The Oireachtas agriculture committee met for the first time to discuss the forestry licence issue since it published its report in March.
The report made a number of recommendations including an agreed time frame for licence approvals, a customer charter and the introduction of single consent system to cover planting, road construction and felling.
Department assistant secretary Colm Hayes told the committee: “We are not yet where we want to be on licensing but we are seeing some improvements in output, with 1,236 licences issued to date this year.
“This is a 15% increase on the same period last year and while I know that significant further gains need to be made, we are moving in the right direction.
“Felling volumes are 32% higher than the same point last year while the area for afforestation is 26% higher and [forest] road lengths licensed are 117% higher.”
Committee chair Jackie Cahill asked Hayes “to refrain from drawing comparisons with 2020” because last year’s performance was exceptionally poor.
Deputy Matt Carthy said: “The figures are disastrous for March, April and May, with only 948ha planted so far this year.”
Senator Tim Lombard, along with other members, also questioned the comparisons with 2020 and said 2019 would provide a more accurate measure of licence performance (Figure 1).
He also asked for a response from the Department on “why our licence regimes are way out of sync with other European countries, that have a total different approach to the 15km rule in Ireland”.
“These countries have 15-year management plans so don’t need felling and roading licences,” he said.
Chief forestry inspector Seamus Dunne replied: “It’s fair to say that a lot of member states do things differently to us – a lot have lighter regimes in relation to forestry. Our difficulty is compliance with [appropriate assessment] and procedures in habitat directives and that’s led to delays.”
Regarding comparisons with other member states, this would require “analysis on how those countries comply with the habitats directive”, Dunne said.
He said the habitats directive applies to any project that may affect any site regardless of distance: “The 15km is not laid down in law. It’s used as an industry norm in this country. So certainly if you have a country that has a lot of their protection areas in one part of the country that would explain how the appropriate assessment wouldn’t feature in other parts of that country. Also, Ireland has designated a lot of the river systems as SACs so virtually every catchment in the country is hydrologically connected to an SAC and this may not be the way in other countries.”
He said the detail provided in a management plan “is useful” but didn’t comment on its use as a substitute for a Natura Impact Statement (NIS).
Regarding a request from Deputy Michael Collins to provide licence comparisons between Ireland and other member states, Hayes said: “This exercise would be completed by the relevant work group on Project Woodland and their finding would be made available to the committee to avoid duplication.”
A number of forestry company spokespersons have expressed unease with the profile of forestry within the Department.
They refer to comments made by assistant secretary Colm Hayes in reply to Senator Paul Daly on non-achievement of afforestation targets and the underperformance of the planting programme, especially in contrast to GLAS uptake.
Senator Daly said it was vital that an 8,000ha afforestation programme was achieved to ensure carbon neutrality in Irish agriculture or the sector could face herd reductions.
“I would be wary of any direct link between agriculture livestock policy and forestry because that does a disservice in many respects to both sectors,” replied Hayes. “The forestry sector and the planting of land is not there to help the livestock sector to achieve their output targets.”
He said he would be careful in drawing the link between the two.
Foresters disagree with this assessment. “The integration of agriculture and forestry should be acknowledged as both are complementary land uses in respect of climate policy,” said a spokesperson for the Association of Irish Forestry Consultants. He points to the draft agri-food strategy which identifies forestry as a key land use in achieving carbon neutrality. In that respect agriculture and forestry are strongly interlinked and compatible he claims.
Paddy Bruton, MD Forestry Services believes the Department’s response to issues such as ash dieback and licence shortfalls demonstrates the low standing of forestry within its parent department.
This is manifest in the Department’s poor promotion of forestry in comparison with GLAS, he maintains.
“The minister continues to insist that GLAS and afforestation are compatible,” he says. “The poor performance of the afforestation programme is due not only to the current licence debacle, but there is no doubt that it is also linked to the strong promotion of GLAS. Bruton says that since GLAS was introduced in 2015 as part of the Rural Development Programme 2014-2020, 49,826 farmers have applied for GLAS funding while in the same period 2,655 farmers have planted land. (Table 1). This information was secured under recent Parliamentary questions. “The decline in farmer afforestation has not been studied – and accounted for – in the Department’s SWOT analysis for the CAP Strategic Plan,” he claims.
He says the low profile of the forestry sector was illustrated in a recent letter by Minister of State Senator Hackett to Mark McAuley of Forest Industries Ireland (FII).
She refused his request for membership of the CAP Post-20 Consultative Committee on behalf of the forestry and forest products sector.
It is believed the letter was rescinded after it was raised by the joint Oireachtas committee.
Coillte and Failte Ireland have announced a €16m redevelopment of Avondale House and Forest Park in Co Wicklow, which will provide an iconic and world-class visitor destination at “the home of Irish forestry”.
The announcement was made by Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media Catherine Martin TD and Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity Senator Pippa Hackett at Avondale last week.
Attractions will include a new 38- metre wooden viewing tower providing spectacular 360° views of Coillte’s Avondale Forest Park and a number of innovative features such as a unique 1.2km treetop walkway.
The park will also include a visitor orientation hub while the walled garden will be restored.