Why are we exporting 80% of our timber supply while facing a timber shortage?
As of 2023, Ireland is facing a shortage of timber. While we are importing from the UK and Scandinavia, we are exporting 80% of our home-grown supply. Amid a housing crisis, could we utilise our own timber supply to combat this? There are many causes of the blunders within our forestry and timber sectors- from the controversiality of the sitka spruce, to the targets established by the Climate Action Plan and Project Woodland, which fail in supporting suitable methods of actually achieving them.
Forest cover is estimated to be at its highest level in over 350 years. Over 11% of Ireland's land area is currently under forestry. Of the total forest area, 391,357 ha (50.8%) is in public ownership, with state owned forestry business Coillte managing 7%. In Ireland, forestry is fully funded by the Irish taxpayers, with no funding provided by the EU.
Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice from the Roscommon/Galway constituency said it was “mind-boggling” that mills in Ireland were forced to import timber from abroad “in order to keep the show on the road,” given the amount of timber that is fit to cut in Ireland.
“There are thousands of licences currently submitted to the Irish Forestry Service of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine – cross clear felling, thinning, roads and afforestation [methods and reasons for felling in the forestry sector]–with applicants yet to receive a decision,” Fitzmaurice highlighted.
To fell trees in Ireland, a felling licence is needed from the Irish Forestry Service. Over the last four years, a backlog in the issuing of licenses was considered a causing factor in Ireland’s timber shortage.
Yet last September, the department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine announced that the backlog is gone, with 92% of its target points reached and 3,629 licenses issued, as per the Forestry Licensing Plan 2022. So why are we still facing timber shortages?
According to semi-state body Teagasc, almost 80% of our sawn timber production is exported. The 2022 report also showed that 86% of Ireland’s manufactured wood panel products, such as floorings and wall panelling, are also exported.
“Using wood has the dual purpose of getting houses built and reducing our carbon footprint,”- Senator Pauline O’Reilly.
Irish conifer trees like pine, spruce and fir trees are commonly used in construction. In the last decade, foresters have taken to planting the Sitka spruce, a non-native tree which matures faster and taller than other conifers.
“Sitka is the answer to our housing shortages,” NewGen Forestry CEO John O’Reilly told Amárach.
With thirty years experience in the private forestry sector, O’Reilly was formerly the CEO of Veon, Ireland’s largest private forestry company. He has since established NewGen, a nationwide privatised forestry company. An expert in his field, O’Reilly has served as an advisor to Ministry of Agriculture, Food and the Marines.
“Some NGOs protest the planting of non-native trees like sitka, alleging that they may minimise biodiversity under its canopies, or raise acidity in soils- but this is one side of equation,” said O’Reilly.
“It grows incredibly straight incredibly fast and is the most productive timber in Ireland. We have a requirement for timber in our building sector- should we continue to import timber, or use our own most practical supply?” he questioned.
“The answer is to plant sitka in site appropriate places- to use it and to establish a quantum that is nationally approved on an annual basis. We need to use sitka to facilitate our domestic building sector. We should support ourselves and then export the excess.” O’Reilly argued.
The total estimated economic output (direct and indirect) of the forest industry to the Irish economy is approximately €2.3 billion annually. Around 83% of Irish forests afforested since 1980 have been planted by farmers, with the government now supplying 100% funding to plantation grants.
Mark Carlin, managing director of Coillte, believes that our exported timber could be put to better use. In 2022, Coillte announced that Ireland’s annual timber exports could instead be used to build 44,000 homes to the Irish people.
“We think the 44,000 homes is a conservative estimate but is well in excess of the 33,000 annual homes the government’s “Housing for All Plan” says is required each year from 2021 to 2030 to keep up with demand,” he said.
Carlin added that Ireland is self-sufficient in providing a wide range of construction timber unlike the UK, which imports most of its wood and has done so for many decades.
“About 80% of global demand for wood is for coniferous trees due to the wide range of products they produce and their ease of use”, he said.
“The Irish market is no different. The vast majority of modern new homes use a significant amount of Irish wood,” said Carlin.
In 2021, Project Woodland was launched by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine. 2022 saw targets of 8000 new plantations being planted in Ireland, while only 2000 were achieved.
In addition, this year Coillte announced the Irish Strategic Forestry Fund, which has since been condemned by NGO’s such as the Irish Wildlife Trust and SEEFA.
Coillte is aiming to plant over 247,000 acres of new forests by 2050. To reach climate targets, the government may sell upwards of 123,000 acres of Irish forestry to British investment fund Gresham House.
“The concept of mass acquisition isn’t a good idea, we do not know who the land will be sold to,” O’Reilly said on the matter.
“The whole fund is potentially saleable- all of the land is potentially saleable- which is a serious risk. I understand that Coillte is taking action to achieve the Climate Action Plan, but I don’t agree with the concept. The Irish Strategic Forestry Fund is not the correct answer.”
Environmentalists and farmers have spoken out against the deal, arguing that the Government should be the financial backer rather than Gresham House.
“The joint venture is not about climate, it’s not even about forestry,” said Sinn Féin spokesperson on Agriculture Matt Carthy told the Dáil in January.
“Gresham House has confirmed that 8,000 hectares of their Irish portfolio will be existing forestry land, as little as 3,000 hectares will be bare land for new tree-planting. For Gresham House, this venture is simply about corporate profit,” he said.
Last November, the Seanad saw a debate on the use of wood for construction.
Senator Pauline O’Reilly tabled the motion that, “Irish grown timber will be the material of choice for the substitution of carbon intensive building products for new Irish homes”.
Senator O’Reilly also called on the Government to establish without delay a working group between the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to devise and implement the necessary policies and legislative changes to remove existing barriers to the increased use of timber in construction.
“When we look at buildings in Ireland, we see that 37% of emissions come from the construction and built environment sectors. That equals the emissions from agriculture,” she said.
The senator’s statement was made in relation to an October 2022 report from the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage that showed construction accounted for 37% of all Irish carbon emissions in 2021.
“We often hear people talk about how much carbon emissions there are in agriculture, and they are astronomical, but it is the exact same for construction and building, and that is rarely heard. I know the Minister of State is passionate about using wood because it has the dual purpose of getting houses built and reducing our carbon footprint,” she said.
“It is important that we get going on that and everybody buys into it. Not only that, but if we start to ramp up the use of timber in construction, we can ensure that 100% of our wood is used,” said the senator.
According to the Irish Times, Home Centre retailers have seen a significant rise in the purchasing of wood pellet stoves amidst the rising costs of coal and other solid fuels.
“Wood is an imperative when it comes to nature, but when we look at the timber industry, we can make sure that we have houses built and that the by-products are then used for energy, so timber can have that dual purpose,” she finished.
One example of this is sawdust, which is commonly used to create wood pellets for heating, proving to be a suitable renewable energy carrier for heating homes. According to the Irish Times, Home Centre retailers have seen a significant rise in the purchasing of wood pellet stoves amidst the rising costs of coal and other solid fuels.
The Irish forestry and timber sectors have plenty of viable opportunities to increase productivity and prioritise national interests. Using our own forestry and sawmills, we could produce renewable energy resources, potentially end our timber shortages, and perhaps even help allieviate our housing crisis.