It has been Government policy for many years to increase the level of afforestation in Ireland. Forestry has many well-established advantages. It provides a viable alternative land use and an additional income stream for land owners, especially on less productive land. It stimulates economic activity in rural areas. Forestry now employs over 12,000 people and is worth €2.3 billion per annum to the Irish economy. It contributes greatly to climate change by soaking up and storing carbon. It also contributes to water quality and biodiversity.
The State encourages land owners to plant their land with trees through various tax concessions and financial incentives which cover the full cost of establishment. Although forestry brings many benefits, most of the financial benefits to land owners accrue some 30-40 years after planting when the forest reaches its optimum financial rotation. This time lag creates a difficulty for land owners who plant their land.
It is in this context that grants and premiums along with tax incentives are regarded by the State as the most effective way to encourage land owners to plant their land with trees in respect of both broadleaves and conifers. Without these incentives only a very small amount of land would be planted; this is borne out by the low level of planting that took place before the 1980s and before the introduction of the western package afforestation scheme (WPS). In the ten years prior to the introduction of the WPS in the 1980s the average annual rate of private afforestation was 227 hectares per annum. In 2016, the area planted was just under 6,500 hectares.
The aim of the Forestry Programme 2014 – 2020 is to establish almost 43,410 hectares of new forests during the 6 year programme period.
Forest area in Ireland is measured every five years as part of the national forest inventory. The 2012 inventory recorded a total of 731,650 hectares or 10.5% of the total land area of Ireland under forestry. Total forest cover in Munster and Leinster combined is 10.7% and for remaining counties located in the west of Ireland (Donegal, Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo) the level of forest cover is also 10.7%. With regard to the level of forest cover in these regions in 2020, an indication of this will be provided in the 2017 and 2022 national forest inventories. Given that the total planting target under the new forestry programme represents an increase in forest cover of just 0.6%, the increase on a regional basis is not expected to be significant.