Animal Health and Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2021: Instruction to Committee

I move:

That pursuant to Standing Order 233, Standing Order 187 is modified to provide that it be an instruction to the Select Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, in relation to the Animal Health and Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2021, that the Committee has power to make amendments to the Bill which are outside the scope of the existing subject matter of the Bill, in relation to:

(a) strengthening the regulatory framework for the promotion of tree planting as part of a scheme by removing the requirement for an afforestation licence for:

(i) an area of not less than 0.1 hectare and not greater than 1 hectare, or

(ii) an area of not less than 0.1 hectare that is not greater than 20 metres in width

where the trees concerned are native tree species only, of which not more than 25 per cent are Scots pine; and

(b) the introduction of a provision so that the Minister may make Regulations to provide for a native tree area Scheme and supporting grants;

and to make other consequential amendments required to take account of the changes above.

I am sharing time with the Minister of State, Senator Hackett.

I thank the House for giving me the opportunity to outline a number of amendments to the Forestry Act 2014 to increase the planting of native trees. The programme for Government outlines our commitment to addressing the urgent need to increase the level of tree-planting. We acknowledge our planting targets are ambitious and we need to improve significantly on the rate at which we issue licences. These changes are part of a number of work areas my Department is considering to review processes and examine in more detail the regulatory regime while safeguarding the environment.

The proposal today is designed to remove a legislative barrier to small-scale native tree-planting. The inclusion of small-scale native tree-planting measures in agriculture and forestry schemes is currently constrained by the 0.1 ha limit imposed by the definition of a forest in the Forestry Act 2014. Approval is sought to amend the Forestry Act 2014 through the Animal Health and Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2021 to expand the native tree-planting areas as part of a scheme by removing the requirement for an afforestation licence for an area of not less than 0.1 ha and not greater than 1 ha, or an area of not less than 0.1 ha that is not greater than 20 m in width.

This will complement existing tree-planting measures and aims to re-engage farmers in afforestation and to play a part in meeting the ambitious roadmap towards climate neutrality, as outlined in the recently published climate action plan. Our afforestation targets are ambitious when compared with recent afforestation rates and will be challenging to meet in the next decade. Clearly, more needs to be done to increase our afforestation rates substantially over the next decade, including achieving greater integration between the measures in the national forestry programme and the Common Agricultural Policy. These measures are not a substitute for the ongoing work to reform the licensing process or for planting afforestation sites, which remain a priority for the Department. Instead, they are another part of the solution that will assist in getting trees planted on Irish farms.

Woodlands and trees provide a wide range of benefits that include social, environmental and economic values. Ireland has 11% forest cover in addition to the many individual trees found growing in hedgerows, parks and fields. Trees play an important role in climate change mitigation and biodiversity. Creating new native woodlands and undisturbed water setbacks can deliver meaningful ecosystem services that protect and enhance water quality and aquatic ecosystems. The creation of these permanent semi-natural landscape features alongside streams, rivers and lakes will protect and enhance water quality and aquatic habitats into the future.

I will now provide the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, with the opportunity to comment further on why these proposals are important.

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

As Minister of State with responsibility for forestry, I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the House on the importance of planting of trees, and in particular our native trees. The Climate Action Plan 2021 sets an ambitious afforestation target when compared with recent afforestation rates and will be challenging to meet in the next decade. However, the Department is committed to addressing the current barriers that have resulted in low afforestation rates for all plantation sizes and these measures are part of the solution.

A key to the success of increasing afforestation rates is to build back confidence among landowners regarding the benefits of forestry and to provide greater integration on Irish farms. Introducing this exemption for afforestation in certain circumstances facilitates the exclusion of clearly defined activities from requiring an afforestation licence. These changes will provide opportunities for those engaged in afforestation to increase awareness among farmers who have not considered any tree-planting in the past. The design of any initiatives to utilise these measures will have to ensure compliance with all environmental law such as the environmental impact assessment, EIA, habitats and water framework directives. This measure will not allow tree-planting to take place that is not in accordance with best practice.

In advance of the development of a scheme, the Department will undertake a strategic environmental assessment, SEA, and an appropriate assessment. Furthermore, through scheme criteria and with advisory structures and approval processes in place, the inclusion of such an exemption can be undertaken only in a legally compliant and sustainable manner. If these changes are approved, the Department will carry out an SEA, which will include mandatory consultation with statutory bodies, the public and interested stakeholders. These proposed changes will have a positive impact on the environment and increase the levels of native tree-planting.

