Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Forestry Sector

Matt Carthy

Question:

6. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the number of hectares of new forestry planting targeted for 2021; the number of applications for felling licences outstanding; and the expected timeframe to resolve the current backlog. [26909/21]

The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, said that she was genuine in her ambition for forestry in Ireland. I accept that she is sincere in her ambition but she took office with a very bad position on forestry and the position has got a whole lot worse since the Government has been in place. What changes will she make to resolve what is now a crisis in Irish forestry?

I do not think the situation has got worse. I agree that it is not a lot better, but it certainly has not got worse.

Forestry and related issues, particularly the resolution of licensing issues, are a major priority for the Department and me. We recognise the importance of forestry to farmers, forest owners, forestry contractors, sawmills, nurseries, wood processors and the wider rural economy as a whole. It is a hugely valuable and important sector.

In order to deliver fully on the potential of the sector, we need a well-functioning licensing system. I am the first to acknowledge that we have fallen short in terms of turnaround time for licences. This continues to be a problem. Steps have been taken to address the situation. We have invested hugely in resources and taken on more ecologists, forestry inspectors and administrative staff. They have seen some gains in output, but I agree that more work remains to be done. We have set ourselves an ambitious target of 4,500 new licences for this year, which would be a 75% increase on last year and we are determined to meet this target.

In terms of felling, the volume of timber licensed this year is up 27% on the same period last year, which is an improvement. In terms of product to sawmills, Coillte which is the main provider, is fully licensed on felling licences for 2021, although not all of its output is immediately available. We hope to rectify that very soon.

I established Project Woodland to work with the most important stakeholders to examine all aspects of forestry, including a review of processes with a view to reducing the licensing backlog. This process is being implemented intensively and the working groups are meeting regularly. I understand that they are due to come forward to me with recommendations in some cases. I have asked for a timeline for clearance of the backlog. I remain confident that the framework now in place under Project Woodland will address our current difficulties and will result in a licensing system which meets the needs of forest owners.

The number of licences issued for felling in March and April this year was down by 25% compared with the same period last year. Whether it is afforestation licences, road-opening licences or felling licences, we are way behind target. Not only are we dealing with a crisis in the here and now with our timber industry, but we are facing a generational crisis with regard to afforestation. The Minister of State has set a target of 8,000 ha for planting. Last year, we were wildly off those targets. She has set a target of 8,000 ha this year. At present, less than 2,500 ha have been licensed. Do licences for afforestation include figures for replanting? In other words, when felling has taken place and it is replanted, is that included in the Minister of State's figures? That is not new forestry.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Senator Pippa Hackett)

To address the Deputy's final point, afforestation is new areas and replanting is part of the felling and replanting option, so that is not afforestation, just reforestation. The afforestation levels that the Deputy quotes are correct. Past levels have been low. We have not attained the target of 8,000 ha under the climate action plan. I expect, unfortunately, that the levels of afforestation this year will be similar to last year. However, we hope that the trend will reverse with the work on Project Woodland and the co-ordinated approach to introduce more effective processes in the issuing of licences. We expect that initiative to operate well under Project Woodland. The January figures for licensing for felling were high. They may have dropped off in February and March. The licensing tends to be seasonal because you can only fell at certain times of the year. I agree that we need to have confidence injected into the sector, which is something I want to do.

How many applications are currently being processed per week? I have mentioned the crisis. Everywhere I go, I hear about this. If one tries to encourage a farmer to enter forestry schemes right now, one will be on a hiding to nothing. That is where there is a crucial concern for the future. We know that Coillte is important but the preferential treatment it has been given compared with private landowners has meant that that sector where we need growth to happen with regard to afforestation policy has become completely disengaged. It is disengaged because of the failures of the Department. I have asked the Minister of State on a number of occasions if she will face up to the faceless bureaucrats in her Department who are responsible for this crisis and who are still in charge of getting us out of it. We need a fundamental rethink, which will not happen unless there is engagement with stakeholders, which means the farmers, who can play a really important role. Will that change happen?

Deputy Carthy has covered much of the issue. If, prior to March 2021, Coillte was able to provide generic, non-site-specific harvest plans with its felling applications and that has been accepted practice between Coillte and the Department, how many applications have been submitted and processed in this manner and will the Minister of State make a statement on it?

We have new legislation and more staff across the board in the Department dealing with this. After four months of this year, we are only marginally ahead of the number of licences issued over the same period last year. We have looked for a timeline to clear the backlog. Has the Minister of State a reply to that?

