Seanad Éireann - Volume 128 - 03 May, 1991

Adjournment Matter. - Afforestation Funding.

Éamon Ó Cuív: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht fanacht agus bheith i láthair don díospóireacht seo. An t-ábhar atá faoi chaibidil ná na deontais atá ar fáil d'fheilmeoirí faoi na scéimeanna foraoiseachta agus na coinníollacha a ghabhann leis na deontais sin. Mar is eol don Aire, cuireadh an-fháilte roimh na scéimeanna difriúla plandáil chrann a tugadh ar aghaidh le blianta beaga anuas, agus go mór mhór i gceantair in iarthar na hÉireann a raibh drochthalamh iontu, ceapadh go raibh deis mhaith ag feilmeoirí cur lena n-ioncam agus úsáid thairbheach a bhaint as a gcuid talaimh dá mbeadh deis acu plandáil agus deontais a fháil dá réir. Go háirithe nuair a tugadh isteach na forest premiums cuireadh fáilte bhreise romhu.

What is involved here is the whole question of forest premiums and grants and the problem arising because such grants-premia are not being paid in respect of lands deemed to be in areas of scientific interest and-or of high scenic amenity in the county plans.

When forest grants were introduced, and particularly since the premia were introduced, many farmers have expressed great interest in planting. Such planting was viewed by farmers in marginal areas, particularly in western counties, as comprising a possible alternative enterprise for them, a method by which they could diversify their farming activities. There are already quotas with regard to milk. It would appear that sheep quotas could be introduced in the near future. [1511] Therefore farmers felt forestry would provide them with an alternative suitable outlet, in that it is suited to marginal lands. It has been recognised that some poorer agricultural soils are more than suitable for afforestation. In addition, in time, forestry provides spin-off industry and employment. As the Minister will be aware — since he was in our area recently opening a new timber mill — timber milling in the Connemara area is assuming greater importance in the provision of employment there than heretofore. This is a sector we envisage growing, particularly on account of added-value products. But the timber industry cannot expand unless there is an adequate supply of timber on stream.

There is now a general feeling in the west that many such schemes are introduced with much hype, when farmers and others are led to believe they will provide them with enormous income. Yet, when they apply under their provisions, they discover there are so many obstacles to be overcome, so many barriers put in their way, that they rarely ever achieve their objectives.

At present it would appear that, when a farmer applies for a forest grant, it will not be paid if the lands in question are located in an area of scientific interest. On face value that would appear to be a reasonable provision in that nobody wants such areas of scientific interest to be destroyed. Nobody involved in the development of the west would like to see areas of continuous scientific interest being planted. However, it would appear that large tracts of land with potential scientific interest were marked on maps, declared or deemed to be areas of scientific interest and effectively frozen or debarred from any type of development, particularly forestry, until the people who had so marked them had had an opportunity to carry out further research and investigations.

Many people are unaware of where these areas of scientific interest are located, their extent and whether their lands are located within such areas. They discover that their lands are located [1512] within such areas only when they apply for forestry or agricultural grants, leading to great resentment on the part of many farmers, in turn, leading them to believe that they are being discriminated against in some way. In addition each application for afforestation is referred to the local authority who are requested to make a decision on whether the area involved should be planted.

Go cinnte dearfa, i gcás na Gaillimhe, tá ceantar mór den chontae, ó thaobh chúrsaí pleanála de, atá leagtha amach mar “an area of outstanding scenic amenities”. Ní miste liomsa go mbeadh na ceantair go bhfuil radharc ar lochanna, ar chnoic nó ar áiteanna speisialta i gceist, ach i gcás Chonamara tá bunáite an limistéir anois curtha faoin aicme áirithe seo agus, de réir mar a thuigimse an scéal, is é an nós atá ag an gcomhairle contae ná a rá, má chuireann duine isteach ar chrainn a chur i gceantair mar sin, gurbh fhear gan crainn a chur ansin. Tá samplaí agamsa d'fheilmeoirí a cuireadh as scéimeanna ach ní fhéadfaí a rá go millfeadh na scéimeanna seo radharc ar bith ar rud ar bith. Go deimhin féin, i go leor áiteanna, chuirfeadh se go mór le háilleacht na háite. I gcuid mhaith cásanna ní raibh plandáil mhór i gceist, b'fhéidir deich n-acra nó 15 acra, rud nach gcuirfeadh as do, agus nach mbrisfeadh, áilleacht na tuaithe i gceantair mar sin.

