Forestry - the height of a good investment

Report on forestry in Leitrim confirms huge local benefits

Sept. 5, 2019

A report commissioned by Minister Andrew Doyle into the socio economic impacts of forestry on the county. The full report can be downloaded here, but some of the most salient points, as highlighted by UCD’s Dr Áine Ní Dhubháin and her associates are: 1. The agricultural land use in County Leitrim is primarily grassland which is found on poorly drained soils of low fertility. Many of farms in the county are likely to include High Nature Value (HNV) farmland.

  1. The percentage forest cover in Co. Leitrim in 2017 was 18.9%. This is the highest percentage forest cover among all counties and is substantially higher than the national level of 11.0%. Sitka spruce is the dominant species in the forests in the county, accounting for 61.3% of the total forest area. This is higher than the national figure of 51.0%. Native species account for 30.7% of the forest area in the county.

  2. The growth rates of trees in the county are high; for Sitka spruce in private stands growth rates are estimated to be 20% higher than the average in private stands nationally.

  3. One of the main aims of Government policy with respect to forestry is to expand the percentage forest cover in the entire country. It is currently 11% and the aim is to reach 18% nationally by the year 2046. Incentives in the form of establishment grants and annual premiums have been available to landowners since 1990 and higher premium payments have traditionally been available to farmers to encourage greater rates of farmer participation in afforestation. This situation changed in 2014, when farmers and non-farmers were deemed eligible for the same rate of premium payment for the first time.

  4. An earlier study of forestry and land use in Co. Leitrim, the Leitrim Resource study, conducted in the 1970s, identified the potential of the land in the county for forestry. It also identified a very strong resistance amongst farmers in the county to selling land for afforestation. At the time afforestation was almost exclusively carried out by the State.

  5. To find out more about the owners of forests in Co. Leitrim, a survey of a sample of owners was conducted as part of this study. The main findings are:  **Just over two-thirds of owners of forests in Co. Leitrim had planted forests on their own land;  Twenty-six percent were investors (i.e. they bought land/forest purposely for investment);  Five percent had inherited their forest;  Just over 30% of the forest owners were not resident in Co. Leitrim (half of these were from neighbouring counties);  The average size of an individual forest plot was 6.92 hectares. Forty percent had planted more than one plot. The average total area planted per owner was 14.0 hectares.  Seventy-five percent of owners were farmers (full-time, part-time and retired). **

  6. The social impacts of forestry were addressed using qualitative research methods. The aim was not to achieve a demographically balanced and representative sample of the opinions of the population of Co. Leitrim, but instead to understand the range of opinions held by people regarding forestry in the county. The main source of the information came from interviews held with 23 interviewees who were selected purposively to capture a range of opinions. Information from a survey of forest owners and voluntary written submissions provided additional information. The issues that emerged from the interviews were later grouped into themes. The major themes include those relating to forestry as a land use, forestry’s role in the community, and forest policy. A strong divergence of opinion was noted for most of the themes.

  7. The economic impact of forestry for Co. Leitrim (and the associated employment) was assessed. A base year of 2017 was chosen. The analysis estimated that a total of 50.3 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs were generated for Leitrim residents as a result of forestry activity in the county in that year; a further 25.0 FTE jobs were generated for non-Leitrim residents. An additional 76.0 Co. Leitrim residents had employment in forestry outside of the county. Thus a total of 151.3 FTE jobs were generated as a result of forestry activity in Co. Leitrim in 2017. Wood processing in the county generated a further 158.0 full-time equivalents, half of whom were residents of Co. Leitrim. Thus,** in total 309.3 FTE jobs were associated with forestry/wood processing in Co. Leitrim in 2017.**

  8. An estimate of the direct economic activity associated with forestry in Co. Leitrim in 2017 is €15.0 million. The economic activity associated with wood processing is €11.5 million in 2017, giving a **total of €26.5 million economic activity associated with forestry/wood processing in 2017 in Co. Leitrim. **

  9. A comparative assessment of the relativity of forestry and farm incomes was undertaken, using a micro-simulation modelling approach and discounted cashflow analysis. Based on this approach, the estimated overall percentage of farms in Co. Leitrim where the return from forestry (on a per hectare basis) would be higher than that from agriculture is 67%.

