Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue has confirmed that “the deal is done” between Coillte and Gresham House on the formation of a controversial €200m forestry fund that will allow international private investors to enter the Irish forestry market.
ddressing the Joint Oireachtas Agriculture Committee, he also confirmed that, since January 1 this year no scheme is available for a farmer to submit for a new application for afforestation or Ash dieback tree disease support – unless a previous licence was granted by December 31, 2022.
While he said he hopes to forward an application under State aid rules to the EU “within a month”, he furthermore warned it “could take two to eight months” for the new Forestry Programme, with its higher rates of planting grants and premiums, to get the full go-ahead from Brussels.
Mr McConalogue was asked by Independent TD Michael Collins when he first learned of Coillte’s plans to partner with UK-based asset manager Gresham House on the Irish Strategic Forestry Fund – which aims to plant 3,500ha of bare land supported by taxpayer funded department forestry grants and premia.
The Fianna Fáil minister replied saying: “Coillte wrote to me on the 16th of December outlining and confirming that they had signed off on a deal with Gresham House.
“The deal was already done at that stage, the changeover in ministerial appointments was the next day, and then the next week was Christmas week, so it was the start of January when I turned my attention to this,” he said, adding that the issue was not discussed at Cabinet level.
He continued: “The fact that Coillte were going to engage with private funding in order to enable them to do 100,000ha [of new afforestation], I was aware of that from when I was given a pre-briefing at the end of 2021, that was common knowledge.
“Coillte are contractually committed to the deal and they have an obligation to that deal, it’s 3.5pc of their total ambition between now and 2050 and, having examined the deal with them… it’s not our preferred way to go and we’ll be engaging a lot more on how Coillte can work directly with farmers as well.”
Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice asked whether international investment funds involved in the new forestry initiative will also be able to draw direct payments under the Common Agricultural Policy if they hold a herd number.
Assistant Secretary General at the Department of Agriculture Colm Hayes replied: “A herd number defines you as a farmer, there are farmers that incorporate as companies, so a farmer can draw a single farm payment as long as they were claiming a single farm payment since 2008.”
Asked whether the looming forestry investment companies, both foreign and domestic, will be able to draw the Department of Agriculture’s grants and premiums on a yearly basis, plus the new establishment grants under Forestry Programme 2023-2027, Mr McConalogue said: “Yes, for 15 years.”