Tá sé in am go mbeadh tuiscint ag an bpobal ar céard atá ceadaithe agus ar céard nach bhfuil ceadaithe. Tá sé in am nach rialófar go héifeachtach bunáite thall i gConamara amach as an scéim seo, nó má tá a leithéid ann ba cheart léarscáil a fhoilsiú agus teacht amach go poiblí agus a rá, taobh istigh de mhórcheantair Chonamara, go mbeadh sé sé ina ASA nó ina cheantar atá leagtha amach sa county plan mar area of high scenic amenity, agus nach gceadófaí crainn a chur, agus nach mbeifí ag cur dallamullóige ar na daoine agus á gcur ó threoir.

It is very important that areas of high scenic amenity would not be ruled out in total and if they are ruled out in total it is about time that was stated. My own view is that there are many areas of high [1513] scenic amenity marked by the county council that would be unsuitable for other types of development but would be perfectly suitable for small-scale forestry development.

I am conscious of the need to protect the scenic views of Connemara. I have been critical of large-scale planting programmes that were taking over vast tracts of land. There is a big difference between that and the small farmer who wants to plant ten or 15 acres of marginal land to avail of these schemes. Regulations were introduced to control the wholesale planting of huge tracts of virgin bog and of areas where views of lakes and open mountainside would be spoilt. However, the scheme is going to ridiculous lengths to refuse grants in all areas designated under the county plan as areas of scenic amenity. I would like, therefore, to ask the Minister what is the policy of his Department regarding these grants? What is their attitude to the recommendations of the various county councils in the West? What is the attitude of his Department to these large areas of scientific interest that have been identified but not designated, that has been done without consultation and without detailed information being made available to local communities? Are the Department willing to examine each case on its merits, taking into account the species proposed to be planted, the size of the suggested development and the location and the possibility that it may interfere with an existing amenity?

It is important that this alternative outlet be available to farmers in marginal land areas. The farmers in these areas have few options. Sheep farming, dry stock farming and forestry are the main types of agriculture that suit these areas. It is very important that alternative and mixed enterprise be encouraged. In continental Europe the trend is to break up forest areas with pasture and pasture with forest; rather than plant in huge blocks, it is done on a divided basis. The designation of certain species to break the monotony of continuous planting of pine or spruce could be examined. Overall it is very important that farmers have a [1514] right, within reason, to plant and to avail of the grants open to them and I ask the Minister to give this matter serious concern.

Minister for Energy (Mr. Molloy): Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Seanadóir Ó Cuív as ucht an cheist seo a tharraingt anuas sa Seanad tráthnóna, mar go dtugann sé seans dom féin, b'fhéidir, níos mó eolais a chur faoi bhráid an phobail mar gheall ar na ceisteanna tábhachtacha seo.

This Government have been promoting increased afforestation throughout this country because of its potential to make a major contribution to regional and economic development. The main objective of the forestry programme continues to be the generation of wealth in the Irish economy by utilising available and suitable land to the best advantage.

Through this afforestation programme we can not only provide the raw material base for an expanded and improved forestry based industrial sector and thus stimulate rural development and increase employment in these areas, but we can also make a positive contribution to the environment.

This latter point is one which I wish to emphasise in the context of this debate. I am very much aware that there is a need to maintain a balance in all forestry programmes so that the judicious development of forestry can make a positive contribution to the environment and in the provision of recreational facilities. In some areas these issues will be more sensitive than others. I have no wish to see forestry plantations established in such a fashion as to detract from landscapes which are important amenities and tourist attractions, nor will I allow forestry plantations to adversely affect areas of scientific interest which should be conserved because of their national or international importance.

That is not to say, however, that such sites should become no-go areas for forestry. Such a response would be extreme, would mean the loss of the potential benefits which forestry could add to the area, including its amenity value, and would [1515] be inequitable to individuals seeking to improve the return from their land.

The solution is more complex than that. It means that the various agencies involved must work closely together to ensure the planting programme meets as far as possible the needs of both the landowner interested in economic forestry and the environment. I believe that the procedures I have introduced, and continue to develop, and the revised grant schemes will achieve this aim.

Procedures have been instituted in my Department to ensure that consideration is taken of these various interests. Approval of grant aid is dependent on all reasonable steps being taken to avoid adverse effects on the environment. This involves a system of prior assessment for proposed forestry developments, combined with monitoring of successful applications. Thus, any application for grant aid may only be approved subject to their meeting Forest Service standards as to their environmental compatibility, impact on historical and cultural heritage and the type and standard of silviculture and general workmanship.

Approval of grant aid may only be given within the limits imposed by the European Community and national legislation as well as the above considerations, prior to the commencement of work. For instance, schemes likely to have negative impacts on such features as boglands listed for conservation by the Wildlife Service as internationally or nationally important, areas of outstanding natural beauty, sites of recognised historical, cultural or natural value, including sensitive fisheries areas, will be identified as such and account taken of these concerns.

