A large crowd attended the meeting in The Lough Allen Hotel, Drumshanbo last Friday. Photo: Willie Donnellan
A large crowd attended a public information meeting entitled 'Save Leitrim' at the Lough Allen Hotel, Drumshanbo, last Friday, June 22nd.
The purpose of the meeting was to highlight the detrimental impact monoculture forestry is having on Co. Leitrim through the planting of large tracts of Sitka spruce which is impacting negatively on traditional farming practice and affecting entire communities.
The meeting was non political and brought together all strands of society in the county - agriculture, education, sport and culture - where speakers voiced their opposition to what they see is government policy allowing big industry, vulture funds, pension funds and speculators come in to the county to exploit and sacrifice agriculture and local communities for profit.
Cllr Justin Warnock, Michael Harding, John Brennan and Michael McManus.
Local councillor and committee member, Justin Warnock, said, “We have a fierce battle on our hands and we need the people of Leitrim to stand shoulder to shoulder with us.”
He stated that some 18.5% of land in the county is currently planted but suggested the real figure is closer to 50% when roads, rivers, lakes, mountains that cannot be planted and special areas of conservation are removed.
Cllr Warnock claimed it is government policy, and has been for 40 or 50 years, to clear the West of Ireland and especially the North West of Ireland of its people.
“Government after government are using taxpayers' money to remove people off the land. It is ethnic cleansing of a people and that cannot be allowed and it will not be tolerated any more,” he warned.
He said there are only 340 farmers in Leitrim with land planted but there are 3,500 other farmers in the county contributing over €57 million annually back into every business in Leitrim including co-ops, marts, local shops and pubs.
Chairman of the meeting, John Brennan welcomed representatives of the five local marts serving the county.
He said that for every farm covered in conifers there is one less farmer farming and spending money in the area.
Among the many speakers on the night was author Michael Harding who lives locally in Arigna.
He spoke passionately about 'brand Leitrim' as a vibrant place for artists and writers, a beautiful place with a great future.
Author Michael Harding.
“What I don't believe is part of it is Sitka forest. It is a devastation on the water sources, it's a devastation to bird life, to plant life, to animal life,” he said.
“I too know what it is to walk into a forest that is completely dark and without life and find a little fuschia bush and you know there was a family here and then you find the ruins of the house and the people are gone to New York or Chicago or Dublin. It doesn't have to be like that,” he said.
“When the Sitka forest comes, not only houses die, not only people go away, but I've been to places in West Cavan where even townlands on the mountain are dying, where the last person to remember the name of a townland is dying in a nursing home in Enniskillen. That's not the future for Leitrim because you are here tonight,” he said.
Hubert McHugh, former Leitrim Person of the Year and a community health nurse for 43 years, said the common denominator that causes the most problems is loneliness and the feeling of isolation.
“We need to develop Leitrim as a place that our young people want to stay in and provide them with the opportunity to do so,” he said.
Hubert encouraged everyone to take a stand.
“I believe that our county is worth much more than being overpowered by big outside investors who feel our land is only worth planting.
“There needs to be conscious efforts by the authorities to provide more investment and employment for the young people of Co Leitrim and for the county planners to remove some of the barriers in place for people seeking planning permission to live in their own communities.” he said.
Oonagh Duggan, Assistant Head of Policy and Advocacy at Birdwatch Ireland, spoke about the affect afforestation is having by removing entirely the habitat for ground nesting priority species at high risk such as curlew, golden plover, lapwing, meadow pipit, red grouse and more.
Oonagh Duggan of Birdwatch Ireland.
She said the negative impacts of a predominantly Sitka spruce monoculture in Ireland are the loss of habitat for certain species, reduced diversity of bird species compared to broadleaf woodland, habitat fragmentation, and acidification in some sensitive catchments impacting stream dwelling birds.
Terence Boyle, Chairman of Leitrim County GAA, said the organisation is at the heart of every community in the country and no less so in Leitrim.
He said the rural clubs in the county are struggling at the moment due to a huge decline in the numbers of young people and afforestation has an awful lot to do with that.
Terence Boyle, Leitrim GAA Chairman.
He pointed out that a survey carried out by Leitrim GAA last year showed that 70% of all underage players in Leitrim are playing for just 30% of the clubs, which equates to six clubs in the more heavily populated areas.
“Farms are closing down, families and our young people are moving away,” he said.
“The Save Leitrim committee are going in the right direction trying to keep young people and families at home.
“We call on the government to level the playing field in regard to the grants, give the young people and young farmers the same level of grants to expand their own little farms to make them viable, thus ensuring the survival of all our clubs within the county,” he said.
Seamus Tiernan, Principal of St. Joseph's National School, Aughavas, outlined the campaign being run in the community to grow numbers so the school can retain its three teachers.
“All of the incentives that are being given at the present time are grant aid to plant more land and to increase the green wave that's coming across the country,” said Seamus.
Seamus Tiernan, Principal, St. Joseph's NS, Aughavas.
“If you go into a Sitka spruce forest the first thing that will hit you is the silence; no bird song, very little animal life, very little of anything only the silent whispering of the trees.”
Seamus painted a bleak picture of what is in store for rural communities if the present trend continues.