Do I address all three Deputies? Deputy Browne has a specific question.

Deputy Carthy tabled the question and the other two Deputies are entitled to ask a supplementary question.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Senator Pippa Hackett)

I concur with the concerns raised. We need to inject confidence into the sector. Our farmers will be key to this. We do not have many more hectares of State land to afforest, so if we are to meet our targets, we will rely almost wholly on private landowners and farmers. I reject the claim that we give preferential treatment to Coillte. It supplies 75% of the timber for Irish sawmills and receives approximately 65% of the felling licences. I do not think that is preferential treatment. Will Deputy Browne ask that full question later? I have a more extensive answer for him for that.

If I could come back in.

The time is the Minister of State's to use as she sees fit.

The Minister of State will get the chance later on, perhaps.

Common Agricultural Policy

Holly Cairns

Question:

7. Deputy Holly Cairns asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the status of convergence rates which will form part of the new Common Agricultural Policy in the trilogue negotiations. [26918/21]

I ask the Minister the status of convergence rates, which will form part of the new Common Agricultural Policy, in the trilogue negotiations. We know the Council has accepted a minimum convergence level of 75% and that the European Parliament is proposing a rate of 85% in negotiations. I sought and failed to get greater clarity on the Government's position on this. Will the Minister provide an update on the convergence issue and outline the rate he and his officials are pushing for, and why?

At present, the trilogue negotiations are ongoing on all aspects of the CAP programme at European level. As the Deputy knows, in Ireland, convergence has been a central part of direct payments throughout the current CAP programme. In 2019, the goal of all payment entitlements reaching a minimum value of 60% of the national average was completed. In that time, Ireland also set a maximum payment entitlement value which in practice meant that all BPS payments now lie between €160 and €700 per hectare with a national average of €260.

The negotiations on the new CAP programme have seen varying proposals on the level of convergence to be applied from 2023. The general approach agreed by the Council last November saw that 60% minimum rise to 75% by 2026 in line with the original Commission proposals. However, as the Deputy pointed out, the European Parliament has advocated for 100% convergence. In the course of these negotiations, the Presidency has offered a compromise solution of a minimum of 85% convergence which has been rejected by the Parliament.

I have argued that we must have subsidiarity to make our own call at national level. I have held tight to the Council's general approach of a minimum of 75% convergence and 20% for the eco scheme, particularly so that we are in a position to make our own national call on convergence. If we can get discretion at European level, we will have a full engagement with all farmers across the country and with all stakeholders about what approach we take domestically with regard to convergence. It is an important issue and is always contested. There are winners and losers. It is important that we get as much power to set our own destiny as possible so that we can engage with everybody's ideas and talk to all farmers, then make our own call later this year. First, we will have to see what is the minimum level at European level.

In January last year, when the Minister was in opposition, he argued that there was no reasonable basis to stop the convergence process during the transition period. However, once in office, he continued with the reasoning of convergence to provide stability and certainty for farmers. What information did the Department provide which led to this change of position? Like any of us, the Minister is entitled to change his position based on different information, but he is obliged to share that rationale for the change of heart with us and with farmers. What is the reasoning of the Department driving Ireland's position at the negotiations? What exactly is the Minister pushing for, whether 85% or 75%? He is pushing for greater flexibility for member states in implementing aspects of the CAP but we do now know what he and his officials will do with that flexibility. Will he outline that and address why convergence was halted?

It will not be a matter of what I or my officials do whenever it comes to our national CAP plan. It will be a matter of engaging fully with farmers throughout the country on what our plan should look like, and fully consulting everyone before I, as Minister, make any calls on that. My approach in Europe has been to ensure we have as much national discretion as possible to set our own destiny in this regard.

On the Deputy's point regarding the transition period and my position in advance of the election, which was that we should continue convergence during the transition period and move gradually towards the 75%, it was already clear it was going to be set at European level and, obviously, it may go higher in the trilogue process. It was too late this year to put in place any additional step towards that 75% because of the practical challenges in setting that. This is why there was no step towards the 75% this year, and it was simply due to practical considerations. That is now going to be overtaken by the wider decision on what the ultimate level of convergence will be, and that will happen after consultations with farmers.

I am still unaware of what information the Minister has had since being in opposition that explains the change of heart on this issue. Convergence is just one issue that represents the lack of clarity that farmers are facing. Those on small farms in the west are concerned that the new CAP will threaten the agricultural status of their land. The Minister says this gives flexibility but farmers do not want flexibility regarding the status of their land; they want certainty. The Irish Cattle And Sheep Farmers' Association, ICSA, is calling for all farmers to be treated equally concerning land eligibility and conditionality, and the IFA is having regional meetings this week to inform its members. The dissatisfaction with REAP and the limited places are also symptomatic of this issue.

