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Coillte: the mismanagement of Ireland’s forests

This was first published on our website in the Tara Foundation monthly magazine (January 2007 Volume 2, Issue 1). It is relevant to the Irish Government's present bid to offload state forests to an investor fund.

Canopy of tree branches.
Woods in Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny. Photo by Jay's Photography at

Coillte Teoranta, the Irish Forestry Board, was formed in 1989 and

“owns”, or rather has custody over, 441,000 hectares, of which 350,000 are

forested. Despite the fact that Ireland has perfect conditions for tree production,

with broadleaf species growing faster that elsewhere on the continent, Coillte’s

policy is to plant sitka spruce, to the exclusion of other tree varieties. However,

the wood from sitka spruce trees is the lowest quality wood commercially

available, unsuitable for any purpose other than compaction into pallets.

The susceptibility of pine trees to insect infestation and disease, when

compared to broadleaf, means that they require a higher rate of pesticide

usage. Coillte have responded to pine weevil outbreaks by spraying chemicals

containing high quantities of dioxins. Pollution of groundwater by fertilisers,

and the acidification of soil by the trees themselves, are both problems which

are created by this forest monoculture, not to speak of the year-round exclusion

of natural light from the forest floor, which prevents the flourishing of

undergrowth and of associated animal and insect species. What is astounding is

that this scorched-earth approach to forestry is being applied across the board,

not simply on peat lands or scrub.

The unspoken State policy seems to be twofold: to prevent the large-scale

growing of native broadleaf trees, and to prevent the development of a strong

native industry based on wood products. The State’s notion of “competition”

seems to be to eliminate any threat which domestic industry and fuels might

present to imports. But it seems that the State plan is more ambitious than

simply preventing the Irish people from benefiting from their own natural


In effect, a State body has been masquerading as a private company, for the purposes of (illegally) seizing publicly owned land and transferring it (also illegally) into private ownership.

Coillte’s role in “managing” the nation’s forests has been put in the

spotlight recently by issues surrounding the transfer, in 2001 and 2004, of a

total of 400 acres of Coillte-managed land at Bellinaboy, Co. Mayo, to Shell,

and the sale of part of the national monument at Rath Lugh, near the Hill of

Tara, to the National Roads Authority, and the subsequent destruction of

broadleaf trees there. Despite the fact that Coillte has been given Forest

Stewardship Council (FSC) status by Britain’s Soil Association, it has been

consistent in its refusal to comply with any of the principles of sustainable

forestry or the rights of local communities, principles which winners of FSC

status are supposed to uphold.

In 2003, the European Court of Justice ruled against Coillte’s claim to be

paid €50 million of compensation grants, to which only farmers (using part of

their land for forest cultivation) were entitled. The ruling stated that Coillte

misrepresented itself as a “private-law legal entity”, whereas they were in fact a

“public entity wholly owned and controlled by the State”. The pretence by Coillte

that it is a private company has been echoed by the Minister for Agriculture and

Food, Mary Coughlan.

Coillte has been falsely represented as a private company by the State for

a very good reason: so as to pretend to have a legal title to lands it does not, in

fact, own. The forests of Ireland belong to the people of Ireland: this position

has been established in law. Coillte’s statutory role is as a caretaker of the

property of the people of Ireland. It has no legal entitlement to transfer the land

in its care to private ownership, nor receive money in payment for it.

The consequence is that, in selling (or handing over) land at Bellinaboy

to Shell, and in transferring land at Rath Lugh via Compulsory Purchase Order

for the construction of the M3 Motorway, Coillte has acted illegally. Any

contracts which it has signed to effect these transfers are, legally, null and void.

In effect, a State body has been masquerading as a private company, for the

purposes of (illegally) seizing publicly owned land and transferring it (also

illegally) into private ownership.

Coillte, then, is a State body whose aim is, not to protect or promote the

national forests, but to appropriate public land, render it unsuitable for growing

trees which might be of any economic, social or environmental benefit, and

handing over those lands for purposes which can be of no benefit to the people

of Ireland, to whom these lands belong by right.

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