Never was so much expected of forestry. It is identified in the Government’s Climate Action Plan as an essential land use in achieving net zero by 2050.
In addition, the plan acknowledges wood as “a sustainable substitute” for fossil-based materials. Yet, despite these expectations, private forestry has never been at such a low ebb, especially farm afforestation.
COFORD, the Department of Agriculture’s advisery body, believes that the benefits identified in the climate plan and the Programme for Government will only be realised if the sector achieves an annual afforestation programme of 16,000ha until 2050.
A deeply flawed licensing system has eroded confidence in the afforestation programme, which limps along at just over 2,000ha annually while felling licences continue to slow down timber harvesting in Coillte but especially in the private sector.
Yet, despite the licence debacle, COVID-19 constraints and post-Brexit issues, the sector illustrated its resilience by recording dramatic revenue increases in 2021, although this performance was helped by European and global timber shortages.
This performance in spite of the licence debacle is a sign for some optimism, but the various companies and organisations that drive performance are now convinced that the present Department structure is not capable of meeting the diverse needs of the sector.
Sawmillers, farmers with forests, contractors, forestry companies and nurseries contacted by the Irish Farmers Journal believe it’s time for urgent change.
They claim the existing structures were never designed to achieve a viable multipurpose forestry and forest products sector.
They have been joined by groups representing growers, farmers, producer groups, forest certification, NGOs and third-level colleges who all believe that Ireland needs an independent forestry development agency (FDA) to represent and promote the forestry sector.
The call for an FDA is an acknowledgment that few sectors have a greater degree of interdependency than forestry.
How the various links along the forestry value chain perform and interact determines the viability of the sector as a whole in maximising its social, economic and environmental benefits.
With the right leadership and support, the promoters of an FDA believe that a single independent entity is essential to address the current crisis in the forestry sector
The challenges in bringing these strands together are enormous. Yet, with the right leadership and support, the promoters of an FDA believe that a single independent entity is essential to address the current crisis in the forestry sector.
As outlined last week, forestry is the only natural resource sector without an independent statutory development agency to lead and promote it, unlike ports and shipping (IMDO), food (Bord Bia), sea fisheries (BIM), marine research (Marine Institute) and renewable energy (SEAI).
These were all once part of a civil service structure but needed to grow outside the confines of that organisation. Even as late as last week, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) has realised that it too needs to be restructured as an executive agency. An FDA would have the capability to:
Michael Guilfoyle, who has helped draft a FDA proposal and discussion paper, believes “that forestry would benefit enormously” from such a body.
Guilfoyle, who was involved in establishing statutory bodies such as the Irish Marine Development Office and the Marine Institute says: “I believe that the creation of an independent FDA would optimise the performance of the Irish forest sector by providing dynamic leadership and an opportunity to achieve the ambitious targets to achieve carbon neutrality.”
He acknowledges the widespread support for such an initiative, but says: “It also needs support from Government, which would be interpreted as a positive, unequivocal signal that acknowledges the interdependency of forestry and the need for a partnership approach to achieve a viable, sustainable forest sector.”
The removal of forestry from the title of the Department in 1997 signalled the beginning of its anonymity.
The appointment of a Minister of State without a designated forestry portfolio in 2020 further compounded its obscurity even within its own Department.
While Senator Pippa Hackett, Minister of State for Biodiversity and Land Use, has responsibility for forestry, the sector needs a dedicated minister to carry out the recommendations for forestry in the 2021 Climate Action Plan, the 2020 Programme for Government and the 2019 Review of Approval Processes for Afforestation In Ireland, known as the Mackinnon Review.
Six months after the launch of the MacKinnon Review, the Programme for Government recommended its implementation. This has not happened, unlike in Scotland where Jim Mackinnon carried out a similar review in 2016.
In Scotland, cabinet secretary (senior minister) Fergus Ewing took a personal interest in turning the afforestation programme around. No such voice has emerged in Ireland.
Ewing’s leadership, and the drive of Jo O’Hara, then chief executive of Scottish Forestry, along with involvement by a wide range of stakeholders resulted in an increase in annual afforestation from 4,600ha in 2016 to 11,200ha within three years.
Despite COVID-19, this level of planting has been maintained.
The political leadership, energy and commitment in carrying out Mackinnon’s recommendations in Scotland have been absent in Ireland since a similar review was carried out by Mackinnon for Ireland in 2019.
Afforestation has continued to decline, especially among farmers, who now plant less than 600ha compared with 6,000ha over a decade ago, while forestry licence approval, particularly for the private sector, remains at crisis level.
Mackinnon’s forestry programme implementation group morphed into a well-intentioned but ineffective Project Woodland
Even simple proposals by Mackinnon, such as to include forestry in the Department’s name and have the Taoiseach’s Department represented on a forestry programme implementation group, have failed to materialise as has the recommendation to elevate the status for the minister responsible for forestry.
Mackinnon’s forestry programme implementation group morphed into a well-intentioned but ineffective Project Woodland. This body, which was charged with the implementation of Mackinnon, has no dedicated project manager and no deadline for completion.
More than two years on, it is unclear when it will issue a final report while only three of the 22 Mackinnon recommendations have been implemented.
Stakeholders representing farmers, foresters, contractors, sawmills and nurseries are convinced that the current structure is not fit for purpose in achieving the implementation of Mackinnon and a viable forestry programme.
They believed that an independent statutory FDA is urgently required to address not only Mackinnon’s recommendations but to give forestry a voice and profile it deserves and so desperately needs right now.