One in every 10 hectares of land is now planted in forestry, according to the latest figures. The Government’s Forestry Statistics paint a picture of the country’s afforested grounds amid increasing pressure to up volume of lands under trees due to greenhouse gas emissions targets. Despite Ireland falling far short of planting targets, the area of forest is estimated to stand at 731,650ha or 10.5% of the total land area of the country. Around 53% or 389,356ha is in public ownership, mainly Coillte.
The forested area acts as a carbon reservoir, amounting to 381 million tonnes of carbon in 2012 and between 2008 and 2012 it removed 16Mt of CO2 and offset 5% of all national emissions. There have been major concerns raised in western counties, particularly Leitrim, over the level of forestry planting in the region. Farmers account for 83% of private lands afforested between 1980 and 2016, with the average size of private grant-aided plantations around 8.8ha since 1980. It states farmer planting has dominated afforestation since 1993. With farmers and non-farmers now eligible for the same rate of grants and premium payments, the number of non-farmers planting has increased to 35% of the areas afforested in 2016. It points out that ‘non-farmers’ include retired farmers, sons and daughters of farmers and other relatives who may have inherited land.
Forestry and its role in carbon sequestration is an obvious part of any solution to the problem of emissions produced by agriculture. In 2016, Cork had the highest afforestation area at 608ha, followed by Clare at 552ha, Roscommon at 435ha, Leitrim at 434ha and Mayo at 429. There were 34 ‘non-farmers’ who accounted for 254ha in Cork in 2016, while 33 accounted for 238ha in Clare, 26 for 212ha in Cavan and 28 for 195ha in Leitrim. Efforts have been made recently to increase the volume of broadleaves planted by the Agriculture Department, with increased grant incentives, as the forest estate is made up of three quarters conifers and one quarter broadleaves. Sitka spruce is the most common species, accounting for 52% of the forest area. The report warns tree diseases impacting species such as larch and Chalara fraxinea or ash dieback may influence diversity into the future.