I would like first of all to congratulate the participants in the youth assembly forum and to commend their interest in expanding Ireland's overall forest cover. There has been a significant expansion in the forest estate from 1% at the turn of the 20th century to 770,000 hectares or 11% today, but this is indeed well short of the EU average. It is our clear intention, as outlined in the Climate Action Plan, to increase this percentage by facilitating the planting of 8,000 hectares per year.
Support for afforestation is delivered through the generous grants and premiums available, across 12 different planting categories which offer real options to suit every landowner. Under this afforestation scheme, my Department covers 100% of the cost of establishing new forests and also provides annual premium payments which are paid for 15 years. It is notable that during the course of the Forestry Programme so far, this approach has resulted in 2,500 farmers planting a total of 16,000 hectares of forestry on their land.
In relation to setting aside 10% of agricultural land for forestry, I believe that farmers must make choices that suit their individual farming enterprises. I would rather present forestry as a viable option for farmers to supplement their farming enterprise, rather than having a compulsory set aside area.
However, we will be introducing a new forestry programme in due course, and that will provide an opportunity to review the current schemes and configure them to maximise the incentive to plant forestry.