The State must stop incentivising farmers to engage in environmentally-damaging commercial timber schemes and shift support toward more sustainable native tree cover initiatives, Ireland’s leading environmental coalition has said.
The comments from the Environmental Pillar – a coalition of 26 national environmental organisations – follows the recent launch of the Irish Farmers’ Association’s (IFA) Five Point Plan to Revitalise Farm Forestry and increase the land available to forestry. 
While generally welcoming the IFA’s call for the Government to revitalise Ireland’s ailing forestry sector, the Pillar does not want to see the loosening of environmental restrictions or any increase in commercial monoculture plantations.
While the Pillar supports the call for the State to help farmers play a bigger role in increasing tree cover – the second lowest in Europe – we must shift away from our dependence on non-native commercial plantations.
A recent open letter by 190 international scientists told the European Union to make this very move, stating a clear preference for mixed species, native planting over pulp, fibreboard, and paper oriented products. 
The Pillar is instead calling on the Government to prioritise support for farmers to plant native woodlands – which the IFA does support on smaller farms – and to move toward more sustainable forms of agro-forestry. 
The Government should also encourage the planting of native species on marginal land close to rivers to act as buffers to collect nitrate and phosphate runoff, currently a huge problem for farm sustainability.
Our native trees have a fantastic ability to absorb this pollution and convert it to carbon and do not require fertilisers or pesticides, unlike current commercial non-native tree plantations.
However, an ecological assessment would be required on a case-by-case basis to ensure sensitive species, such as the kingfisher and otter, and sensitive habitats are not impacted upon by riparian planting.
The Pillar would also like to see greater emphasis on the use of locally produced biomass from coppicing and thinning of existing hedgerows and native species on farms to support local combined heat and energy plants (CHP) for use in public buildings such as schools and community centres.
The Government also needs to be more imaginative with Glas schemes payments and move to support scrub as a pioneer species, encourage more hedgerow planting and support farmers who engage in long-term carbon lock-up.
We now have an opportunity to encourage investment in rural Ireland and our environment, and place farmers at the forefront of environmental soft engineering solutions to our flooding problems.
Funding for this essential alteration of our forestry landscape can be taken from the under-spent non-native forestry funding, with planting figures historically low. 
Environmental Pillar Spokesperson, Andrew St Ledger, said:
“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.
“We need to enhance support for our native tree species and reward farmers who use native trees for their multiple environmental, social and economic benefits.
“We need joined up thinking between multiple state-funded bodies to meet our climate mitigation objectives using best practice models, such as the Pontbren project in Wales. 
“The funding to implement this simple agroforestry measure is available, the science that supports the efficacy of the measure is known.
“This could be a genuine win-win situation for farmers, policy makers and our environment. The only thing missing now is political will combined with vision to grasp the nettle and do it.”
Pillar Spokesperson, Fintan Kelly said:
“There are some good things in the IFA statement about promoting agroforestry and the use of small coppices for firewood, but I would be concerned about the lack of native broadleaves in the IFA approach.
“The targeting of marginal farmland for afforestation will also negatively impact on Ireland’s farmland biodiversity.
“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.”
“Ireland’s red and amber listed wader and raptor species, in particular, will suffer unless the Forest Service start carrying out ecological assessments.
ENDS IFA Five Point Plan to Revitalise Farm Forestry: https://goo.gl/cPGEDM  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  According to the Government’s forestry programme midterm review, less than one hectare has been planted under existing agroforestry measure since 2014, with a funding target in 2017 of just 25 hectares. https://goo.gl/epg4qp  IFA Farm Forestry Chairman, Pat Collins: “Obviously, on smaller farms the scope for planting is reduced but there is still potential to farm with trees, which will add to the profitability of the farm. Although it may not be possible to establish a commercial timber crop, you may be able to plant a small woodland that could be used to provide shelter and as a source of fuel on the farm in the future” https://goo.gl/DXLdr1  The planting averaging is just 6,000 hectares per year, despite Coford’s expert finding that we need to plant a minimum of 10,000 hectares per year. http://www.coford.ie/media/coford/content/publications/projectreports/acidsoils.pdf  There are excellent examples from the UK of how farmland can be used to integrate forestry, such as the Pontbren Farmer led project in Wales. Information on the Wales Pontbren project: https://goo.gl/TgUs34