The focus on native tree species is to recognise the important environmental role they play in respect of climate change, biodiversity and water quality. The afforestation scheme will remain the main measure for planting native and commercial woodland at scale. Large forests of all species play a significant role in carbon sequestration and it is hoped that, if a farmer plants 1 ha, he or she may be encouraged to plant larger areas in future through our afforestation scheme.

I appreciate, however, that some Deputies may argue we need to address the current licensing backlogs and I assure them this remains my priority. The Department is committed to addressing the current barriers that have resulted in low afforestation rates in the past. Project Woodland, which has been established, is making good progress. We are examining a number of work streams, including a focus on reducing the backlog in licensing, as well as existing regulations and efficiencies in work processes.

Once this legislation has been enacted, we will carry out stakeholder consultation on the design of any proposed scheme and discuss how we can ensure maximum participation. The public and statutory bodies will also be provided with an opportunity to engage in the mandatory public consultation process required for the development of an SEA. Furthermore, the SEA will inform the development of the scheme eligibility criteria. In addition, the amended legislation can facilitate additional tree-planting in agri-environmental schemes and measures where tree-planting measures were historically capped below 0.1 ha. The role of registered foresters, agricultural consultants and advisers will be important when the schemes are being developed and we will engage with them over the coming months.

Streamlining the process for small native tree-planting will involve the landowner or his or her agent assessing and submitting applications that meet the eligibility criteria, which will be subjected to validation checks to ensure compliance. Once the Department has confirmed compliance with the eligibility criteria, it will issue approval to undertake tree-planting works. Following completion of the approved works, the landowner will submit an application for grant aid.

This legislation is in line with the programme for Government commitments to planting trees on areas of 1 ha and it will also enable the further planting of native trees. I encourage all Deputies to support this amendment. It is one part of the solution to increase tree-planting. Project Woodland is addressing a number of other areas of improvements that contribute to increasing our afforestation levels now and in future.

I welcome any proposals aimed at increasing native tree-planting and encouraging smaller levels of afforestation among those who may not be willing or able, in the current climate, to take a leap towards greater levels of planting. Even so, the manner in which this proposal has been brought forward so late in the day, as an amendment to legislation that will ban fur-farming, is a matter of great concern. It is symptomatic of the manner in which forestry policy is dealt with in this State. It is not good legislative practice and it is not the type of approach Sinn Féin believes is conducive to the development of good legislation. We in the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine received a draft copy of the proposal on Friday and today received a briefing from officials, which was welcome, and we will debate Committee Stage in the House at a later point.

One forester has been quoted as giving the assessment that this is another hospital pass from the forest service of the Department to the forestry industry in a decade-long litany of hospital passes, which has left this once-great indigenous rural-based industry in tatters. That rings true when we read the briefing note that was circulated with the motion. It refers to the climate action plan's aim for afforestation of 8,000 ha per year until 2030 as being ambitious when compared with the recent afforestation rate. It is important to acknowledge, however, that the climate action plan does not outline a target of 8,000 ha of afforestation. In fact, it does not make any reference to a target. In the annex to the plan published yesterday, again that target is not referenced. As for the target of 8,000 ha per year being described as incredibly ambitious, it might be ambitious when compared with the catastrophe we are currently dealing with but it is nowhere near the level of ambition we would want.

When we compare ourselves with some of our neighbours, we can safely say the target is not ambitious at all. Two years on from its Mackinnon report, Scotland had reached its pre-crisis levels of afforestation, whereas two years on from our Mackinnon report, almost to the day, this State's afforestation rates have not doubled but halved. Ten years on from its Mackinnon report, Scotland is targeting 15,000 ha, almost double the pre-collapse level, while ten years on from our report, we will be targeting only the level that was planted prior to afforestation. Rather than putting in place the mechanisms and measures that will see an ambitious afforestation programme and targets met, we are tinkering at the edges to bring in a pile of smaller holdings to try to mitigate the bad look of what can only be described as a record failure.

