There are huge concerns and frustrations among forestry contractors, caused by the ongoing and unnecessary prolonged delays in the issuing of adequate numbers of forestry licences, according to Michael Moroney, CEO of the Association of Farm and Forestry Contractors in Ireland (FCI).

“Delays in issuing afforestation, felling and roading licences by the Department have now lasted over 19 months,” he said.

“Forestry contractors, more than others in the sector, are feeling the pain caused by these delays, which have forced many to scale back their operations since January 2020.

“Some have been forced to make their highly trained teams of skilled operators redundant, such as Michael Fahy [profiled below], as they are left with little option but to dispose of machines in a difficult market.”

While the greatest impact has been in harvesting, Moroney outlined the crucial work carried out by contractors in forest establishment, roading, maintenance and other areas of forest and woodland management.“It needs to be clear and not forgotten that it’s forestry contractors who do the work in the forests,” he said.

“They provide the machine investments and the skills to carry out this crucial work. We in the FCI are disappointed that the role of the forestry contractor has not been recognised in this debacle, despite their significant investment in machines in recent years.”

In a survey carried out by the FCI, this investment can amount to €345m in 10 years (Table 1).

“Irish forestry contractors provide an essential service and employ in the region of 1,000 skilled machinery operators who are trained to the highest levels using modern high-tech machinery to achieve a huge economy of scale in Irish forest production,” he added.

“Irish forestry contractors are the most commercially vulnerable in an environment where issuing of licences is delayed.

“All the machines have been privately funded by Irish forest contractors, with significant monthly repayment needs by individual operators. This has been totally disregarded.”

Moroney said the harvesting element of forestry contracting amounts to major rural-based investments that have not been grant supported.

“Some machines are now being sold due to the inability of the Department to carry out its mandate, which is resulting in hundreds of redundancies in the sector, as well as a loss of machine skill and talent that cannot be easily replaced,” he said.

“In addition, there is a loss of expensive machines to the sector and bankruptcy of operators who have years of experience in the sector.”

He said the reduction in the planting programme has future implications for the sector, especially in “harvesting outflow, as well as a missed opportunity in maximising carbon sequestration in Irish forests.”

Tipperary forestry contractor lays off staff

The recent rise in felling licences is slowly increasing wood mobilisation, but for some contractors such as Michael Fahy it is “too little too late”.

Before the licence debacle in late 2019, his company, Timber Contracting and Tree Care Services, had nine harvesters and forwarders – owned and hired – felling and extracting timber.

At one stage when private licence approvals were reduced to a trickle, all of the machines were idle.

Now, as licences are being slowly approved, he has two employees back working full-time and after a period of carrying out other forestry contract work, he hopes to be back felling next week.

However, six machines remain idle while his six operators have been laid off work.

When asked if they would return if licence approvals further improve, the Littleton, Co Tipperary-based contractor maintained the future is far too uncertain for a return to harvesting.

“These six skilled operators have left forestry for good,” he said.

“They are now employed in construction, haulage and other work and won’t return to forestry. Sadly, I had no option but to let them go, even though they would have preferred to stay in forestry.”

Change to ash Reconstitution and Underplanting Scheme

The Department has issued a circular changing the eligibility rules to the Reconstitution and Underplanting Scheme (RUS) covering plantations with ash dieback.

“Category 2 now includes all ash plantations over 7m in height,” the circular (12/2021) states.

“This change will bring into the scheme, sites over 25 years of age.”

This means that applications turned down because they were over 25 years of age “will be reviewed and a fresh decision will issue” according to the circular, while the Woodland Improvement Scheme (WIS) “remains available for all ash plantations which are over 7m top height.”

Fall in forestry licences but 4,500 approval target on track

The recent legislative changes made by Statutory Instrument (SI) No. 293 involving a revised 30-day public consultation period for forestry projects has led to reduced licence approvals.

Three weeks prior, 319 felling, roading and planting licences were issued. In the following three weeks, only 86 licences were issued, according to dashboard data issued by the Department up to week ending 23 July.

A Department spokesperson said that this is a temporary adjustment and licences should be back to 100 per week by mid-August to allow for the 30-day consultation period. He said the target of 4,500 approvals for year-end should also be reached.