The number of forestry licence applications being processed in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine reduced from 4,832 on October 1, 2020, to 4,453 last week.
IFA President Tim Cullinan said the Department’s plan to address a felling licence backlog is not working, with only 30% of targeted monthly felling licence issues achieved in December.
Mr Cullinan said, “The recent changes around appeals, publishing output figures, and setting up committees, is all bluster”.
He said farmers with forestry cannot thin or harvest their timber, and new entrants cannot get a licence to plant.
“Those who went into forestry with the full encouragement of the Government are being blocked from harvesting their crop.
“Yet the Government keeps issuing press releases telling us how important it is to increase the amount of forestry in the country,” said the IFA chief.
Meanwhile, the EU Commission’s extension of state aid approval for Ireland’s National Forestry Programme for 2021 has been welcomed by Senator Pippa Hackett, the Minister of State in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine with responsibility for forestry.
The existing approval by the EU of Ireland’s forestry state aid expired on December 31 last, and the new EU approval allows the Government to go ahead with its 2021 forestry programme, for which €103m was allocated in the budget last October.
The Government says it is fully committed to expansion of the national forest estate, due to its multi-functional benefits including increased removal of carbon from the atmosphere, creation of habitats rich in biodiversity, and better water quality.
Generous grants and premiums since 2014 have made available over €100m each year for forestry development, including afforestation.
Currently, up to €6,220 per hectare is available to cover the cost of forest establishment, followed by premiums of up to €680 each year for 15 years.
The Climate Action Plan target is to increase Irish forest cover by 8,000 hectares per year. But without the EU extension, the Government would have had to cease all its national forestry schemes, which are a key part of its national climate mitigation measures.
However, the separate licencing logjam has already slowed Irish forestry industry development to a crawl, regardless of the EU state aid extension.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) is the planning and consenting authority for forestry licensing in Ireland, and Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue has acknowledged the impact which licensing delays are having on the sector, contributing to a reduction in afforestation levels.
Licences are required for afforestation, forest road construction, and tree felling, to go ahead.
Licences must be issued in compliance with EU and national environmental legislation.
Third parties may make submissions on licence applications, and can appeal approvals of forestry licences.
Case law from the Court of Justice of the EU, and its subsequent interpretation by the Irish High Court, the most significant part of which came in mid-2019, required the DAFM to introduce new assessment procedures for forestry licencing, resulting in delays in licence processing.
Minister McConalogue said new procedures have been challenging to implement, such as the more detailed screening where protected nature sites are within 15 km of a proposed forestry project (or are hydrologically linked).
Delays in issuing licences are partly due to most applications now requiring a second stage assessment.
There have also been a large number of appeals, after licences were granted, which has resulted in an appeals backlog.
Mark McAuley, Director of Forest Industries Ireland, said recently that there are long delays for every licence application.
His members need 500 felling licences per month, but the industry “is on its knees, and thousands of jobs are at stake”, due to licence delays.
“If we can’t get our raw material, then the industry is dead on its feet.
“We have to see far greater output of licences right now if we are to stave off disaster”.
The Co Cork-based Forest Owners Co-operative Society warned that its members could face average losses as high as €100,000, if unfelled trees lose condition, or suffer windblow damage, while they wait for licences to allow them harvest.
The DAFM has 2,760 felling licence applications on hand at present, down from 3,230 applications on hand at October 1 last.
Since October 1, there have been 29 appeals against licences for felling of 474 hectares of forest (124,803 cubic metres of timber).
The DAFM says the felling volume licenced in 2020 was just over 5 million cubic metres, down from 6.5m cubic metres licensed in 2019.
Licence applications being processed for new afforestation have increased from 960 on October 1, 2020, to 1,009 afforestation licences at present.
Since October 1, 172 sites, for planting of 1,639 hectares of forest, have been licensed.
But there were appeals against 23 of these afforestation licences, totalling 306ha.
In 2020, 2,433 new hectares were planted. (Just over one third was broadleaf trees; the Forestry Programme target is 30% broadleaf).
Afforestation licences have a three-year validity, and a total of 4,900ha is currently available for planting, with a valid afforestation licence, and not subject to appeal. Minister Pippa Hackett has encouraged any landowner with a valid afforestation licence to strongly consider using it, given the strong economic and environmental benefits of using some of their land for tree-planting.
Licence applications being processed by the DAFM for forest roads have increased from 642 at October 1, 2020, to 684 at present.
In 2020, 129km of forest roads were licensed, compared to 195km in 2019. But there were appeals against 10 road licences, for a total of 5.2km, since October 1.