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Leitrim trees: Anger at Irish climate change scheme

By Shane Harrison
BBC NI Dublin correspondent

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  • Climate change
image captionCounty Leitrim is well known for its lakes, hills and wooded areas

It's known as lovely Leitrim - the county is well known for its picturesque lakes, hills and wooded areas.

But planting large numbers of new trees is proving very controversial.

The Republic of Ireland is hoping to increase its wooded area from less than 11% at the moment to 18% by 2046, as a climate change measure.

The soil may be relatively poor but Leitrim is already close to meeting that target.

Land prices are rising as big financial institutions - what some locals call "vulture funds" - use grant aid incentives to make a profit.

Akin to ethnic cleansing?

Jim McCaffrey's small farm will soon be surrounded by forestry.

"To me it's akin to ethnic cleansing, only you don't use a bomb or a bullet," he said.

"You just push millions of taxpayers' money at it and the outsiders will come - the foreign investors, banks and pension funds.

"It's Irish taxpayers' money. And they'll come and buy Leitrim land and plant it and remove the indigenous people."

image captionFarmers are finding it hard to get loans unless they are for trees, and grant aid is increasing the price of that land often beyond the reach of local people

But another farmer, Brian McCauley, is planting trees on some of his 50 acres of marginal land, having recently expanded from the wood fuel to the wood chip business.

"We planted them in a couple of fields and it's the first time really that I'm getting an income without having to worry about weather," he said.

"I feel mixed - I'm sorry for all these people who have spruce forests planted all around them, but without the sitka spruce I wouldn't have a business."

No Christmas tree

Many locals complain that profitable North American conifer Christmas-type trees make up most of the new forests, rather than native species like oak.

But Marina Conway, CEO of the Western Forestry Co-op, believes the new Christmas tree-like arrivals such as spruce have adjusted well to Irish conditions because the climates are similar.

"The same argument could really be made in farming," he said.

"We have non-native breeds that have adapted really well to Irish conditions that are intensively farmed in Ireland - and spruces are the exact same, except in forestry."

image captionThere is some local opposition to forestry in County Leitrim

Leitrim is the county in the Republic of Ireland most affected by depopulation.

Local Independent MEP Marian Harkin worries about how afforestation is affecting the local economy.

She says farmers are finding it hard to get loans unless they are for trees, and grant aid is increasing the price of that land often beyond the reach of local people.

"There's huge frustration, because not only are the trees growing all around communities like Cluan, ordinary locals are just kept out of the market unless they want to plant," she said.

Despite increasing local opposition, it looks like more trees will become a feature of the Leitrim landscape as the Republic of Ireland, a climate change laggard, tries to reach its global warming targets.

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