The planting targets are set out in the 1996 strategic plan for forestry, Growing for the Future. The plan envisaged annual planting levels of up to 25,000 hectares up to the end of 2000 and 20,000 hectares thereafter.
As the Deputy is aware, these ambitious targets have not been met in recent years because of a number of factors, including competition with agricultural schemes and premium levels. The shortfall in planting levelsvis-à-vis targets and the need to get planting back to the target levels was reviewed in the context of the formulation of the rural development plan, 2000-06. It is envisaged that planting levels in the next few years will be of the following order: 2001, 16,000 hectares; 2002, 18,000 hectares; 2003, 20,000 hectares.
As indicated, it is expected that the planting level of 20,000 will be reached in 2003. Significant funding of around £540 million has been provided for afforestation under the rural development plan. Last year I announced average increases of around 30% in both the grant and premium levels. This has had a positive impact in terms of planting in 2000. I have also secured agreement in principle on the inclusion of a mid-term review under the rural development plan. Given the combination of these factors, I am confident that planting levels will increase on an incremental basis.
I also remind the Deputy of the revised framework in which forestry activities are undertaken. Last year my Department published a suite of environmental measures. These included an Irish forest standard, a code of best forest practice and five environmental guidelines. This is further evidence of my commitment to ensuring all forestry activities are carried out in accordance with the principles of sustainable forest management.
Additional Information.The Government's recently published national climate change strategy recognised the strategic importance of forestry and called for an intensification of the planting programme. On the issue of backdating of premiums for those who planted pre-2000, I have sought to secure increases for the people concerned. It was not possible, despite our every effort, to persuade the European Commission, which remained steadfast in its opposition. The possibility of the Exchequer bearing the full cost for such was considered. However, in view of other calls on the Exchequer, it is not possible for the Government to do so in the current year. I will continue to pursue this matter. I am confident that future prospects for the forestry sector are good, given the particular considerations to which I have already referred.