Minister of State Pippa Hackett.

‘The current model hasn’t worked’

Minister Pippa Hackett has positioned herself to embark on a total rethink of forestry in the Republic. If she’s good to her word, forestry will be radically altered in the coming years with an emphasis on planting on a far greater scale than ever before, with more broadleaf, whilst seeking buy-in from the public.

The new Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity has adopted a radically different approach from the previous incumbent in the forestry seat, Andrew Doyle. The Fine Gael man had his own commercial forest in Wicklow. He regarded Sitka as the “bread and butter” of forestry. Sitka is often branded a monocrop, but he would stress the 15% requirement for biodiversity (up from 10% in his tenure). When a clearfelling was described as a post apocalyptic scene he highlighted the requirement to replant within two years. He rejected criticism of the application process from those saying it lacked accountability, and resisted giving credence to the concerns expressed by communities who felt they were swamped by conifers and pointed back to the money it generated for rural communities and most importantly, jobs. Even with a pro-industry, pro-sitka minister, afforestation rates have withered away.

To quote Minister Hackett: “The current model hasn’t worked.”

While there are any number of targets for afforestation, the one the IFA cite is 8,000ha per annum under the Republic’s climate change commitments. The association’s Vincent Nally suspects this year the sector would be doing well to hit between 2,000-2,500ha. Forestry was deemed “essential” so, the stunting effect of Coronavirus can’t entirely explain the shortfall.

Pressed for her own target, Minister Hackett is evasive, giving the impression of reluctance to be tied to the 8,000ha that’s seemingly impossible to achieve. Far from it. She claims that the Programme for Government commitments has “superceded” the climate action plan, although it is silent on targets.

“The previous Climate Action Plan isn’t going to be enough,” she insists. “We are really looking at a much greater level than 8,000ha per year. And we’re nowhere near the 8,000 at the moment so something significant is going to have to happen to allow us to reach the targets we need to reach...

“Afforestation is not where it really should be, we have problems there and there’s a lot to be fixed.”

She outlines the sometimes competing interests, providing timber for the industry, its value as an amenity, its contribution to air quality and carbon sequestering, and if undertaken responsibly its contribution to water and soil quality.

“That’s probably partially why we are where we are,” surmises the super junior. “We haven’t addressed those issues holistically, we have probably over focused in the last 15-20 years on the industry side and we can see the problems that has caused in certain areas with afforestation of monocrops and the difficulties some communities have with that, and rightly so. Moving forward we’re going to have to get that balance much more improved.”

Both ends of the sector is congested. If you apply for a licence to plant now you’re likely to face a two year wait for a decision. At the other end, sawmills are struggling to get timber – supply of Sitka has dried up as licences for clearfelling get ensnared in legal actions. The delays are largely down to environmental activists recording some notable successes in challenging the secondary legislation underpinning the planting and clearfelling of forestry, contending it is not compliant with EU law.

Since the Celt interviewed the minister, activists in West Cavan, Leitrim and environmental NGO ‘The Pillar’ have had time to digest her draft bill aimed at aligning the licensing and appeals processes with the planning processes. The bill was published within weeks of her taking office and signalled the minister’s intention to overhaul the system. Many environmentalists however are calling for a rejection of the draft bill on the basis that it would limit those who can appeal to “relevant persons”, and only specified environmental bodies.

The impact of the legal wrangles has seen some timber firms reportedly begin to lay off staff.

“The timber industry is in a pretty bad state at the moment because they don’t know where they’re going to get their wood from,” said Minister Hackett.

Freeing up that flow of mature, ready to harvest wood is top of her agenda: “We really have to get on top of that - get it moving as swift as possible.”

In a press statement Minister Hackett repeated the oft-used environmentalist phrase of “the right trees in the right places”. Can a Sitka spruce ever be the right tree?

She begins by acknowledging that the Sitka, which accounts for 51% of trees planted, “largely supports that timber sector”, then adds: “However the way it has been planted in the past has been wrong. The way it has been planted is not the way it will be planted in the future because it’s just not right, it’s damaging for environmental reasons, it’s damaging for communities, and that model will absolutely not be the same moving forward,” she said suggesting her shade of Green hasn’t faded with acceptance of the ministerial seal.