The briefing note that was provided on this amendment refers also to Project Woodland examining a number of work streams, and here lies the crux of the issue. The Mackinnon report did not call for a body to be established to examine the findings of an implementation report based on the initial report.

It called for actions to be taken but, as we have seen time and again, the can is kicked down the road as one report is followed by another. Some of the work streams that were described will not report until the middle of next year at the earliest. By the time there is action, it will have taken the Government at least three years to implement a report the implementation of which was supposed to be measured in months.

Supports for native broadleaf planting certainly are to be welcomed. However, if this is the Government's big idea, it amounts to a hospital pass and will have little meaning for much of the forestry sector Currently, the greatest obstacle to afforestation in the State is the licensing backlog within the Department's forestry unit. With a current target of 100 licences per week, the Department is, in effect, surrendering to the fact it has no intention of clearing that backlog by the end of next year. The annexe to the climate action plan references increasing the output of forestry licences by quarter 4 of 2020 to meet demand. Will the Minister indicate the target output per week for next year? Is it intended to meet the target under the spring legislative agenda that will be brought forward in a few weeks? Will the Government begin work on legislation to provide applicants for forestry licences a statutory period in which they can expect a decision? If the backlog is to be cleared by 2022, there is no longer any excuse for not providing such a measure. There is no reason the Department should fail to begin preparing such legislation without delay.

As I mentioned at the outset, what is happening with the bringing forward of this motion is far too symptomatic of the general approach. Last year, we had emergency legislation on the appeals process in respect of which all parties in this House and the Oireachtas committee waived their right to engage in pre-legislative scrutiny. It is all too familiar that we are now dealing with an amendment to legislation that has no relation to forestry. I hope the Minister will acknowledge in his closing remarks that this is not the best way of doing business. There is too much latitude being given to him that he has not earned in terms of the trust of this House. In respect of the schemes, I ask that we not be left to wake up on a Wednesday in the new year to read about them in the Irish Farmers' Journal before receiving telephone calls from constituents asking how they meet their needs. That is the playbook the Department follows all the time. It leaks selectively about schemes but it does not engage with Members unless and until it is essential, namely, when it wants to bring forward legislation within a short timeframe. Our support is then sought and is given to allow the measures to go forward.

We need a partnership process. We need the forestry sector to be central to that and we need environmental groups and communities to be part of all the dialogue that takes place. We must have an increased volume of tree planting, including of native broadleaf trees, across the State. Any measures to deliver that end certainly are welcome but it is time to leave the disingenuousness and play-acting to one side and get real about this. I hope this is the last time we see this type of stunt being pulled. We do not need any more last-minute measures. We must have a long-term strategic plan that delivers on afforestation.

The Labour Party is serious about taking measures to tackle the climate crisis and ensuring we meet our ambitious but necessary targets on climate. As such, we welcome any proposals to increase tree planting and afforestation, particularly native tree planting and woodland cover. We see that increase in forest cover as an essential component of actions to meet our climate targets, especially given that Ireland's forest cover is among the lowest of any county in the EU. I understand the figure is 11%, compared with an EU average of more than one third. Sadly, just under 2%, or approximately 20,000 ha of that 11% is native woodland, of which only tiny fragments are original ancient forests, which covered 80% of this island just after the most recent ice age.

It is in this context that we are willing to support the motion but we have concerns about the process. It is unfortunate that it is coming to us at such a late stage and in connection with completely different legislation. It is not good legislative practice, particularly in the last sitting week before Christmas, to see a motion brought forward in this way, with so little advance consultation. Many of us have been alerted to the concerns raised by the Social, Economic, Environmental Forestry Association, SEEFA, about the process by which this is being introduced. There are valid concerns around the process.

Having said that, I agree that we need to take urgent action to ensure we meet targets, particularly on afforestation. I welcome today's publication of the detailed annexe to the climate action plan, which is something I have sought in this House on a number of occasions over recent months, particularly since the publication of the plan. We are all very conscious, and even the Government would acknowledge, that the plan was big on aspirations but lacked the detailed timelines on delivery of necessary actions. It lacked the level of detail that could only be supplied in a more detailed annexe. It is welcome to see that produced today. When I raised this with the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, in the House last week, I had a suspicion that it might not be published until after the Dáil had risen. Instead, it has been published on the second-last day of the Dáil term, which is not ideal. It is unfortunate that we will not have an opportunity to debate the annexe in full before the House rises. Even on a preliminary look at the document and the timelines provided, there are disappointments, including in respect of bringing in regulations on e-scooters and e-bikes. There are some very welcome measures on the transport side to increase cycling infrastructure, active travel and public transport provision, but we are seeing many delays and a lagging behind. There certainly is not the necessary sense of urgency we had hoped for in the annexe. I hope we have an opportunity early in the new year to debate more fully the annexe, the afforestation targets and other targets set out within it and the associated timelines. I certainly will be looking for that debate through the Business Committee.

