The dramatic fall in forestry licences during July and August dominated the opening exchanges at last Tuesday's Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine meeting.
Brendan Gleeson, Department of Agriculture secretary general, told the committee that this was due to "a new statutory instrument introduced by the Department of Housing in late June".
This required a second period of consultation which Gleeson said was "built into our system now, and we have resumed normal service, with 136 licences last week and 110 issued the week before".
'Massaging' the data
Commenting on the two-week increase in licences, committee members Jackie Cahill (chair), Matt Carthy and Michael Fitzmaurice accused the Department of "massaging" the recent data as a similar increase occurred "prior to committee meetings in January and May this year".
Gleeson refuted this allegation. He said the loss of eight weeks was unavoidable and would have "some impact on our ambition to issue 4,500 licences this year", but declined to give a target for year-end.
Gleeson acknowledged the "concerns expressed recently at the pace at which afforestation licences are issuing".
Plans to rectify this included the addition of 10 ecologists working specifically on afforestation licences.
"This will add to the 5,700 hectares already available to the sector," Gleeson maintained. When asked about actual numbers of afforestation licences to be issued, he said "20 licences a week" would be achieved by year end.
After the meeting a Department spokesperson said this would amount to "4,000ha of afforestation licences".
If the Department achieves this target, close to 10,000ha worth of licences would be approved by year end.
Deputy Fitzmaurice said farmers had become disillusioned with the planting licence delays and had taken up other land use options.
Gleeson acknowledged the delays which he said were "unacceptable". He said applicants should "get a licence within a fixed period, at eight to 10 months, which would be better than where we are today".
He outlined measures the Department has taken to increase licences and reduce the time delay, saying: "The number of ecologists has increased from one in 2018 to 27. The number of forestry inspectors has increased from 40 in 2020 to 61 now, and we have a system that is issuing more than 100 licences a week."
Commenting on felling licences, he said: "Companies have received individual feedback on felling licences and we conducted the same exercise for forest roads."
So far this year 1,570 licences have been issued comprising 794 to private growers and 776 to Coillte.