The new CAP will affect not only the lives of thousands of farming families but will also shape our landscape over the next decade. It is essential that the Minister presents his position to the House throughout the negotiations. I do not understand why we do not vote on the positions the Minister takes to Europe. I am new to this House but these are very important decisions and there is no scrutiny. It is disgraceful that so little time has been given to these issues. Farmers in rural areas deserve more respect. I ask that the Minister would give a real answer in regard to his change of heart.

To follow on from what the Deputy has said, what we are asking here, certainly what I am asking, is for the Government's position and the Minister's position on convergence. Is the Minister looking at a minimum or a maximum of 75%? As he knows, the Council put forward 85% and that was rejected by the Parliament, so we may be looking at more than that. What is the Minister's position and the Government's position? I may be wrong but my view was that the Fianna Fáil position was to move towards full convergence. We expect our Government and our Minister to have a policy, and that is what we are asking. In what direction is the Minister going? What is his policy on convergence?

I thought I had been clear but maybe not. My position at European level has been to try to ensure, in terms of the CAP, that we have as much discretion as possible to make our own decisions domestically coming out of that. I have outlined the situation at European level in terms of the Council position of 75% and the Parliament position of 100%. It remains to be seen where that will land at European level. What the Deputy seemed to be saying is that I, as Minister, should decide what the outcome will be, and what I should be looking for in terms of convergence domestically, without recourse to or consultation with farmers. To be clear, what I will be doing is engaging with farmers and all stakeholders before I make any decision on that.

The Minister does not have a policy.

I will not be setting any level on this without-----

He had a policy in opposition and now he does not.

Allow the Minister to respond.

I will not be setting any level on this without first consulting farmers. I am surprised to hear that the Deputy is suggesting I should do otherwise. I am also looking forward to hearing her policy and everyone else's policy on this. Coming out of that, I will make a decision and make a call on it.

Thank you, Minister, we are over time.

I have been consistent on this at all times. I am disappointed to see the Deputy trying to portray it as otherwise.

If the Minister is going to just ignore the rules-----

The Minister is changing his position and he is not telling us why.

I outlined that in my previous response, if the Deputy wishes to go back over it and listen to exactly what the position is during the transition period.

There is no point in me being here if we are just going to ignore the rules. It is not fair to the other Deputies who have tabled questions.

Horticulture Sector

Martin Browne

Question:

8. Deputy Martin Browne asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the engagement he has had with the mushroom and horticultural sectors on the changes to the harvesting of horticultural peat; and the provisions he is preparing to support the sector. [27066/21]

I want the Minister to outline the engagements he has had with the members of the horticulture and mushroom sectors since the ban on horticultural peat harvesting and to address the level of dismay within the sector, given the impact of this ban and how they feel abandoned by the Minister and the Department.

It should be noted at the outset that my Department has no role in the regulation or control of peat extraction. However, I am very aware of the current dependence of the horticultural industry on the availability of peat moss.

Following on from the publication of a report on the review of the use of peat moss in the horticulture industry by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, set up a working group to consider impacts on the sector. It is proposed that this working group, representing Departments, including my Department, State agencies, environmental NGOs and industry stakeholders, will address the issues raised in the report, including the future use of peat in the horticulture sector. I am pleased to say the first meeting of the independent working group took place on 4 March and it has met regularly since.

My Department, through the Horticulture Industry Forum, engages with the horticulture sector on an ongoing basis. As recently as 20 April, I co-chaired a Horticulture Industry Forum meeting where the challenges and opportunities facing the industry were discussed. At a broader level, the Department provides support to the horticulture industry through the scheme of investment aid for the development of the horticulture sector. Financial support is available to assist growers and businesses through grant aid for capital investments in specialised plant and equipment, including renewable energy, as well as technology adoption specific to commercial horticulture production. A 50% budget increase to €9 million has been secured for 2021, which reflects the importance of the sector and the importance we are placing on it. The scheme is 100% funded by the Government. In addition, the Department administers the EU producer organisation scheme for fruit and vegetables, which allows growers to jointly market their production in order to strengthen the position of producers in the marketplace.