Turning to the motion, we all have concerns about the licensing backlog. Indeed, I raised it in the House on 9 December when I asked the Minister about the number of afforestation licences issued, on which we had an engagement and debate. Many colleagues, on both sides of the House, shared my concern about that backlog and the delays in the delivery of ambitious projects such as Project Woodland, welcome though it is. The Minister acknowledged last week that what has been lacking to date in the forestry sector is a co-ordinated and joined-up afforestation policy that fits within the climate action plan and helps to deliver the necessary climate action targets. In that context, we should all be concerned not only about low levels of native woodland cover, as I mentioned, but also that we continue to cut down more trees than we are planting. For every acre of forestry that is planted, approximately 6.7 acres are cut down. That needs to change if we are to meet our ambitious but necessary targets. I raise these concerns and reservations in the context of supporting the motion.

I am sharing time with Deputy Cahill. I welcome the motion in many aspects, as I would welcome any change that will improve animal welfare and afforestation. Regarding the phasing out of fur farming, it is fair to say this is a case of the law catching up with societal changes. The majority of people are deeply uncomfortable with the idea that an animal would be raised for the purpose of using its fur or skin. While there was a time this was acceptable and fur clothing was sought after, we have moved on. As a country of animal lovers, it is overdue that we phase out this practice. The motion provides a mechanism to compensate those whose livelihoods depend on fur farming. It is a fair approach that acknowledges the impact of the legislation. It represents the types of arrangements we need to help farmers and others move from one practice to another.

The amendments to the Forestry Act are a sensible and overdue change that will allow for the small-scale planting of native trees as part of agriculture and forestry schemes. I have advocated for this measure to encourage farmers and landowners to increase the afforestation of native broadleaf varieties. Sections of forestry on all farms will not only help to increase our overall afforestation goals but will foster greater biodiversity and facilitate wildlife corridors.

As I have mentioned previously in the House, there is an aversion to planting trees on farms in Ireland. It is something we did on our farm approximately 15 years ago when dairying became unviable because of the change in the industry and how small our farm was. As I have said previously, during the election campaign somebody said they would not vote for me because we had ruined that farm with trees. We still farm half of it with beef but the focus of the farm is now seed production. Even though there was resistance to doing it in the first place, the forestry is now our favourite part of the farm. People should give it a chance.

These legislative changes are important to address the concerns of farmers who have called for greater assistance and less bureaucracy in facilitating tree planting. The policy and regulatory changes that will follow this legislation need to adhere to this principle to enable as many small farms as possible to avail of the schemes. However, this move cannot detract from the need to clear the forestry licensing backlogs and the greater afforestation strategy. We need consistency from the Government on these issues.

I have sought clarification on the €7 million in capital expenditure that is due to be moved from forestry budget. I am working with the community in Riverstick, County Cork to prevent the sale of a substantial part of the public forest. I would appreciate if the Minister and Minister of State would look into this. At a time we are trying to meet our COP 26 obligations, why should public forestry containing mixed species be sold? I do not know how we square that circle with our commitments.

While the amendments to allow small-scale native tree planting is a positive development, we need it to form a part of an holistic forestry approach. Unfortunately, I am not a member of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and Marine, but I have spoken to members. It seems these two changes coming together at the last minute is unexpected and unexplained. I echo their calls for clarity and more information. An explanation in the reply from the Minister or Minister of State would be great.

I thank Deputy Cairns for sharing her time. It is very much appreciated. I also thank the Minister and his officials for arranging to give a briefing to the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and Marine this morning. As has been said, these amendments came out of the blue for the committee. This morning's briefing was very beneficial to the members and we greatly appreciate it.

