Other Questions. - Afforestation Programme.

Michael D. Higgins

Ceist:

12 Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources the steps being taken to ensure Coillte Teoranta plants a greater proportion of broadleaf trees, having regard to the concerns expressed by environmental organisations regarding the impact of the level of conifer planting; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17395/01]

Funding for the current afforestation programme is provided for in the CAP rural development plan, 2000-06, which was agreed following lengthy discussions with the European Commission. A significant feature of this plan is an increase in the target for broadleaf planting. This target, which was agreed with the European Commission, is for 30% of broadleaves by the end of 2006. The target for broadleaf planting up to and including 1999 was 20%, which we have already achieved.

Last year's planting by Coillte was 1,464 hectares out of a total of 15,655 hectares planted. The main reason for this low level of planting by Coillte was the decision of the European Commission to regard Coillte as ineligible for forestry premium payments. It was not possible for Coillte in such circumstances to undertake large scale afforestation for economic reasons. Pending the conclusion of the legal action taken against the European Commission, Coillte is effectively precluded on the basis of commercial criteria from acquiring additional lands for the purpose of undertaking new planting.

The broadleaf planting target is to be viewed on a national planting basis. On an individual site basis there is a 10% broadleaf requirement subject to soil and site suitability. Generally broadleaf species require better quality arable-type land which is not the situation for conifers.

Additional Information.The main consideration when planting is the suitability of the tree species to the site and soil conditions. Forestry inspectors from my Depart ment include this in their operational recommendations on afforestation applications. It is Department policy that diversity of species should be introduced into all plantations where possible and broadleaves planted where suitable. It should be pointed out that all afforestation applications whether from Coillte or private applicants are subject to the same provisions. I understand concerns expressed by environmental organisations were addressed during the consultation stage of Coillte's certification by the Forest Stewardship Council, FSC. The announcement of this award was made last month. Certification is awarded in respect of the practice of sustainable forest management and covers the social, economic and ecological aspects of forestry.

The practice of afforestation in Ireland is subject to the principles of sustainable forest management. These principles address the social, economic and ecological aspects of forestry. All afforestation projects are subject to compliance with the national forest standard and the code of best forest practice published in September 2000. In addition, compliance with a series of environmental guidelines is a condition of grant aid. The relevant guidelines are: forestry and water quality; forestry and biodiversity; forestry and archaeology; forestry and the landscape; forest harvesting and the environment. These were also published in September 2000.

The national climate change strategy recognises the beneficial aspects of forestry, in particular in countering greenhouse gases and in its role as a carbon sequestrator. It is worth noting that conifers are particularly well suited in this regard. These species play a significant role as a carbon sequestrator. It is estimated that on average one hectare of Sitka spruce absorbs 3.3 tonnes of carbon per year while broadleaves absorb 1.3 tonnes. Over its rotation, one hectare of conifers will remove approximately 100 tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere, per hectare making them exceptionally efficient in combating the greenhouse gas effect.

Would the Minister of State comment on members of the farming community's preference for conifers over broadleaf species?

In relation to the achievement of the targets for broadleaf planting, will the Minister of State outline the comparison between plantings by Coillte and those of other agencies? Is there a difference between the two and, if so, why?

There is no significant difference. With regard to Deputy Bell's question, it is obvious that timber can be produced more quickly from conifers than from broadleaves. Since farmers are business people, it is only to be expected that they would choose to plant conifers. We have to achieve our target in relation to broadleaf planting. Everyone likes broadleaf trees but conifers are extremely important because they can remove far more carbon from the atmosphere than broadleaf trees.

The Minister of State should make a brief reply to Deputy Dukes's question because we must proceed to the Adjournment.

I have already done so. The difference is insignificant.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.