The Department of Agriculture’s year-end forestry dashboard provides data for licence application and approval for afforestation, felling and roading, while comparisons with previous years’ performance are also available.

Afforestation licences were issued for 4,819ha, up 15% on 2021. The area planted was 2,258ha, up by 10% on the previous year, but down by 10% on 2020.

Comparisons with previous afforestation are academic as most farmers and other landowners planning to plant last year waited for the new Forestry Programme (2023-2027), which was announced last November with major increases in premium payments.

Afforestation licence increase

The dashboard data in the coming weeks and months will provide information on the response to the new forestry programme. While the programme has yet to be ratified by the European Commission for State aid approval, planting is being carried out under the interim, or de minimis, afforestation scheme.

While dashboard data is only available for the first two weeks in January at the time of writing, the Irish Farmers Journal has learned that around 110 afforestation licences are being activated, which represents a programme of approximately 800ha.

Afforestation licences were issued for 13,400ha, with half of this area actually planted

No new applications can be accepted under the interim scheme, which has cast doubt on the programme as the Department is uncertain when EU approval will be received.

While forestry companies are encouraging farmers to go ahead and plant under the de minimis scheme, there is still uncertainty surrounding aspects of the afforestation programme. The de minimis scheme has the same level of funding as the new forestry programme published in November. However, it is subject to €200,000 ceiling in funding over a three-year period.

One forestry company with a client who has a licence to plant 20ha of native species cannot proceed as establishment grant aid, including deer fencing along with three annual premium payments, would exceed the EU de minimis cap.

While the Department cannot accept new applications, officials are urging forestry companies to prepare applications so they can submit these as soon as EU approval is received.

However, this is a Catch-22 for hard-pressed companies who are reluctant to work on files as “we have not idea when EU approval will be announced”, said one spokesperson for a forestry company.

One of the more confusing aspects of the dashboard data is the difference between licences available for planting as presented by foresters and forestry companies and the number of approvals issued by the Department in recent years.

Over the past three years, afforestation licences were issued for 13,400ha, with half of this area actually planted.

Technically, this means that 6,700ha of land has afforestation licences to proceed with planting.

Planting an area of this size alone would generate €45m in the local economy during the forest establishment phase, with additional downstream revenue during forest roading and harvesting.

The discrepancy between licences issued and actual planting is due to a number of factors.

Many farmers who eventually receive licences may have lost interest in planting because of time delays, while others may have entered into leasing arrangements, so they cannot opt for afforestation but might do so in the future.

“It is essential that the Department, forestry companies and foresters follow up on these, outlining the benefits of the new afforestation programme,” said Pat O’Sullivan, Society of Irish Foresters.

Low afforestation results in oversupply of nursery plants, which relies on the Scottish market to sell surplus plants.

“Now, Scottish nurseries have caught up with increased planting programmes so that door is closing,” according to Teige Ryan, director of None so Hardy Nurseries and chair of the Social, Economic, Environmental Forestry Association (SEEFA).

“While our nursery has most of its orders filled for broadleaf planting, we have a large surplus of Sitka spruce,” he said.

“Rapid EU approval for the forestry programme is important as otherwise, afforestation is unlikely to exceed 800ha by the end of the current planting season,” he added.

“There is likely to be a large surplus of Sitka unless other schemes are activated under the de minimis rules such as reconstitution schemes for forests subjected to storm, frost and ash dieback damage.”

Felling licences

The 9.55m m3 of licences issued in 2022 continues the upward trend compared with 2021 (8.45m m3). Last year’s approvals covered an area of 45,485ha, according to dashboard data.

While the 9.55m m3 for 2022 is impressive – more than twice the annual harvest – this volume may not come on the market for a number of years as felling licences cover a 10-year period.

Ideally, the volume availability should be calculated on an annual basis according to the thinning and clearfell schedule in the applicant’s felling licence.

It should show Coillte and private sector volumes by clearfell and thinning separately. This would provide sawmills, boardmills and energy outlets with a more accurate annual volume forecast.

However, annual licence approvals for 23m m3 over the past three years demonstrate that private volumes are increasing considering Coillte’s annual volumes have plateaued at approximately 2.7m m3.

The volume estimated in the dashboard is based on an average 350m3/ha for clearfells and 70m3/ha for thinning.

Forest road licences

Licences issued for forest road construction continue to increase. In 2022, 290km were licensed, up from 264km in 2021 which more than doubled the 2020 performance of 130km.

However, in 2020, some 98km of roads were constructed compared with 75km last year despite record licence approvals.

Dashboard data

Based on dashboard data, forest owners – Coillte and private – now have a surplus of 441km of road licences as 684km were approved over the period from 2021 to 2023, while 243km of roads were actually built.

While licences issued comprise Coillte and private forest owners, actual road construction may not include Coillte data.

If this is the case, the dashboard figures for road construction versus roading licences are meaningless, so roading licensing and construction data needs to be aligned.