Getting the timber sector moving, engaging with communities, increasing afforestation rates and overhauling the application and appeals process - her in-tray is crammed, yet she’s seemingly adding work for herself. Few would expect her to address established forests.

“The problem is we have legacy issues,” she volunteers. “It takes a long time.”

She gives the example of trees that have been planted 15 years ago, will be with communities for at least another 15 years. “They’re going to be there for a while longer and that’s problematic. It’s not as if we can fix it all up in the next few years.

“That in itself has to be examined and looked at - are there flexible ways or mechanisms of improving the situations in those communities that are impacted by such monoculture plantations, is there something we could do?

“I don’t know, but maybe that’s something worth considering and I would certainly love to hear from people and groups who might have suggestions to improve the situation.”

The Celt is surprised that she could act retrospectively on existing plantations; she replies she’s just “putting it out there”.

As the topic turns to farmers she observes their traditional aversion to forestry - “There has been a negative connotation,” she says, “you are planting now, and not farming.”

She believes forestry, particularly, agro-forestry should be regarded in a positive light. She explains that in this system land can still be grazed, silage cut, and even, by planting in certain ways, tillage remains a possibility.

“See it as adding value to your farm, because I think in many places people see it as devaluing their farm, and that’s sad.”

Many who are concerned by the visual impact of huge swathes of conifer plantations blanking out the countryside, are equally appalled by their removal through clear-felling. Minister Hackett is averse to the practice.

“It gets to a certain stage and boom it’s all gone in 30 years and you have to replant it. It’s very dramatic, it’s a very draconian way of managing land.”

She notes growing numbers interested in the continuous cover model and opines, “that would be adding serious value to farms, and you wouldn’t have the clearfell approach.”

Would she consider a ban on clearfelling?

“In the short-medium term I don’t think we can, because trees are maturing and are ready to move, but as I said, maybe, and this is just a maybe, if there is a more sympathetic way of doing that... I would love somebody to come up with an example of yes this potential piece of forestry that is due to clearfell, maybe there’s a different way of looking it.”

She adds: “Look, I understand completely there is an industry crying out for timber. If I start deciding to introduce different ways of felling, and it affects that then that’s a problem too.

She acknowledged forestry is a long term project, but adds: “We have to make decisions quickly because we have seen in the last number of years how quickly afforestation has dropped off, and that’s quite quick. Just a couple of thousand hectares this year - that’s not meeting any target,” she stresses.

Some reports commissioned by COFORD, the industry think-tank, recommend consideration of the removal of the rule that once land is planted it must remain under cover. The IFA support this move as it’s regarded as a major deterrent for farmers deciding whether to plant. Is that up for grabs?

“Quite possibly, but if people are adopting a continuous cover, that doesn’t come around... They are all the things we need to tease out in a consultative way with all the groups. This has to be proper and thorough, and people have to feel they have been listened to, that their inputs are in this future programme and we get it as right as we can.”

Another recommendation from the IFA is, rather than have a 15 year premium - there should be an ongoing “eco services recognition” payment. It seems they will be pushing an open door on this issue.

“That recognition does have to be considered because we talk about farming across the board - I would anyway - that it’s not all about food production, it’s also a public good to be delivered. Ultimately we are using public funds to support forestry, we use public funds to support vast swathes of agriculture, so it’s not only about timber production, it’s not only about food production, it’s also has to be about public good,” said Minister Hackett.

In addition to her draft bill, the minister has launched a new scheme for the creation of native woodlands on public lands. She says the membership of the Forestry Implementation Committee is next on her to-do list.

“I would like to do that in advance of setting up some public consultation on the future of forestry. I think it will be well subscribed. I would love to get that done in the autumn. I know autumn is going to be busy when we’re all back - it’s going to be budgets, there’s the whole CAP strategic plan and there’s a new agrifood strategy - everything is happening at once it seems, but nothing like striking while the iron’s hot.”

This article was amended to reflect COFORD's stance on the rule requiring planted land to remain under forestry forever.