I welcome the amendments relating to small plantations on farms. I welcome that farmers will not need to go through a rigorous procedure when trying to get a licence to plant small areas their farm. It has a part to play in addressing climate change and reducing our emissions. However, we need to have a commercial forestry industry. The programme for Government has a target of 8,000 ha per annum. I plead with the Ministers to keep that target in place for commercial forestry. As it stands there is a requirement to have certain number of native trees in commercial forestry. However, without Sitka spruce we cannot have a commercial industry. We do not want to have to import timber in large quantities. We want to be able to keep our mills running for the production of timber and for our country. We have a tremendous ability to grow timber in this country. We can grow Sitka spruce more efficiently than any other country and we cannot lose sight of that. Whether it is to keep timber contractors in work or to keep the nurseries running, we need to have this 8,000 ha target for commercial forestry.

Whatever farm planting is done will be most welcome and will help in reducing emissions and meeting our climate targets. However, at the end of the day these will not be commercial ventures. No timber contractor will come along in 25 or 30 years to cut half a hectare or a hectare; it would not be viable to cut it commercially. Our forestry industry has great benefits for rural areas as an employer. It is an indigenous industry with much to offer. We have had a serious shortfall in afforestation in recent years and we are only meeting 25% of our targets in the programme for Government.

The Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and Marine has had numerous meetings over the past 12 months. Some of the issues have been ironed out, but the level of afforestation remains exceptionally low. I do not want the afforestation of small plots of land by farmers to be used to camouflage the serious shortfall in commercial afforestation. This industry is a major employer in rural areas and has much to offer, especially in areas where the land quality is not up to the same standard as in other parts of the country.

While I welcome these amendments, which will allow farmers to plant small parcels of land without the hassle of applying for licences, I stress that our target of 8,000 ha for the commercial industry needs to be kept intact. We cannot use these figures for farmer afforestation to camouflage that.

We will support the amendments insofar as they seek to facilitate planting of native trees on small parcels of land and provide for schemes to be set up to allow that to happen relatively easily. However, as others have said, there is concern about the way this has been sprung on people and the lack of consultation with stakeholders who are concerned with forestry, including those in the industry and environmentalists. I have my sources in forestry and they usually contact me if anything is moving. They have not heard any word of this and they are on top of everything. That is a problem and there are concerns about it.

As others have said, measures like this cannot be used to camouflage our failures in other areas or to substitute for the necessary action that needs to take place in other areas where we are failing. The backlog in the issuing of licences has been mentioned as a major concern. Net deforestation may take place in the country, as suggested by the greater number of felling licences being issued compared with a fraction of that for afforestation licences. A few years ago, the EPA signalled that it believed there was a danger of net deforestation because felling was happening essentially dictated by market concerns rather than by the best stewardship and guardianship of forestry.

I recently flagged another concern with the threatened sale of Killegar Forest near Enniskerry, from which I am glad Coillte backed off. However, it posed very serious questions. I subsequently tabled parliamentary questions trying to understand what on earth possessed Coillte to imagine that it might be a good idea to sell an amenity forest when we are supposed to be meeting climate and biodiversity targets. There was a similar threat to a forest close to Kinsale, County Cork.

Coillte is carrying out significant sales on an ongoing basis. That is linked to the mandate of Coillte, which at one level we are told is trying to pivot towards biodiversity and so on, but in reality much of what it does is about clear-felling and then replanting 90% to 95% with Sitka spruce, perpetuating a failed forestry model and not doing much in the way of active afforestation. Against that background, its selling of amenity forests makes no sense and suggests something is fundamentally wrong with the mandate of Coillte, it being operated on a sort of commercial basis.

The other issue, which relates to Deputy Cahill's point, is that I would like to think we could break from the Sitka spruce industrial forestry model. If we are to do that, which I think we have to for climate, biodiversity and all sorts of reasons, it must also be a new forestry model that delivers a decent living for farmers engaged in forestry which at the moment many feel can only be delivered by the Sitka spruce monocultural model. We need to break from that, while also giving real supports to farmers to do so.