Like other Members, the Minister of State will have heard the valid concerns about livelihoods in the sector because it is being targeted. The workers themselves are saying that the Ministers of State, Deputy Hackett and Deputy Noonan, have a fixed position on the issue of bogs and will do nothing more for the workers affected, and they say the just transition does not reach them. They are not being supported and they feel they have been abandoned. As a result, there are businesses in my constituency that are now sourcing horticultural peat from Scotland, Estonia and elsewhere. For a sector that accounts for a minuscule amount of all the peat harvested here, how can the Minister of State say, given the emissions involved in continuously importing an inferior product from abroad, that this is the more environmentally friendly way of moving forward? We know the suggested alternatives are produced in ways that fall below our environmental standards. Even Teagasc has said the only current alternative to get horticultural peat is to import it and that any other alternative is at least ten years away. In fact, there is no guarantee there will be suitable alternatives.

The Deputy's question relates to mushrooms and the wider horticulture sector. The decision by Bord na Móna to cease harvesting has directly affected the sector. The mushroom industry does not tend to acquire peat from Bord na Móna, so it has a slightly different problem, albeit we are going to reach a stage at some time in the future when nobody will be using peat for horticulture, certainly across Europe, and in the wider world. Therefore, the Deputy is correct that there is a necessity to have a just transition to facilitate growers to move away from this growing medium to another more sustainable source. That is something I hope the working group formed by the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, will be looking at, although it is specifically looking at the horticulture sector, not the wider peat extraction piece.

There is a nursery in Dundrum in my constituency where the owner cares for 1 million CO2 absorbing plants a year, and I am sure the working group will hear similar stories. He told me yesterday he was glad he has only ten more years in the business when the people who should be looking after it have no interest in it. He has had to source horticultural peat from Scotland and Estonia, and costs have risen from €24 per cu. m to €37, and there are also the emissions involved in importing it. It is like the forestry sector. How do we expect to attract new entrants into this market, which is valuable in terms of carbon sequestration, when the sector has been left to wither? Are we going to become a country that is a net importer of horticultural peat or, instead, are we going to import mushrooms and reverse the situation in which our mushroom industry employs more than 3,000 people and exports more than 80% of its products to the UK?

This is how the future looks for the mushroom sector which, if the current policy persists, may very well move to the Continent altogether. We must be realistic. The harvesting of horticultural peat is so minuscule.

Deputy Martin Browne has raised the fundamental question here. At the moment there is no viable alternative and certainly no environmentally sustainable alternative to use of horticultural peat in the mushroom industry. The Deputy mentioned 3,000 jobs. These are concentrated in counties like my own county of Monaghan where there are very few alternative economic drivers for the local economy. Therefore, the alternatives to the use of domestic horticultural peat are that we continue to import peat from outside the State, that we export our mushroom industry or that flexibility is shown to allow a sector like that to use domestic peat. The volume needed for this use is a fraction of what was needed for energy production. In the wider scheme of things, we are talking about very small quantities of peat that will actually keep a vibrant and crucially important element of our rural economy going. Which one of those three is the Minister of State willing to pursue?

I accept what both Deputies are saying and that this is tiny portion compared to what we have extracted over the decades for energy production and so forth. Those are the questions the working group has been charged with and I am hoping to get some answers from it on this. As I said, the group reports to the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, but certainly it is directly affecting the horticulture sector. It is untrue in a sense to say there are no alternatives because there are, although they are not available at the scale required for the commercial horticulture sector. However, there are, for example, some commercial organic growers who are peat free, so there is scope. There is work and research being done on this but, again, it is about implementing measures over the next number of years to help our sector transition out of peat. Peat extraction must stop but horticulture must continue and that is what I will endeavour to support people in.

Departmental Bodies

Denis Naughten

Question:

9. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the progress to date of the beef task force; the timeline for the completion of commitments given to the task force; the steps he is taking to implement the measures proposed by this Deputy and unanimously adopted by Dáil Éireann on 26 September 2019; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26493/21]

Irish beef promotion and sales are about volume and not value, which sees everyone except the farmer getting a margin. Technology has the potential to disrupt this model to the direct benefit of suckler farmers. Blockchain technology in the beef industry is tomorrow's offal. Whomever controls the blockchain controls the sector. This must be publically-owned and controlled and not let fall into the hands of one or two vested interests.

