All around the world, farmers are suffering the same fate. Land sales favour the richest buyers so when big companies come to town, they flash their wallets and the hammer falls. Foreign investors in New Zealand are buying both agricultural holdings and forestry land, while Ireland is attracting forestry companies who want to plant farms with trees.
A number of factors are driving the trend towards forestry. Firstly, forestry has been identified as a key industry because of climate change commitments to increase our forest cover. This has led to better government incentives to plant trees. At the same time, agricultural prices are so low that it makes little sense for many farmers, especially those without obvious successors, to continue struggling day-in day-out, for no return. Forestry grants of €200+/acre over 15 years are very tempting in this context.
Farmers in Leitrim and Cavan have been complaining that too much land there is being planted for forestry. They are worried about the long-term effects of large plantations replacing farmland. It is a reasonable thing to assume that communities will be eroded as more and more of the countryside is converted into plantations. But like everything else, there's a right and wrong way to go about it.
Now that we are seeing commercial forestry companies buying up land we must take heed. There's a big difference between a farmer planting twenty acres of rough ground with mixed woodland and a company buying a whole valley for conifers. A local land-owner is entitled to make decisions about their own holdings and certain plantations can benefit the locality. If native species are chosen they will provide cover for many types of animals and plants, offering a refuge to wildlife that farms cannot afford. Native trees do not hog the light and they lose their leaves, which brightens the place up in those dark winter months. In addition, native woodland is a long-term investment with genuine carbon-capturing credentials, which will repay its cost many times by providing renewable and indefinite supplies of timber for future generations (you do not need to replant most native trees as they will regenerate from stumps).
Commercial investors will almost certainly opt for damaging conifers. Coillte, our state forestry body, must answer for popularising this type of forestry. It offers the quickest returns, but does the most damage to communities and wildlife. These trees have a negative effect on the countryside, casting dense shadows and reducing biodiversity by shading out hedgerows and other plants. Their needles contribute to acidification of soil and water and their short life cycle (30-40 years) and subsequent clear-felling means they don't capture much carbon. In fact this type of land use should possibly not qualify as 'forestry', because it bears no relation to a beneficial type of mixed planting which does pretty much the opposite in every respect.
It's the same story the world over. New Zealand farmers are suffering from a credit crunch after years of low-cost loans lured many into expanding their holdings by borrowing. Now they are being sold out and the big guns are buying. Foreign investors have purchased 646,190 hectares of New Zealand's farms and forests in the last five years. Many of the farms are purchased as going concerns to be managed by agents for holding companies, but in each case a decision is made on the optimal or most profitable use for the holding. Sometimes this means plantations of eucalyptus, the New Zealand equivalent of Sitka Spruce. It grows quickly and wreaks havoc on the land but investors don't mind about this. They just care about the bottom line.
In each case it is the duty of county planners in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture to ensure that land is designated for uses that will benefit the local community, while safeguarding water quality and general attractiveness. For this reason conifer plantations should be limited to a small percentage of acreage planted, so that their drab blankets are not allowed to smother the countryside. If people want to plant trees, let them plant the lovely oak and ash woods of the future, which nobody will begrudge.