They are not planting the Golden Vale – they are planting the marginal land in Leitrim and West Cavan, where people don’t have a voice. That was one of the stark messages that rang loud and clear from the ballroom of the Bush Hotel in Carrick-on-Shannon on last Friday night, as hundreds of farmers gathered from all over Leitrim, West Cavan and beyond to take a stand against the rapid expansion of forestry locally.
Local MEP Marian Harkin relayed that a person in the European Commission, had said “Leitrim is a national sacrifice zone for sitka spruce”, so at least they are aware of it “and perhaps we will be able to do something about it”.
This meeting was organised by the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA), who now intend to establish a stakeholders group.
The lights are going out in the hills and valleys of West Cavan and Leitrim, while people, many from outside the region buy up and plant land, including foreign investers. Speakers from the floor said the authorities should focus on installing quality broadband instead of planting spruce trees to encourage young people to stay in the area. Then they could generate money and buy land. Another speaker said that his brother, returning from Australia, was outbid for a farm by those wanting to plant the land.
A community activist from Drumsna, Edwina Guckian caught the imagination of the large audience with the passion of her speech.
“I’m a proud Leitrim woman – a farmer’s daughter, who wants the best for our county, our land, our farmers, our communities and our future,” said Ms Guckian.
Edwina Guckian claimed that Leitrim is being sold off to pension funds, tax off-setters, hedge funds and multi-national companies. To rapturous applause Ms Guckian said: “The Department of Agriculture is turning a blind eye to the fact that Leitrim is being sacrificed to meet carbon emission targets. This needs to stop immediately, or County Leitrim will cease to exist. We are being sold off just like our sea fishing quotas and the way our offshore oil and gas was sold off from under our nose.
“Where I live, there are seven forests within one mile of my house, with another 70 acres awaiting a planting licence.
“After speaking to Leitrim County Council this week, I learned that in 2017, 86 licences were granted for felling and nine houses were granted planning permission,” claimed Edwina Guckian.
“Forestry is wiping out communities – it’s a fact – many people could stand up here tonight and tell their stories,” said Edwina Guckian.
She said if you follow the trees you will find the huge declines in population.
“Farmers are being encouraged to plant their land and who can blame them, if they do so – they are being given little other options. Fifteen years of earnings and an easier life, but that’s it – you are on your own after that. Fifteen years of money for the destruction of townlands. Banks won’t lend them money to farm, but they will lend them money to plant, meaning they can’t get money to buy farms,” added Edwina Guckian.
Once again to thunderous applause, Edwina Guckian declared, “my grandfather always said it is the country people who spend the money in the towns. If they disappear, the towns disappear.”
Cllr John Paul Feeley complimented INHFA for their work on behalf of communities such as West Cavan.
“I don’t think any community in this part of the country, in Cavan and Leitrim wants anything other than fair play. Farmers want a fair income for what they do.
“I think one simple change, is to make forestry subject to planning, in the same way as other activity. That will give an opportunity to people who do have a local knowledge and an appreciation of the wider interests of the community to have a say on it”.
Cllr Mary Bohan from Leitrim County Council echoed this: “Can we have a campaign to make aforestation subject to planning?”
Campaigning for 30 Years
Sean McLaughlin from Aughavas has campaigned against the forestry system for 30 years and he claimed that two schools have closed down in the parish of Aughavas in the past six years with four teachers. The one school left has three teachers and one of those positions is under threat. He said: “I want the TDs here to ask the question in the Dáil, how much premium has been paid to people who are not farming in County Leitrim,” said Mr McLaughlin.
Cllr Enda Stenson said there is enough plantations in Leitrim.
“We don’t need any more plantations, but we do need to have the right to build houses on our farms – that our farms can be continued on by our sons and daughters,” he said.
A farmer from Cloone, Adrian Kelly said he could safely say that there is 35% of the parish of Cloone planted.
INHFA View Point
Gerry Loftus, Mayo INHFA chairman told the meeting “we are here tonight because of the way we forest at present with Citrus Spruce plantations amongst others, contributing to the decimation of our rural communities.”
He said the story of Leitrim was no viable livelihood on the land, no jobs, forestry ecnroaching, closing down viallges
Gerry Loftus told the packed hall to thunderous applause: “We are sick and tired of being classified as second class citizens in this country. They pay us nothing - we mind the environment for them – look after the land and make sure it is suitable. Now they want our land – it wasn’t good enough to rob us – now they want it – they want it to use it to take up the carbon emissions of this State and that is not acceptable.”
He added that taxpayers’ money was being used to boost the incomes and profits of investors from all over the world.
Trees have been planted right up to boundary fences and the INHFA wants a 20 metre fire belt put in place and conifers planted along waterways to be cleared back the required distance.
“It is time for the Government of the day to start talking to farmers, rural communities – not talking at us. If you need us and our land to meet your needs, - the needs of the day, especially relating to climate change challenges, food security, talk to us – don’t decide our future for us, especially when those decisions involve planting 970,000 hectares of our country under citrus spruce”, said Gerry Loftus.
“We are calling for a table of stakeholders, farmers, local communities and business interests, environmentalists to be independently chaired, to start developing another vision for our rural future,” declared Gerry Loftus.
Mairead McGuinness acknowledged the “huge community concern about the way we are planting – a real concern about Leitrim and West Cavan”.
“What we need to do is balance community concerns around the need to plant more trees, because Europe wants us to plant more trees and member states to increase the amount of land under trees.
“The issue is, can we find solutions to meet all the concerns in this room – it probably will be difficult to please everyone, but I think it is wrong if any community or county feels that trees are pushing you out of where you live,” said Mairead McGuinness.
Marian Harkin MEP said she will be pushing with other MEPs to make sure “the 100% grant for Forestry is contingent upon a minimum of 30% planting of broad leaf trees, which is not happening”.
Deputy Martin Kenny said the solution to this problem is “that we need to change the Rural Development Programme – that it does not allow big companies or anyone to get massive grants for growing this mass production of Sitka spruce trees. These spruce trees are really the problem – we may be able to work with other types of Forestry and find a solution for it.”
Luke Ming Flanagan told the meeting that “we are slap bang in the middle of a complete review of the CAP. This time we have to make sure that the money goes to the right people”.
“The CAP presents massive opportunities for people here, if we get it right. We need everyone to get behind this, to ensure the money come to this area.
“If you have money to farm your land and produce food, and gets a proper price from the Supermarkets for what you produce, then you won’t be planting forestry. It won’t be worth your while – the reason people are planting forestry is that it is now government policy – it is not by accident. So we have got to change Government Policy”, said Luke Ming Flanagan.