Afforestation licensing figures continue to drop, despite the new forestry programme being rolled out in recent weeks, Sinn Féin spokesperson on agriculture Claire Kerrane TD has said.

Recent figures show that just 42 afforestation licences have been issued this year so far and just two applications have been referred to the Department’s ecology unit for review to date in November.

"I have engaged with individuals and organisations representing farmers, forestry owners and the commercial forestry sector in recent weeks. These figures are indicative of the wider concerns raised by them regarding the management of forestry in the State," Deputy Kerrane argued.

Many, she said, have raised the same worries that the new afforestation scheme under the forestry programme 2023-2027 is too limited and restrictive and, at times, too administratively burdensome to allow for the levels of afforestation that we need.

“While I understand that eligibility criteria for planting is required, it cannot be the case that rules are so rigid to prevent afforestation on scale.

"One forester I spoke with in recent weeks confirmed that many prospective afforestation sites are no longer eligible due to new rules regarding planting on peatlands, which potentially rules out huge areas of land.

“Minister Hackett has cited EU state aid rules as the rationale for this requirement and I have submitted a query to the European Commission to seek clarity on this matter," she said.

Wait times

Where afforestation applications are being made, Deputy Kerrane said she is hearing from applicants that they are waiting for a long time for the file to be processed, with no timeframe for when they can expect to receive their licence.

Referring to a recent parliamentary question submitted by Deputy Kerrane, so far in November, just two afforestation applications have been referred to the ecology unit for review.

"While the review process is important, it is concerning that such a low number of applications are being processed, particularly when the new afforestation scheme is up and running.

“I have raised the absence of a forestry licensing strategy with Minister Hackett. It is really disappointing that we are almost at the end of 2023 and still no licensing plan or timeline is in place.

“That just 42 afforestation licences have been issued so far in 2023 is very concerning," she argued.

According to SEEFA, that represents around 2% of what is required for Government to meet our afforestation targets of 8,000ha per year.

“As I have said, the Government have failed and continue to fail to deliver on forestry. It is crucial that these key issues are addressed so that we can improve confidence, meet our targets and realise the potential of the Irish forestry sector," she said.