The forestry grant schemes have been overhauled in the last year to give a much greater emphasis to factors which will enhance the beneficial impact that forestry can have on the environment, including landscapes, flora and fauna. Grants for broadleaved species have been increased by a massive 50 per cent to £1,200 a hectare. Moreover, in line with my policy of substantially increasing broadleaf planting, I have set a longer [1516] objective of increasing the proportion of broadleaves to close on 10 per cent of overall planting. I believe that the increased planting of these trees is important, not alone for aesthetic or amenity reasons, but also to protect our heritage and to provide habitats for flora and fauna.

Furthermore, planning permission is now required for afforestation in excess of 200 hectares. This arises as a result of the transportation into Irish law of the EC Directive (85/337/EEC) on Environmental Impact Assessment. This requirement will ensure that all major forestry developments will be subject to detailed scrutiny by the local planning authority.

The practical application of these measures in the Connemara region in relation to the particular issues raised in the motion involves consultation with the Office of Public Works if a proposed planting is within an area of scientific interest or with the county council if it is shown on the county development plan as being of scenic amenity.

The position in relation to areas of scientific interest is that in the Connemara region these mainly cover bogland areas. The operational programme and the grants for afforestation available under it does not apply to areas of bogland listed by the Office of Public Works as being of national or international conservation interest. The position in relation to areas of scientific interest and their status is currently being examined and will, I have no doubt, lead to a review of the areas of scientific interest system. Indeed I am concerned at the criteria that were applied and the extent of detailed studies carried out before designation took place in many of these instances. However, a complete review is now being undertaken. I am supportive of the need to maintain in Ireland a representative portion of the remaining natural bog complexes. If an area of bogland is presently identified as an important area of scientific interest by the Office of Public Works, grants are not being paid in respect of that area. If the review I have mentioned alters the status of any [1517] of these areas I will of course re-examine proposals for afforestation.

In relation to areas of outstanding scenic amenity and indeed other areas of landscape of amenity interest identified under the Galway county plan, the position as I have mentioned is that these proposals for afforestation are referred to the county council.

The 1985 Galway county development plan recognised the importance of forestry in the area. In addition to the importance of forests to the economy of the area it referred to the important amenity features which they provide and their improvement of the landscape in areas such as the Hill of Doon, Cong and Ballynahinch and the Inagh and Maam valley. The plan also recognised their contribution to wildlife conservation and identified their value in tourism infrastructure as considerable.

Nevertheless there is concern locally that afforestation may be intrusive in the open landscape of the area and a resultant resistance to planting proposals. This is a valid concern in a area of such internationally recognised scenic character. In some cases this means that forestry projects cannot be approved in the overall interest.

However, as I stressed at the outset, this does not mean vast areas of Connemara excluded from forestry grants. The present Galway county plan is not as supportive of forestry as has previously been the case. However there is regular contact between the council and the forest service to ensure that in sensitive areas planting plans are adjusted or revised to meet landscape requirements rather than being rejected outright.

There are other considerations in this region which mean that particular care must be taken. For instance, although research undertaken on the relationship between afforestation and acidification have been inconclusive precautions are being taken by the forest service in this regard.

British studies identify industrial pollutants in the atmosphere as the primary [1518] cause of the acidification which is associated with conifer forests. They do this because the forest canopy concentrates the pollutants as the wind and rain pass through.

To ensure that forestry and fisheries can develop in harmony and that environmental disturbance is minimised, the forest service of my Department set up a working party of public and private forestry concerns together with fishery representatives, to develop guidelines which take account of the basic requirements of both interests based on the knowledge currently available.

The guidelines recognise the commitment by the Government to develop further the forest resource to a level that reflects national requirements. They recognise too the need to develop further the national fisheries resource and its associated added value to its maximum potential. The guidelines represent present expert opinion on the relationships between fisheries and forestry in an attempt to set down an agreed strategy which will facilitate the development of both resources without compromise to either.

The measures outlined in the guidelines are consistent with good forestry practice and the maintenance of water quality. They are aimed, too, at reducing the interaction between the twin activities ties of forestry and fishery management to the minimum consistent with the development of both resources to their optimum potential. However, it is recognised that it is necessary to adopt special practices for designated sensitive areas to safeguard the resource in such areas.

The guidelines lay down standards of forest estblishment and management for all fisheries areas, but the standards are more stringent in areas where chemical analyses have shown that greater care is necessary — designated sensitive areas.

In summary, I am willing and indeed anxious to promote increased afforestation in Connemara provided it makes a positive contribution to the environment. In some areas this requirement means grants will not be paid, for [1519] instance, in boglands of national or international importance. In other areas, such as areas of outstanding amenity, while grants may not be refused a revision of the developer's proposals may be necessary [1520] in taking account of the council's views.

The Seanad adjourned at 2.10 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 8 May 1991.