11. The total carbon stock in Co. Leitrim forests is estimated to be 12,606,000 tonnes.

  1. Several Coillte-owned, recreation forests are located in Co. Leitrim, but visitor numbers to these are not available. Private forests are generally not available for public recreation. Our survey of forest owners indicated that some used their forests for recreation. A small percentage (16%) said they allowed others to recreate in their forests.

  2. Available data on the biodiversity associated with forestry in Co. Leitrim is limited. The forest owners surveyed indicated that the following tree species were found in their forests: alder, ash, birch, oak, rowan, sycamore, beech, larch, Sitka spruce, Norway spruce, lodgepole pine, western red cedar, “cypress” and Douglas fir. Sitka spruce was by far the dominant species. The survey of forest owners also provided some information about the fauna within private forests. Forest owners reported sighting a variety of animal and bird species in their forest, most commonly rabbit/hares, badgers and pine martens.

  3. Forests can have negative and positive effects on water quality. Water monitoring data from Co. Leitrim indicated that 36 water bodies have been identified as being at risk of not meeting their Water Framework Directive (WFD) status objectives. The most significant pressure leading to this “at risk” status is agriculture, accounting for 42.9% of the at-risk water bodies. Hydromorphology (16.3%), forestry (14.3%), invasive species (8.2%), anthropogenic pressures (6.1%), industry (4.1%), urban waste water (4.1%), urban run-off (2%) and extractive industries (2%) are also identified as significant pressures. Within the WFD, some water bodies are classified as having a high ecological status. Of the eight high status objective waterbodies in Co. Leitrim four are at risk and four are not at risk. Agriculture has been defined as the sole significant pressure for two of the sites, with peat (extractive industry) identified along with agriculture for another waterbody. The fourth waterbody has hydromorphology listed as a sole significant pressure. Hydromorphology includes sediment/drainage issues and thus may be a pressure as a result of forestry land use.

  4. Since 1989, a condition for receipt of grant-aid for afforestation has been the compatibility of forestry development with the protection of the environment. Guidelines, which are now Regulations, were introduced in 1992 and were further expanded and replaced by Environmental Regulations with respect to Afforestation in 2016. The Regulations are extensive, but a key element is setbacks (or buffers in earlier versions). From 1992, forests had to be set back from public roads, houses, rivers and archaeological features. Setback distances have been expanded a number of times.

  5. Since 2000, the issuing of felling licences was accompanied by the condition that the felling and planting that took place should be in accordance with the Guidelines that applied at the time. This implies that second (or more) rotation forests established since 2000 should have complied with the setback (buffer) distances specified in the guidelines at that time.

  6. Inspections are carried out by Forest Service District Inspectors (DIs) to ensure compliance with regulations. All applications for afforestation licences are desk assessed by DIs. An estimated 61% of afforestation sites were visited in 2018 in advance of an afforestation licence being issued; a similar percentage was field inspected after stand establishment in that year and a slightly higher percentage, i.e. 67%, was field inspected before the final grant payment was made. Inspection rates for forests in Co. Leitrim are similar to these national rates. Field inspection rates for felling licences are much lower; nationally, 19% of all applications for felling licences in 2018 were field inspected by DIs. Inspection rates for felling licences in Co. Leitrim were lower than the average. The county has the second highest number of applications for felling licences.

  7. Since the Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC) was established in 2018, a total of 189 appeals have been submitted to it, 25% of these relate to Co. Leitrim. All bar one were third party appeals. With respect to afforestation appeals that have been heard to date, the decision in the majority of cases has been to uphold the decision of the Minister to grant the afforestation licence. For almost one third of the appeals, the FAC varied the conditions of the licence. Of the four decisions to date to cancel the granting of licences, one of these was a successful appeal made by an applicant against a decision not to grant an afforestation licence.