Forests in Ireland have multifunctional benefits and it is for this reason that the State continues to invest heavily in new afforestation. The Government's Climate Action Plan 2019 recognises the key role afforestation has to play in climate change mitigation particularly through carbon sequestration.
The Climate Action Plan now sets a target of an average of 8,000 hectares of new planting per year.
While planting rates in recent years have been less than expected, I believe this is due to a number of factors, including competiton for land and increasing land prices in recent years. The role of my Department is to secure an annual budget for new forests and also to act as the planning authority in assessing applications for these new sites. It is worth noting that we have approved an average of 9,000 hectares per annum for afforestation over the last 3 years, but the conversion rate to planting remains on average around 60% of the approval issued. This means the Irish forestry sector currently has at its disposal almost 10,000 hectares of approved and shovel-ready land which could be planted today. The challenge is to ensure that all the effort that goes into securing and approving new sites results in those sites being planted, if the planting levels are to increase.
In response, my Department has funded a number of new promotion initiatives. We are funding Teagasc to carry out a Forestry Promotion Campaign covering the period 2018 – 2020 specifically aimed at farmers. My Department has also funded a carbon navigator for forestry that will help illustrate to farmers the valuable contribution forestry can make in removing carbon from our atmosphere. This new tool will be launched later this year. Furthermore, 15 promotion projects around the Country were approved earlier this year, which will roll out initiatives which highlight the multifunctional benefits of forestry, promote planting of more trees and encourage sustainable forest management.
We also introduced higher rates and additional measures under the midterm review of the Forestry Programme in 2018, aimed particularly at boosting the planting of broadleaves and native woodlands. These measures have paid off and, so far, broadleaf planting has increased from 21% in 2017 to 27% in 2018. There has been an increase in Native Woodlands planted too, with 172 hectares planted so far in 2019, up over 95% compared to the previous year.
Another interesting development has been the launch of the Woodland Environmental Fund in September, 2018 This provides an opportunity for businesses to partner with the Government and Irish landowners and get behind the national effort to plant an additional 5 million native trees between now and 2020.
It is clear that we need all actors to participate in the national afforestation programme, which is why I very much welcome Coillte's recently announced Coillte Nature initiative. The primary objective of this initiative is to deliver new woodlands which provide species diversity, biodiversity, have carbon sequestration potential and can be used for enjoyment by the public. We have had active engagement with Coillte on this matter and now look forward to receiving applications for the conversion of a number of Coillte's commercial forests to native woodland, which may be funded under the Native Woodland Conservation Scheme. I am aware too that Coillte has started discussions with Bord na Mona in relation to possibilities for a joint venture to increase native forest cover on Bord na Mona lands, something which I am supportive of and hope will contribute to our afforestation targets.
My Department also operates a community based woodland scheme called the Neighbourwood scheme. This Scheme is designed to help community groups, in cooperation with local authorities, to develop opportunities for recreation while creating and developing woodlands for the benefit of current and future generations. The scheme is also designed to provide outdoor classrooms for teachers to show children the important contribution forests make to society in terms of social, economic and environmental benefits.
As can be seen, a range of approaches are being taken to address the challenge of increasing planting and especially the proportion of native and broadleaf planting. We will continue to offer generous grants and premiums to landowners to make the switch to forestry, we will use all avenues to promote and support that change, as well as supporting Coillte's endeavours and we will examine how forestry can be better integrated into the new CAP. I firmly believe that all of these measures will lead to an increase in our forestry land cover.