First of all I’d like to acknowledge the excellent publication received from the Irish Forestry and Forest Products Association which gave a very interesting overview of the forestry sector. It contains some facts and figures which are very valuable to the debate.
It is worth putting on record that in 2012, the forestry sector contributed some €2.2 billion to the Irish economy. Overall, afforestation levels are about 10.5%. While that is low compared to many of our European counterparts, it is increasing and is a good deal higher than it was before. This is important and positive. It is an indigenous commodity and a rural-based industry providing jobs for rural Ireland. It is an export-led industry with some 78% of products being exported. That is very positive.
Regarding my area, I acknowledge the role of ECC Timber Products Limited in Corr na Mona in Connemara in County Galway and the importance of that company to the local economy in bringing in and processing timber from long distances. The industry has good projections into the future, which is positive. Some 731,650 hectares of land are afforested. The State owns about 54% and private plantations own 46%. It contributes 1.3% of GDP and employs some 12,000 people. As Deputy Harrington said, some 18 million recreational visits are made to Irish forests, which is a huge industry in its own right and relates to the use people make of our forests in rural areas, particularly broad-leaf plantations. It is good to see that since the revised support scheme was put in place in 1996, broad-leaf plantations have increased and some 38% of new plantings in 2010 were broad leaf.
Forests play a huge role not just in respect of the industry and the importance of exports but also in terms of the landscape of our rural society. Our hedgerows also play a role. A treeless landscape would be a lesser landscape for locals and visitors alike. One of the most common landscape trees is our ash tree. It is also very important to the broad-leaf sector because it is the most important broad-leaf tree in Ireland. I commend the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Tom Hayes; the previous Minister of State, Shane McEntee; and Department officials on the very positive measures and engagement they have had on this issue, which can still have very serious consequences for our ash trees, indigenous industry and forestry industry. As an island, Ireland is possibly in a unique position regarding the ability to eradicate this disease where other countries only have the possibility of containing it. I commend those involved.
One issue that has been brought to my attention concerns the EU national renewable energy action plan. The welcome targets include one of 16% of Ireland’s energy to be met from renewable sources and another that all peat-fired power generation stations would be 30% co-fired with wood biomass by 2020. Some concerns have been raised within the sector regarding its ability to meet this target without using some of the more valuable timber products as distinct from the biomass per se. It would be a matter of concern if in order to meet these targets in our peat-fired stations, they would have to burn timber that was more valuable as a commodity in terms of further processing. That is a something to keep an eye in the future as those targets are raised.
Section 6(a)(ii) refers to the aerial fertilisation of forests. I am not sure how much of that goes on anymore. To the best of my knowledge, it has ceased in my area in Connemara following much concern about the pollution of our streams, rivers and lakes. Obviously, the use of high levels of rock phosphate in forestry plantations can lead to it leaching into lakes following aerial application and cause eutrophication or algal blooms in our waterways. I am not sure how much of that is going on at the moment. If it is, I am sure there are stringent plans in terms of applications, rates, timing of applications, weather conditions when applications are made and proximity of applications to existing streams, rivers and lakes. I am sure that is in the plan and if not, it should be.
Section 6(b) talks about forest management plans and conditions that could be attached to these plans. It is a requirement that is laid down in the functions the Minister of State has in terms of the environmental responsibility that will ensue with this Bill and that is important. I hope the costs that might be associated with those will not be prohibitive.
Section 6(e) talks about powers regarding compulsory purchase of lands that would be deemed suitable. That could be contentious if those powers are pursued. I appreciate that there is much land that is very much suited to forestry. When I prepared REPS plans in the past, I was obliged to declare those plots which were most suited to forestry plantations. Powers as outlined in section 6(e) could be contentious.
Section 14 relates to the risk of fires from uncultivated land. It is somewhat similar to the discussion we had on other issues regarding land abandonment and under-utilisation of large tracts of land, particularly commonage land. Again, instead of penalising farmers, it would be better if the Department was more focused on making sure under-utilised and commonage lands were utilised to their full potential, which would reduce the possibility of fires coming from those areas. I agree that under-utilised and under-grazed land is a significant risk to our forests. Rather than penalising farmers, perhaps the way to go is for the Department to put in place policies to ensure those lands are better utilised.
I welcome the description of exempted trees in section 18 and definitions and understandings contained therein such as invasive trees, scrub trees or willow, which will be utilised for fuel. I have concerns about the plight of the native holly tree. Could any protection be put in place for this tree? I am not talking about people taking a sprig or branch of holly for decorations coming up to Christmas. Cutting the full tree and the full berries would be of concern to me in respect of rural Ireland because they are scarce and unfortunately, there have been cases of people cutting a full tree to sell on the markets in various places.
I could not find where it was stipulated in the Bill but I see in the explanatory memorandum that the Minister has discretion to set conditions for the felling licence which will include the waiving of the requirement to replant following clear felling. I understand the requirements to replant, which are based on the fact that the State is putting huge resources into forestry and that when land is forested and clear felled, it wants to mandate people to replant. However, we must take note of certain situations, particularly in SACs or forested lands in close proximity to SACs, which would be lakes and rivers in my area. Anglers have raised concerns with me about that and how it should be easier to receive a derogation in those cases. No more than aerial fertilisation, certain types of trees such as Sitka spruce and certain types of pine can be damaging to our waterways because of needles falling into the water and causing acidification. This is possibly under the management plans and I know there is certification that certain bodies have in respect of realistic mandatory riparian zones along lakes and waterways and that peatlands should not be planted down to the edge of lakes, streams or rivers. That was something that was looked for as well. There has been a change with regard to clear felling which is now more piecemeal than before. Again, there were concerns about large-scale clear felling on peatlands which would lead to leaching of nutrients into streams, rivers and lakes in high-rainfall areas in the west, which would have a negative impact. That is not to overemphasise those concerns.
Forestry has huge potential for our economy and is very important to the rural economy and job creation. I welcome the positive increases in broad-leaf tree planting over the years in terms of aesthetics and the very welcome and important environmental benefits that come from those type of trees. I commend the Minister and his officials for the work they have done on this Bill and hope it will lay the foundations for a further increase in levels and hectarage of commercial forestry planted in this country.