The Deputy's written question was dealing with the task force as well but I will first respond to his point about blockchain. It certainly is exciting technology and the potential of it is very strong indeed. It is something we have had discussions on previously in great detail. We certainly have a premium product in Ireland. Farmers put in tremendous effort to produce quality, healthy and safe food. It is essential we work in every way we can to ensure we are targeting the premium markets and getting value for that. That is one of the reasons I am setting up the ombudsman office. I am consulting on that at the moment to try to ensure there is transparency and that we ultimately deliver the maximum income for farmers. That is also why a potential avenue like this needs to be explored to see how it can add value and also empower farmers and the primary producer. I would be very open to any way I can assist with looking into the potential of it. On engaging at policy level as a Department, and working with our agencies and particularly Bord Bia, the key objective is trying to ensure we are putting forward and internationally marketing the fact that our product is premium, how it is quality, grass-based and also how it is sustainable and produced in a way that is environmentally friendly and in a way that other countries do not. That is our objective at all times. Certainly there is potential to be explored regarding the capacity of blockchain.

On the task force, as the Deputy knows, work has been ongoing on that since September 2019. He may want to come in with his own supplementary on this and I can update him in more detail on where we are at.

I welcome the Minister's comments about the blockchain. This is one of the issues the task force was to examine. However, to be quite honest, I have lost confidence in the task force as a result of the decision that was made with protected geographical indication, PGI, but there is an opportunity for everyone to redeem themselves with blockchain. To give the Minister an example, the Wyoming beef blockchain is breaking the current model of beef production in the US, where farmers are price takers just as they are here. It allows them to receive a premium price for their grass-fed, free-range beef. As I said, blockchain is the offal of tomorrow. Whoever controls the blockchain controls the future route to market and that must be publically owned and controlled, not held in the hands of a few.

Transparency and traceability are key with all the food we produce. Farmers and all in the food supply chain go to great efforts to show where it coming from at a farm level, from both a quality and a safety point of view. Ultimately, that is also very important in trying to ensure we get the maximum price for it when we go to sell it. The potential of any new technologies around this must be explored to see how they can assist us because we have a tremendous platform and agrifood sector to build on and try to develop. The more we can empower the primary producer, the better. I am certainly open to any ideas and suggestions for how we can bring this forward. I have no doubt that our State agencies will be interested in engaging and considering them and their potential as well.

On the task force, it has been meeting and going through in great detail many of the issues that emerged in advance of it being established in late 2019. It is due to meet again very shortly to follow up on the third of its reports.

In response the Minister can update me on where the task force is at at the moment and its current work programme. I will leave him with a final point about blockchain. Blockchain has the potential to benefit everyone in the beef sector in this country, from farmers, right through to the middlemen, the processors and those who are selling it directly as an end product. It has the opportunity to disproportionately benefit Irish suckler farmers and give them a decent financial return on the product they produce, which has a potential knock-on impact on our environment and our economy as a whole. However, it is vitally important that it is controlled and owned by the State and not the private sector.

As I said, I am certainly open to considering this and looking at its potential to benefit farmers. On the point I referred to about the task force, at its most recent meeting, the third report it produced on price composition along the supply chain was presented to task force members. They are considering it and commenting on it and will meet again in early June to take that work forward.

Departmental Funding

Mark Ward

Question:

10. Deputy Mark Ward asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the financial supports his Department provides to a club (details supplied); and if multi-annual funding for this community service will be provided. [26949/21]

The Clondalkin Equine Club is based in an area of Clondalkin that is highly disadvantaged. In fact, it is in the area where I was born, bred and buttered, as we say in Clondalkin. The club is based in a purpose-built facility that stables 20 horses and teaches young people the importance of responsible urban horsemanship. I am asking if the Minister's Department will provide multi-annual funding to this wonderful facility. Multi-annual funding is essential so the club can plan for its future.

I thank the Deputy for his question. In keeping with the programme for Government, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is committed to working with local authorities, charities and community stakeholders in supporting urban horse welfare programmes, in particular in the context of facilities and education programmes. Funding provided to South Dublin County Council in support of the Clondalkin Equine Centre has been the largest capital commitment by the Department in support of an urban horse programme.

To date the Department has provided funding of almost €560,000, with a further €26,000 made available this year subject to commitments entered into by officials from the Department and the club. This agreement was in the context of limitations imposed by Covid-19, agreeing further efforts to secure alternative funding and the proposed formulation of a strategy for the organisation. This funding of €503,000 in 2016 was committed to on the understanding that South Dublin County Council satisfied itself with the rules and governance of the club and that the project, when up and running, would be self-sustaining and assisted with reducing reliance on control of horses' activities.

