Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Questions (10)

Mick Wallace


10. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the percentage of managed forest that is planted with sitka spruce; the timeline during which the trees are allowed to grow before they are felled; the end use for the trees in terms of percentage for timber, biomass and so on; the pesticides, insecticides and fungicides used on Sitka spruce; the average use of each per square metre of managed Sitka spruce plantations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5674/19]

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Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

We spoke earlier about the beef and dairy sectors and the many indirect forms of emissions, pollution and damage to the environment they may cause. The carbon sequestration through afforestation programme, which has expanded alongside the expansion of the dairy herd in an ill-thought-out attempt to promote another short-term cash crop, is supposed to help dig us out of our emissions problem. Can the Minister explain how this might help?

Government policy on forestry is to incentivise private planting of forests given the many economic, environmental and social benefits that forests are proven to deliver. More recently, we have amended this policy to increase species diversity within the national forest estate and increasing afforestation levels across all planting categories supported with higher rates reserved for broadleaf species. Under the current forestry programme, new species have been added to the mix to create more diversity and to target climate change mitigation.

Sitka spruce occupies 343,311 hectares or 51.1% of Ireland's total forested area.

As one of our fastest growing tree species, clearfell typically takes place between 35 and 40 years. It has been grown successfully for over 80 years and it has proven itself to be one of the most productive coniferous species grown in Ireland and, as such, has become the industry’s mainstay in terms of timber processing and end markets. In terms of end use of trees, roundwood harvesting, including firewood, in 2017 was 3.54 million cu. m, the highest level since records began. The majority of this timber was harvested from Sitka spruce plantations. Of this total, 42% was used for energy purposes, making an important contribution to our renewable energy targets. The balance was used to produce 1.05 million cu. m of sawn softwood, mostly for construction, 0.14 million cu. m of round stakes for fencing and 0.84 cu. m of wood-based panels.

In 2017, exports of forest products from the Republic of Ireland were €423 million, an increase of 11.3% on 2016. Wood-based panels accounted for €224 million with the balance comprising paper and sawn timber exports.

As regards the use of pesticides, insecticides and fungicides, there is a relatively low use of these products in the forestry sector. Chemicals may only be used that are statutorily approved as safe to use in forestry by the regulator.

The evidence coming my way is different. Forest management in Ireland is in crisis and we are creating another environmental disaster by doing what is immediately, financially and politically expedient rather than what is good for the people of our country, the Irish environment and the future of the planet. We have the second-lowest tree cover in the EU after Malta, which means we need to dramatically increase our forest cover but over-reliance on conifer-dominated forestry plantations, in particular Sitka spruce, is unsustainable. These are dark, dead forest plantations designed to be felled for profit. It is not safe to enter a forest because of the dependence on chemicals, despite what the Minister said. One would not want to anyway, as they do not support any flora or fauna, they destroy water quality and they acidify soils. Why does the Department not support more sustainable native tree cover initiatives, which are better at absorbing pollution and converting it to carbon? They do not require fertilisers or pesticides, unlike current commercial non-native tree plantations.

The Deputy has made a lot of assertions and claims that are completely unfounded. It is wrong to say that spruce does not sequester carbon and a life-cycle analysis of spruce conifers, as compared with hardwoods and broadleaf trees, shows that they are the same in this regard. The mid-term review was approved last year. The Directorates General responsible for the environment and agriculture scrutinised the proposals and approved them. They include a requirement that all plantations contain a species mix, including up to 15% broadleafs. There needs to be up to 15% biodiversity with setback areas away from streams, rivers, roads and houses. In acid-sensitive areas, water has to be tested for four months before any plantation can be approved.

The Deputy should check out his facts before he makes assertions such as he has made. Does he not accept that this has been a major contributor to the rural economy? Trees sequester carbon. Moreover, we have acceptance from the main farming bodies that growing trees are an essential part of their overall effort.

We are probably reading different research. The Minister of State should send his to me and I will send mine to him. John Murray of the Murray Timber Group has gone on record to say:

Sitka spruce, while there seems to be an awful lot of talk about monoculture, is the equivalent of a Friesian cow - that's what it does for the industry. The nearest performer, as a native Irish cow, produces one third of what a Friesian produces - I know the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA ) would be up in arms if they were told to change all of their cows to that.

Mr. Murray may not have intended to do so but he actually nailed what is going on. He is saying that Sitka spruce is a monoculture. It is destructive but it is currently profitable, much the same as in the monoculture of dairy farming, which is destructive but profitable for the time being. The IFA and the timber industry have both told the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine what is what. Any consideration of what is not profitable but which may be good for the future of farming, and any consideration of the value of our surroundings or the world we live in, is completely off the table as long as the agribusiness giants are telling the Department what do.

I am not sure if the Deputy has heard of the efforts to promote the bioeconomy to replace the fossil economy. I visited Finland last year, where 73% of land cover is in three species of forestry. We sometimes forget that conifers include native Scots pine and Douglas fir. The three species in Finland are birch - which is a broadleaf hardwood - Scots pine and Norway spruce. They have developed a circular bioeconomy and are replacing all sorts of fossil-based product with bio-based products.

Are those species native to that region?

No. Norway spruce is, but Scots pine is native to this country. Birch is one of the bigger broadleaf species.

Are we planting Douglas fir?

Yes. I can get the statistics for the Deputy.

We must move on so that we are fair to other Members.