I wish to focus on the underlying issue of the Bill, which is the central issue, that is, the ban on fur farming. I will make two points on that. One, there needs to be a just transition for workers engaged in these industries that will have to be shut down and for which we have been campaigning for a long time to shut down. It is not just an issue of redundancy payments. It is also a question of alternative employment and retraining, as is the case with fossil fuel workers who will lose their jobs in the context of a just and rapid transition. It is essential that ordinary workers do not lose out as a result of doing the right thing in terms of animal rights.

Second, this is a victory for campaigning. It is a consequence of the campaigning by the National Animal Rights Association and the Irish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, as well as statements from Veterinary Ireland and many other campaigning organisations. This came about as a direct consequence of a Bill put forward by People Before Profit-Solidarity which sought to ban fur farming. That pushed the Government, together with the campaigning from outside the House, to move to impact this measure. It shows we can win when we campaign.

That brings me to my next point which is that the next emerging issue in terms of animal rights in this country will be the Bill, which will be moved at Second Stage next year, to ban hare coursing. It seeks to ban the cruel practice that leads to tens of unnecessary deaths and hundreds of unnecessary injuries to and mauling of hares every year when hare coursing takes place. It is a practice with no support from the public. Some 77% of people agree with banning it. The question for the Green Party will be whether it will go against its long-term policy of supporting a ban on hare coursing and back its partners in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael by voting against the ban. It is a question for the Labour Party that likes to talk from time to time about animal rights but has still not given a commitment to support it, and for Sinn Féin Deputies who had a motion before their last AGM, which was taken off the agenda, to change their party's policy and support a ban on hare coursing.

Those who have been watching what happened in the North in relation to the motion on fox hunting will perhaps not be feeling very optimistic. The attempt to ride two horses at once reached its zenith with Deputy Carthy's appearance on the radio where he attempted to say that Sinn Féin was opposed to a ban on fox hunting because of biodiversity, which makes no sense whatsoever. I appeal to campaigners to take heart from what happened yesterday in Stormont regarding the vote on abortion. Sinn Féin can come under pressure. Animal rights campaigners and members within Sinn Féin who support a ban on hare coursing should put pressure on the party leadership and tell them not to be on the wrong side of history on this issue and ask them to support a ban on hare coursing when it comes before the House next year.

This Bill seeks to ban fur and skin farming of certain animals. The explanatory memorandum published by the Oireachtas states:

...there is now a broad consensus among veterinary and other scientific experts that certain animals should not be farmed for their fur or skin because of serious animal welfare concerns that cannot be mitigated. There are also increasing serious societal concerns in this regard.

First of all, I am always very concerned about the use of phrases such as "a broad consensus". History and current events should display very clearly the dangers of using broad consensus as a way of justifying decisions. By way of example, 20 months ago we were told there was a broad consensus not to wear masks, but a few weeks later they were made compulsory. More recent, only a few weeks ago, there was a broad consensus from the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, that antigen testing was not worth a damn. In fact, the terms used was "snake oil". The broad consensus now is they should be mandatory. There was a broad consensus at the start of the vaccination programme that two doses would be enough, and now the so-called broad consensus is we need at least three and maybe more. Recent events alone should warn us against making law based on notions such as broad consensus.

If we look more carefully at the arguments in favour of supporting this Bill, I would be very concerned that, in the future, similar arguments might be used to try to ban or curtail more mainstream farming of animals. We already hear talk of the ridiculous notion that limiting or reducing the total herd in Ireland will somehow make a material impact on climate change. We see through the withholding of Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, payments until certain eco schemes are put in place that farmers are being targeted in an unfair manner.

The reason, of course, the fur farming Bill will receive Government support is partly as a compromise to get the Green Party on board in Government negotiations, but also because it is an easy and relatively non-controversial way of making a government look compassionate. There are only three fur farms in Ireland so it will not be a big vote loser for any party in Government, but it sets a very concerning precedent. I welcome the provision of a compensation scheme for those affected, because they will need it if this Bill is passed, but we cannot take away people's livelihoods without ensuring they are financially compensated. I ask the Government to bear in mind with regard to licence holding and salmon drift net fishers that it might ensure they are compensated.

