Farming out our forests

An Cailín Rua

FAST BUCK Dense blocks of non-native Sitka conifers smother the landscape, driving out wildlife and failing to offset carbon emissions.

Condemned Coillte deal a consequence of Government’s continued shirking of State responsibilities

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

The only surprising thing about Coillte’s recent forestry deal with British asset managers Gresham House has been its almost universal condemnation across the political spectrum, and the fact that it has made so many headlines.
Under the maligned deal, Gresham House will manage the Irish Strategic Forests Fund (ISFF), which will provide up to €200 million to buy a portfolio of 12,000 hectares of new and existing forests from Irish farmers and private landowners.
Even those in government – whom one might expect to exert some influence over afforestation decisions when climate crisis is one of the world’s hottest topics (if you’ll pardon the pun) – appear to be annoyed. Concerns about the plan dominated discussion at the final meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss, and the assembly is due to make a series of recommendations shortly on addressing biodiversity damage, among them a reappraisal of Coillte’s role to ensure that the semi-state body ensures recognises biodiversity and positive ecosystem services as core objectives.
But what is driving the national outrage?
Our record in Ireland of preventative and reparative climate action is not exactly glowing – it would be generous to even describe it as reactive – so one might suspect that what is really rankling is less related to the burning planet, and more to the question of land ownership. Which is understandably something of a sore point, given our history. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would celebrate the perceived ‘selling off’ of Irish lands to British entities.
And Tony Dalwood, CEO at Gresham House agrees, admitting that the business was prepared for reaction to the deal from farmers and rural politicians because ‘sensitivities’ often arise when big institutions from abroad invest in land. Can you blame us?
Amidst accusations of a ‘land grab’, the land and forests will be owned by the ISFF, in partnership with the Irish and foreign investors who will raise the funds to buy land. The ISFF will replant the land with trees, with the apparent aim of increasing tree cover and capturing carbon from the atmosphere. Coillte will be responsible for planting, maintaining and harvesting ISFF’s forests. While Gresham itself will not own the forests, it is a commercial arrangement where they will charge a fee to act as investment manager, raising cash from pension funds and family offices.
Regardless of what is driving the anger, it is legitimate for many reasons. Firstly, the proposed forests will comprise only 20 percent native Irish broadleaf, versus 65 percent conifers and 15 percent rewilding. The new Save Our Forests Alliance, made up of a variety of environmental, community, rural organisations, public representatives and concerned individuals claims the plan will result in further expansion of Coillte’s ‘failed monocultural Sitka plantation forestry model’. They argue that communities and farmers must be supported to participate in a new, sustainable forestry model promoting sustainable rural development and timber production, good water and soil quality, climate action, biodiversity, and the common good.
The group is correct. The unattractive Sitka spruce wreaks havoc on biodiversity, creating ecological ‘dead zones’ and endangering bird species like the already vulnerable curlew. It is a blight on the landscape, and often does not offset carbon emissions – in fact, their planting in unsuitable like peatland and marginal grasslands can release more carbon into the atmosphere than is absorbed by the trees. The Irish Wildlife Trust has labelled the plan as a scandal.
Dalwood, however, disputes this, insisting that the fund’s deal with Coillte will be ‘good for Ireland’ by helping to hit climate targets and creating jobs. He added that the move will not drive up the price of farmland as has been suggested.
But he would say that, wouldn’t he?
The whole sorry saga is indicative of Ireland’s lazy approach to climate change, and yet another example of the State farming out its public obligations to private, profit-driven entities. Much like the housing approach, the box is in theory ticked; while communities are then left to deal with the consequences of deals not delivered in their interests.
The Taoiseach (while at pains to point out that selling already privately owned land does not amount to privatisation), the Tánaiste, the Minister for Agriculture, the Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity and the Minster for the Environment have all conceded that the deal is not ideal, yet appear powerless to prevent it.
Meanwhile, the European Commission is taking Ireland to the EU Court of Justice for failing to adequately protect our rivers and lakes, stating that the country has been in breach of an EU directives on the issue for over 20 years.
As is often the case, leave it to communities to take up the mantle.
Here in north Mayo, the River Moy Search and Rescue group has availed of grant funding for conduct ecological studies and conservation projects in Belleek Woods, and Ballina Community Cleanup Group has instigated a campaign to plant over 10,000 native Irish broadleaf trees – one for everyone in the town – as part of the Ballina 2023 legacy programme, supported by local businesses. And you can be sure there won’t be a Sitka spruce in sight.