclosed land. The priority must be to ensure that limited financial resources are targeted towards lands that provide the best value for money with a view to expanding the forest estate so that it can be sustainably and economically managed into the future. Planting on unenclosed land has represented a very small proportion of total planting in recent years (i.e. 7% and 5% in 2009 and 2010 respectively).
In relation to projected roundwood supply and demand, the All Ireland Roundwood Forecast, published by my Department in 2011, estimates that annual net realisable roundwood volume production will increase to 4.94 million cubic metres by 2020. The All Ireland Roundwood Demand Forecast, also published by my Department in 2011, estimates that annual demand for roundwood will increase to c. 6.04 million cubic metres by 2020, including an estimated demand of 3.08 million cubic metres of wood biomass for energy purposes.