Ireland’s latest forestry figures are a clear sign of the urgent need for a root and branch reform of failing forestry policy, warns a coalition of environmental groups.
According to the Environmental Pillar – a coalition of 30 national environmental organisations -the Forest Statistics Ireland 2017 report gives false reassurances that Ireland’s afforestation rates are improving. 
The Pillar sees the critical need to increase tree cover in Ireland; however, in doing so, it is essential that we shift away from our dependence on non-native commercial plantations and back to native broadleaf species.
The solution to improving our pathetically low forest cover should not be to increase plantations of alien conifers designed for clear fell, yet Sitka spruce remains the dominant species planted. 
While broadleaf afforestation rates have increased over the past decade, numbers have also been seriously hit by Ash dieback, a disease brought in by importing ash trees from Europe, poor planting and an overall lack of management.
A recent EPA study highlighted a high level of deforestation in broadleaf dominated forests. Indeed, 52 deforestation events between 2000 and 2012 took place in long-established or ancient woodland, which are extremely rare features of the Irish landscape. 
This is a shocking indictment of the state’s commitment to native tree species and woodlands, the bedrock of our land-based biodiversity on this Island.
It is high time that we shift support toward more sustainable native tree cover initiatives, which have a fantastic ability to absorb pollution and convert it to carbon, and do not require fertilisers or pesticides, unlike current commercial non-native tree plantations.
A recent letter by 190 international scientists told the EU to make this very move, stating a clear preference for mixed species, native planting over pulp, fibreboard, and paper oriented products. 
This approach would have the immediate benefit of improving water quality, protect soils, mitigate flooding and store carbon as well as ensuring we comply with various EU Directives.
The Government will also need to ensure that ecological assessments are carried out on a case-by-case basis to ensure sensitive species and sensitive habitats are not impacted upon by any planting. 
While the Forest Statistics Ireland 2017 report finds that forest cover is at its highest level in over 350 years at 10.5 per cent, in reality, Ireland’s overall forest cover has barely moved in recent years and we still pale in comparison to our EU neighbours (33.5 per cent average). 
Despite huge taxpayer-funded incentives for private planting and planting by Coillte, afforestation rates have fallen from over 20,000 hectares (ha) in the late 1990s to around 6,000ha in recent years, the lowest figures in decades.  
This is despite COFORD’s finding that we need to plant a minimum of 15,000ha per year up to 2030 to sustain our forest estate’s climate change benefits, among other uses in energy and construction. 
The failure to hit targets is nothing new, with the Government failing for decades to hit ambitious targets. 
Environmental Pillar spokesperson, Andrew St-Ledger, said:
“This latest State spin on a well-documented and disastrous forestry policy failure is similar to putting a band-aid over a deep gaping wound.
“If we are to meet our International carbon commitments under the Paris agreement, it is essential that we urgently increase our very low tree cover, the second lowest in the EU after Malta.
“However, throwing money at existing failed forestry measures will not resolve deeper rooted fundamental problems undermining our ailing forestry sector for years.
“We do not want to see the loosening of environmental restrictions or any increase in commercial monoculture plantations in a vain effort to try and hit our targets in as quick a fashion as possible.
“We need to enhance support for our native tree species and reward private landowners and farmers who use native trees for their multiple environmental, social and economic benefits.”
ENDS The Forest Statistics – Ireland 2017 provides statistics about afforestation trends, nationally and on a county by county basis up until the end of 2016. It is prepared by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine Department and is the reference document for forestry statistics in Ireland: https://goo.gl/1bfQS8 Andrew Doyle, T.D., Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine with responsibility for forestry: “It is also interesting and reassuring to note, for example, forest cover is estimated to be at its highest level in over 350 years and that over one quarter of our forest estate contains broadleaves.” https://goo.gl/PdRexM  The Forest Statistics – Ireland 2017: https://goo.gl/1bfQS8  EPA. 2017. 21st Century Deforestation in Ireland: https://goo.gl/yub9Tu  More than 190 scientists call on the EU’s Environment Council to account for the full climate impacts and emissions from land use, land use change and forestry in the LULUCF Regulation: https://goo.gl/zLdHrB At present, there are currently no guidelines on Annex I bird species aside from Hen Harriers, one of Ireland’s most threatened species due to the afforestation of their breeding habitat. Many of Ireland’s red and amber listed species will suffer unless the Forest Service start carrying out necessary ecological assessments.  The Forest Statistics – Ireland 2017: https://goo.gl/1bfQS8  The State has set-out a budget of 482 million euros under the latest Forestry Programme 2014-2020 in an aim to boost the forest cover area: https://goo.gl/VWCnLD  A factor is this was the decision by the European Commission in 1999 that Coillte was not entitled to receive annual [non-farmer] forest premiums. As a result, Coillte reviewed its planting programme and has had little engagement in afforestation. That said, private afforestation rates have also dropped from around 15,000ha in the early 2000s to 6,000ha now.  Coford. 2014. Irish Forests and Climate Change: https://goo.gl/rStrEJ  The Government’s strategic plan for forestry Growing for the Future was launched in 1996 and set a planting target of 25,000 hectares in the first four years and 20,000 hectares a year thereafter until 2030: https://goo.gl/hvBRLu