This project also committed to the education of horse owners, particularly young horse owners, in the care and welfare of horses, as well as presenting educational and development opportunities for young people. At the time, the Department made it clear to South Dublin County Council that funding would not be available for the day-to-day running of the club going forward. To ensure sustainability, the Department worked with the council towards the hiring of a part-time project manager with responsibility for the further development of this horse project and the Department provided funding towards this employment for a time.

The Department provided further funding in 2019 of €20,000 to the council towards the salary of a full-time manager following a commitment from the club to pursuing alternative streams of revenue. Earlier this year, following representations and meetings with the club board and management, the Department agreed to provide a final tranche of short-term funding to the project through the council. The Government is committed to supporting urban horse projects and work is ongoing with other Departments and local authorities to ensure that horses and the young people who care for them receive appropriate support.

I thank the Minister and acknowledge the funding provided by his Department. As I stated, the Clondalkin Equine Club needs multi-annual funding. I also agree with the Minister that it has been really difficult for the club to obtain alternative funding because of the limitations imposed by Covid-19. The club was told by the Department it could apply to the Pobal process but community service programmes underwent a review last year and the club has been advised that this is at ministerial level, with nothing happening with new applications until this process takes place.

When will this review take place? I know it is not within his remit but will the Minister speak to his Cabinet colleague about this as a matter of urgency so this can be progressed? I will put this in context, although I do not begrudge Horse Racing Ireland. However, €56,000 would fund two posts in this urban horse project while Horse Racing Ireland is to receive €77 million this year, which is an increase of €10 million.

I thank the Deputy. This tremendous project has been recognised and supported by the Government to the tune of over €500,000. That is a reflection of the commitment we have to supporting projects like this and the value they add to local communities, equine care and welfare and the education of and provision of opportunities to young people so they can engage with horses and develop their skills.

The project was established on the basis that it would become self-sustaining and there was much engagement between the people in the project, South Dublin County Council and the Department on the structure. That commitment was the concept behind the project so it is important that it can be followed through. I understand the challenges that arise with Covid-19 and the engagement that has happened with my Department. I assure the Deputy we are committed to the project, as the provided funding demonstrates, and we will continue to work with it to see how it can be supported.

I thank the Minister. If possible, perhaps he could reach across the Cabinet table to speak about the Pobal funding, as that would be really welcome. The Clondalkin Equine Club is an oasis of tranquility in north Clondalkin. Young people are carrying on the tradition of urban horsemanship in a responsible manner. Its purpose is to develop the social, equine and vocational skills of young people and to provide recreation, education, training and employment opportunities.

Services are delivered to a number of groups, including local schools, youth groups, children with physical and learning disabilities and young people from socially excluded groups. I am an urban boy so my engagement with the Minister over this term of the Government will probably be really limited. On behalf of the two staff members, Rachel and Jessica, and all the members of the club, I have been asked to invite the Minister to north Clondalkin to see the equine club, what it does and the service it provides to the people not only in north Clondalkin but right across Dublin Mid-West.

I thank the Deputy. There has been tremendous commitment to this from the Department, as the Deputy can see from the level of funding. I recognise the tremendous work the club is doing and the value to youths in the community. I certainly look forward to visiting it and other similar projects whenever there is time in the near future. I also want to look at projects like this that can work with young people with a tremendous interest in horses so as to develop their skills and capacity to engage in and enjoy the pursuits they love and for which they have such a passion. It is important the support that can be given is provided in terms of infrastructure. I thank Deputy Ward for raising the matter today.

Agriculture Schemes

Sorca Clarke

Question:

11. Deputy Sorca Clarke asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he has considered amending the sheep welfare scheme in the interests of ensuring animal welfare as a result of the continued depression in wool prices. [26927/21]

On behalf of Deputy Clarke, I ask the Minister if he has considered amending the sheep welfare scheme in the interests of ensuring animal welfare standards and also in recognition of the continued depression in wool farmers. Is there a way we can support our sheep farmers?

I thank Deputies Carthy and Clarke for tabling the question.

With sheep meat, it is good to see weekly prices since the start of 2021 are running consistently higher than the same period in both 2019 and 2020, with prices in early May at €7.45 per kg, a 38% increase on the same week in 2020. The year-to-date national average price is almost 30% up on the same period in 2020. The outlook for Irish and EU lamb prices for the remainder of 2021 is positive, with global sheep meat prices projected to remain good. It is a tremendous source of relief for sheep farmers across the country to see prices where they would like them to be always in order to ensure a good return for the work they put in.