“If you don't have young children in a rural community with their happy voices at play you're going to lose something very valuable and in time you're going to lose those communities as well,” he said.
Sean Wynne, community activist and Vice Principal of Drumshanbo Vocational School, spoke about the effect on second level education with less pupils meaning less teachers in the schools and a reduced choice of subjects as a result.
“It is the right of everyone in Leitrim to sell their land for the going agricultural price but equally it must be put in place that there is a social agenda that tries to sustain a population,” he said.
Sean added there is an unfair advantage presently where foreign conglomerates can come in and buy up property and plant it.
Mary Rooney, Chairperson of the Leitrim West Cavan branch of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA), said a major change in direction is of the utmost importance and has to happen fast.
“We have been fighting forestry in Leitrim now for almost 70 years and despite intense actions by many, so far we've not had much success in changing the outcome or policies of the State,” she said and added that they need to change tack fast.
Mary Rooney, Chairperson, INHFA, Leitrim and West Cavan.
“The fact that the entire grant and premium structure of the forestry programme is currently 100% funded by you, the Irish tax payer, is something that few are aware of.
“We have to force a change in the wider population's thinking to force government to change policy to stop conifers further destroying our home place,” she said.
Mary pointed out her concerns regarding the lack of transparency within the forestry programme, the unfair system of planning and appeals, of citizens' rights to object to their property value being wiped out by government-funded schemes, as well as the landscape and the future of the place they live in.
Mary expressed the view too that Coillte is not answerable to any other department and “hold powers way above what any forest authority should require to do their job,” she said.
“The intention of the national forestry programme is to march on, planting more and more conifer pulp wood right across the country, into the heartland of prime suckler grazing territory where neither farmers nor communities have any notion that their areas are at risk from conifer plantation,” she added.
Mary described the forestry programme as no longer fit for purpose.
“We want our woodlands conifer free and working for you and there's no reason why we cannot if the political will to change is there,” she said.
“Over a 15 year period we are asking that the current conifer plantations are taken out on a continuous rotation basis and replaced with a mixed broadleaf and hardwood plantation,” she concluded.
Bridget Murphy of the INHFA spoke about Irish forestry policy and how it might be diverging from European policy.
“All the money generated by these trees doesn't mean anything if it leaves our land and water poisoned and no future here for the next generation,” she said.
Eddie Mitchell of Love Leitrim addressed the gathering in relation to the success of the previous campaign to prevent fracking in the county.
“We know we have the power in this county to change policy in government and policy locally,” he said.
“If we want to solve the problem of forestry the tools are there, we've done it before. We know there's a lot of work involved and it can't be done by a few people, it has to be done by everybody,” Eddie urged.
Eddie Mitchell, Love Leitrim.
He pointed out that the Leitrim County Development Plan supports the plantation of forestry and he said they need to sort out that policy first.
He said they need to have an assessment done on what is the impact of forestry on the county and get that information into future policy for the county so that the issues can be addressed at decision making levels.
“We have the power and tools to stop what needs to be stopped and allow what needs to happen, happen,” he said.
Save Leitrim committee member and community activist, Edwina Guckian pointed out in Scandinavia, Sitka spruce is now officially an invasive species and it's being replaced, so too in the UK, yet here in Ireland it just keeps on being planted.
She said that some 110,000 hectares of land have been planted in Ireland since 1983 and that more than €2.5 billion has been spent on the forestry programme since 1990.
Edwina spoke directly to those employed in the forestry sector.
“We are not against you and we do not want to see you unemployed, but you need to start working with us for long term forests and solutions to the problems,” she said.
She also had a strong message for the Irish government.
“There's a right way and a wrong way to do things. It's not what you've done to the people of Leitrim, it's how you've done it. You've enforced your power and money on us without even consulting us.
“Our message is a clear one and we need you to listen to us - Leitrim is not for sale and we're shouting stop,” she said.
“To the people of Leitrim, we are not against trees and we are not against our neighbours planting. We know our neighbours feel they have little or no other choice.
“We want everyone to come together to decide on a better future for our county, our people, our communities, our environment, our wildlife, our land and our future.
“Our message is a very important one for our future generations and our Ministers should sit up and listen to it. This is a huge issue for people all across Ireland and they are ready to stand up and fight.
“We want to bring the power back into Leitrim, not in the hands of Ministers, vulture funds, pension funds and private investment companies, but back into the hands of the people of Leitrim,” she said.
Edwina urged everyone to contact their independent candidates and political parties at local, national and European level and make their stories heard.
“Put pressure on them because we put them there for a reason,” she said and asked everyone to inform and educate themselves on the forestry issue.
“We want a pledge from every person running in the next election to oppose all future conifer plantations in Leitrim and the replacement of current blocks with hard woods,” which was met with loud applause from the floor.
“We want you, the people of Leitrim, to call on our government to stop incentivising the plantation of Leitrim and the removal of our people from the land.
“We are a tough and proud breed of people. We have survived famines, hardship and hundreds of years of suppression and we are still here fighting.
“Communities in the old days held us together, we relied on each other for support and help. We need to go back to needing each other. We need your help. Leitrim needs your help,” Edwina concluded.