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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 12 May 1994

Vol. 442 No. 7

Adjournment Debate. - Sligo Forest Service.

I thank the Chair for allowing me to raise this important matter on the Adjournment. The forestry inspector in Sligo, who is employed by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, retired recently. A replacement has not been appointed and as a result forestry payments for grants are not being processed or paid. The forestry office workload is extremely demanding and time consuming and for the past 18 months the inspector worked single handed every weekend. He covered all of Sligo, most of Leitrim and part of Cavan and dealt with matters, such as private planting, advising on species of trees to be planted, pre-planting and post-planting, general inspecting advice and so on. He was the only person employed in that office; he did not have a secretary to answer telephone calls. The office is now unmanned and an adequate service is not being provided for those involved in forestry in Sligo, Leitrim or Cavan.

If this position remains unfilled, planting will come to a standstill and those employed in forestry contract work in the area will cease work. I am concerned that the private contractors who work for the forest service will not be paid if the work is not carried out.

The automation of sections of the forestry operation in recent years has led to a decrease in the number of people employed in forestry. This is another matter of concern because in recent years the forestry sector has not been adequately catered for. Additional people should be employed in that sector.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and ask him to urgently appoint a replacement forestry inspector. The officer who retired worked seven days a week and the only time farmers could contact him was when he returned home at night. The service in Sligo, Leitrim and Cavan has been down-graded. If possible, will the Minister make that appointment within the next few weeks to ensure payments are made on time?

I thank Deputy Brennan for raising this important issue. The professional unit of the forest service consists of 22 professional foresters of which 16 are assigned to regional offices throughout the country. The regional locations were based primarily on an analysis of areas of greatest intensity for private forestry plantations, determined in 1991 at the time the inspectorate was established.

In the period 1989 to 1991, the private forestry inspection function was carried out on an agency basis by Coillte Teoranta. This situation proved inadequate for a variety of reasons particularly on conflict of interest grounds in that Coillte Teoranta was itself in competition with private owners for forestry land, with private contractors for establishment work and with private nursery owners for the sale of plants; and second, the delegation of this function to Coillte Teoranta was incompatible with the policy functions of my Department. For these reasons, a Civil Service Commission competition was held and inspectors were recruited from Coillte Teoranta from which they severed all previous links.

In the period since record levels of planting have occurred in Ireland involving in all cases a significant input of inspectors' time, effort and expertise. The inspector is responsible for pre-planting advice to farmers and landowners on site suitability, species selection, environmental compatibility, economic value and establishment techniques; post-planting evaluation of establishment for grant payment purposes; inspection of maintenance standards in the early years for second instalment grant payment purposes; and general functions in relations to the provision of the 1946 Forestry Act relating to felling licences and the promotion of forestry.

Following the completion of the CAP reform process, my Department submitted a new programme to the EU which will very substantially expand the forestry planting programme to 30,000 hectares per annum. The programme will place a new emphasis on species diversity and will, in particular, involve an increase in the share of broadleaf planting to 20 per cent. I am happy that the EU Commission has accepted my proposals and the programme has now been formally approved. In anticipation of this, my Department has undertaken a complete review of the inspection process with a view to maintaining the objective of best forestry practice in the enlarged programme. That review is almost complete and will devolve greater responsibilities on private contracting companies while retaining the primacy of my Department's regulatory functions. I see this new inspection process as delivering a better balance between the ongoing process of certification of best forestry practice with the desire to expand the forest estate through the promotion of forestry as an alternative land use by farmers.

The inspector referred to by the Deputy retired less than three weeks ago and the question of replacement is currently under consideration by my Department. However, as with all vacancies it is subject to constraints on Civil Service numbers and administrative budget considerations. In the meantime, alternative arrangements will be made to ensure that cases on hand are dealt with as expeditiously as possible so that grants are processed and paid on time.