Small private woodland owners feel they are being pushed out of forestry by the Government’s preference for large international forestry funds, an Oireachtas committee heard last week.

Simon White of the Limerick and Tipperary Woodland Owners (LTWO) group claimed there was a definite bias within Government towards international funds to drive afforestation.

He contrasted the treatment of plantation owners who were hit by ash dieback, with the assistance provided to Gresham House, whose €130m Irish Strategic Forestry Fund (ISFF) is strongly backed by the State-owned Ireland Strategic Investment Fund.

Gresham House confirmed this week that the ISFF had bought close to 13,000ac of mature and semi-mature forests over the past 18 months, and aims to ramp up purchases of bare land.

'Land grab'

“It makes you wonder, is there a major effort to get private owners out of forestry,” White told a hearing of the joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture and Food.

“When you see how we’re [farmers hit by ash dieback] being treated, and you see the likes of Gresham House, fostered by the State agency Coillte to take over land from farmers.

“And it is being taken over. It is like a land grab. Because these people are so demoralised, they see no future,” White said.

Farmers were effectively being forced to sell by the continuing problems with ash dieback, and the increased level of bureaucracy in relation to planting and harvesting.

In its submission to the committee, the LTWO reiterated its opposition to the current ash dieback package.

The grower body made a number of suggestions regarding its possible improvement. These included:

  • The payment for clearing plantations infected with ash dieback, which is currently €2,000/ha, should be increased in line with the age of plantation.
  • That a sworn legal enquiry be put in place to assess the ongoing problems in the forestry sector.
  • That Ireland’s national phytosecurity is strengthened as a priority, and that imported plants go into quarantine.
  • The LTWO called for greater sharing of the resulting effect of diseases between State and forest owners. Recent changes place most of that risk on the forest owner.