With regard to opportunities in the wool sector, following the allocation of the significant amount of €100,000 in the budget for the review of the potential demand in international markets for wool-based products, such as insulation and fertilisers, I initiated a consultation to determine the terms of reference for such a review. Details of the proposed terms of reference to implement this review were published on the Department's website on 11 March 2021 and include the identification of market opportunities domestically and internationally for wool-based products; the carrying out of economic feasibility and cost-benefit analysis on proposed market opportunities; the determination of mechanisms that could be used to support industry initiatives; and the identification of potential research projects applicable to supporting the identified market opportunities. Interested parties were invited to submit comments on the proposed terms of reference or submissions on the potential market opportunities for wool products on the domestic and international markets. The closing date for submissions was 2 April 2021 and we received 38 submissions.

The sheep welfare scheme is an EU-funded animal welfare scheme targeted at breeding ewes. It was introduced in December 2016 by way of an amendment to Ireland's rural development plan. The scheme was designed to be renewable every year over four years, with the final year of the scheme commencing in February 2020. Existing sheep farmers who wished to join the scheme were required to apply to participate in the scheme in year one. There is a facility for new entrants to sheep farming, as defined in the terms and conditions of the scheme, to apply to participate in the scheme in subsequent years.

I thank the Minister for the response. I acknowledge that sheep meat prices have increased and are at a more favourable level than before. We can agree that we hope that will continue for a long time. I welcome the work done on the review of the wool sector and it is baffling in many ways that we do not have an indigenous wool sector in the country. We are all united in seeing that develop.

What is the next step for the review? The Minister indicated that approximately 30 submissions were received. I hope some of those will outline ways in which we can develop an indigenous sector and ensure we have a sustained wool industry here, with other uses for wool. This would mean we are not dependent on markets like China, which can be extremely volatile. Will the Minister outline the next steps and the timeline for those steps?

The funding of €100,000 is there for research to develop opportunities and potential for domestic use and income from wool.

We will be very much guided by the submissions we receive and we will reflect on the suggestions coming out of that to see how we can best utilise that funding to try to ensure there are new opportunities. If any opportunities present, we will look to develop them. It has been a very challenging space for farmers over the last years where wool prices have not been able to cover the cost of clipping. It is certainly a long way from where it used to be. It is a tremendous product and it can have other uses. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, is very committed to developing this also. If there is anything we can do to try to identify new uses and sources for such a sustainable product and to deliver an income for farmers, that is what we will do as we identify the ideas and suggestions that will come through the consultation.

I thank the Minister for that response. I was speaking with a farmer in the Minister's constituency who told me he was offered €20 for one dozen bags of wool. This tells us how stark the problem is. He indicated that he was relieved not to be charged for having the wool removed. It is very important that this work continues.

On the sheep welfare scheme, I thought it was a simple enough process to amend that scheme to include clipping sheep as an additional measure that would bring even a small income to farmers and would be in the interest of animal welfare. Has the Minister given such a measure any consideration as a feasible option? As with beef and any other sector, we need to try to ensure there is stability as well as sustainability in prices and markets. No sector wants a situation of extreme price volatility one way or another. That does not allow farmers to plan. All of these things need to be taken in the round.

We would first look to explore the options for developing markets so there would be a price for wool that can actually deliver a profit for farmers and ensure the cost associated with clipping was also covered.

The sheep welfare scheme has been an important scheme for farmers and it has been extended this year. I have also updated the reference years to ensure the maximum number of farmers take part in it and that the number of sheep they have is reflected in the payments they receive. We will be looking at the sheep welfare scheme in the context of a new CAP and how it will be structured. All ideas will be considered as part of the public consultation around that. Farmers will have a chance to input into this also.

Question No. 12 replied to Written Answers.

Forestry Sector

Catherine Connolly

Question:

13. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the status of the development of a new forestry strategy for Ireland as recommended in reports (details supplied); the timeline for the finalisation of the strategy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26986/21]

Will the Minister of State please give an update on the development of a new forestry strategy? The Mackinnon report in 2019 was significant and highlighted many things, which I cannot go into in 30 seconds, but the Minister of State is well aware of them. Then there was the report by Ms Jo O'Hara. Perhaps the Minister of State will give an update.

The need for a forestry strategy was one of the recommendations made by Mr. Jim Mackinnon in his report. Mr. Mackinnon was commissioned in 2019 to examine the processes for approving afforestation proposals and the linked issues for other forestry-related operations.

The development of a new forestry strategy will provide an opportunity to not only review the goals set out in the last forestry strategy for Ireland published in 2014, but also to adapt the strategy to the new challenges and requirements, and to provide a framework that will allow for the development of the forest sector in the medium and longer term. The renewed strategy will reflect both the programme for Government commitments and international best practise from an environment, social and economic perspective.

The newly-launched project woodland, which among other things looks to the development of woodland creation into the future, provides a dedicated working group for the preparation of a new forestry strategy for Ireland. This working group, chaired by Dr. Matt Crowe and with a representative membership of external stakeholders, seeks to develop a shared cross-society vision for the role of trees, woods and forests in Ireland's future. Work in this group is well under way. We will conduct an extensive public consultation strategy on the new forest strategy, to be carried out in the second half of 2021. It is envisaged that the new forest strategy will be launched in 2022.

I see this as an exciting opportunity to reframe the discussion on forestry in Ireland, which can be very divisive at times, and to engage all citizens in shaping this long-term strategy. I look forward to engaging with all parties during the public consultation phase.

The Minister of State is more familiar than I with all of the figures. Compared to the EU average of 30%, only 11% of Ireland is covered in trees, of which 49% is privately owned. The rate of native tree species is so low it is embarrassing. I am not here to say this. I am here to work with the Minister of State on the forestry strategy and the importance of it. All Deputies continually highlight the inadequate nature of what is happening, but we knew this from the Mackinnon report and beforehand. The Mackinnon report highlights it. O'Hara came in and said that we needed an implementation plan. We are beyond this. We have a biodiversity crisis and we have a climate emergency. We need urgent action. I welcome that the strategy will be published, but it is in 2022. When in 2022 will it be published? Is it January 2022?

The Deputy highlighted the work of Jo O'Hara, who has stayed on as a member of the project board, which oversees the work of the project woodland. Before questions in the Chamber today, I was on the European Forest Institute conference. There is a Europe-wide forestry strategy being created at the moment. The interaction between what we do here and across Europe is important, including with regard to shared scientific knowledge. As the Deputy said, forests will have a significant future role in how we adapt to climate change and how we mitigate climate change. Our forests need to adapt to that. They certainly must deliver on aspects of biodiversity, water quality, and other environmental measures that are so important to our country and our country's future.

We are beyond that. Despair might be a strong word, but one of the things that jumped out of the Mackinnon report was the complete lack of hope from the Department and in this sector in relation to what is going on. I do not have the report in front of me, although I usually do, but that is one aspect. While industry-led continuous pressure is important it should not be the main or leading voice when considering what is the sustainable way forward.

The Minister of State mentioned four streams. Are all four work streams representative of the views of the environment? Who is actually leading on this? The one big absence is that nobody is driving. Members can come to the House every week with questions on the backlogs and what has happened, but it is historical. It is more important now to grasp it, deal with it, and make forestry part of the solution for all of us. We have no choice about that.

Deputy Carthy can come in. We have one minute left.

I thank the Acting Chairman. I wish to reiterate the point that timber production is very important. In our earlier discussion, we spoke of the crisis in that area. This must be distinct from the forestry policy. I am aware that this is where the Minster of State is strongest in her ambition. I fear, however, that we do not have, nor have we ever had, a proper strategy based on the promotion of native broadleaf species, and the inclusion of as many people as possible. I have spoken on the importance of the farmer as stakeholder in this important aspect of forestry. There is probably scope on all farmland in the country for additional trees to be planted, if it is done in the right manner and if the supports are there. With every community group there is huge scope for urban green areas to be utilised. During the restricted periods we saw the importance of those types of spaces. All of those areas are under-utilised. Other European countries have areas the size of entire Irish counties where they can have forestry. We do not have that here so we need a different and ambitious approach.

I thank the Deputies. I agree that perhaps in the past there has been too much of an industry-led focus on this. Perhaps this is why we have ended up with the complications we now see with forestry and the acceptance in communities and acceptance among environmentalists also. My forestry policy group is made up of 25 people at the moment.

I would categorise there being one third from industry, one third from the environmental NGOs and slightly less than one third from State agencies such as the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the EPA. We also have community representation and I have charged Irish Rural Link to engage with the communities that feel most affronted and affected by forestry. I am trying to bring everyone on board. It is a massive task but all of these representations are on the work streams. I agree with Deputy Carthy that there is much scope for us to have smaller scale planting on farms, which would be readily acceptable to most farmers throughout the country. It is certainly something the Department and I are looking into.

Questions Nos. 14 to 74 replied to with Written Answers.