Section 6 contains a definition of a specified animal. It lists a host of different animals to which this Bill will apply. It further states the Minister may, by order, designate any animal or class of animal as a specified animal for the purpose of paragraph (h) of the definition of "specified animal" in subsection (1). That gives the Minister the power to add any animal he or she likes to which this legislation applies without ever having to consult the House again. That concerns me in terms of what might lie before us in future. It would effectively give the Minister to close down the Irish woollen industry at the stroke of a pen.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Like the previous speaker from the Regional Group, I look at this and ask what is broad consensus and how would you define it. We could have broad consensus on anything, but do we have the proof that there actually is broad consensus? We could take a stance on different issues, but at the end of the day we must talk about animal welfare and how animals are treated and protected. If fur farming, which is the focus of this Bill, is to close down, how will the people who currently make a livelihood from it in a licensed way transition out of that area and be compensated?

I have listened to the debate in the Chamber today. This morning there was a debate about pain relief for unborn babies. There was an outcry from certain Deputies that what we were doing was wrong. My God, if people say we cannot give pain relief to children when it comes to the late stage of pregnancies or they say we should not interfere, only for the same people to want the welfare of animals to be the top priority, we need to recalibrate our thinking on all of this.

The Bill will set a precedent that would not be good. If the Minister is to do something about this issue, it needs to be done in an exact and precise way that is limited in the powers it gives to the Minister.

I come from a rural area. Hare coursing and fox hunting have been traditions in many rural areas for years. They are a means to keep wildlife, such as foxes, under control. At the moment, we have 80,000 deer too many in this country. They are running wild around the place. What are we going to do about that? They are jumping out on the roads, hitting cars and whatever. That is endangering life. We need to do something about that.

If we put things in an order of priority, there are a hell of a lot of things we need to do before doing this. I will go back to the point I made initially. We were here this morning talking about pain relief for unborn children who have heartbeats. People do not want to support that but those same people want to support the protection of animals. I agree we need to do that but we need to make sure our priorities are right and we deal with human beings first.

I hear the Ministers talking about planting native trees but they have the forestry industry finished. For a long time, it thought it was the case that Department officials were lagging. Others thought that objectors were causing the delay in the issuing of felling licences. However, I now honestly feel that it is the Government and these Ministers that have the whole thing completely finished. I always say what it is in my head and I honestly believe the Ministers do not want spruce to be cut, planted or re-planted anywhere and that this is totally contrary to their will. It goes against the grain for them. I have nothing against native trees but we need commercial timber as well. We are now so far behind in issuing felling licences that the price of timber has increased to an unacceptable level which is preventing people from building houses. A 6 inch by 3 inch stick of timber that was €20 for many years is now €38. It is the same with every other type of commercial timber. The prices have practically doubled. This is having a detrimental effect. I honestly believe the Ministers do not understand the value of spruce. We are told that an acre of spruce sequesters 13 tonnes of carbon. Native trees take much longer to grow. As I have said, I have nothing against native species but we have to be real about this. These species only sequester 4 tonnes per acre.

The Ministers have not made one iota of a difference to the felling licence situation or helped it in any way. I have lost faith in them. We have spoken about this a great deal but we are still where we were. People have walked away from planting trees because they see what is happening to the people who want to cut down trees, in some cases because they want the money for real things like sending children to college. I know of a man who became immobilised and wanted to do up his house and put it in order so that he could manage a wheelchair in it. He does not have any money because he cannot get a felling licence. He also cannot get permission to build a road. I have always said that when you plant a crop, whether barley, oats, spuds or whatever, there must be an ideology that it will be cut down when it is ripe. That has to be the same for forestry. They would replant the trees but they cannot because they cannot get a felling licence to cut them.

With regard to wild animals, I concur with Deputy Canney from Galway. It was sad to hear some of the comments made about us when we were trying to do something about pain relief for little babies. They are human beings and creatures of God. Not only did some people not want to hear about the little babies, but they do not want to hear about God either because many of them think they themselves are God and that they do not have to worry about anything. Their day will come, as will everybody else's.

On the issue of wild animals, we are completely overrun with deer in Kerry. Our roads are not safe. At 7.15 the other morning, a deer ran out in front of a youngster who had gone to the trouble of getting his driving test, buying a car and getting expensive insurance, and it made flitters of his car, which he gave a lot of money for. He is finished now. He cannot go to work because his car has been put out of action before it really got going at all. Something has to be done about the deer because they have our side of the country totally overrun. The roads are not safe. They are eating farmers out of house and home. We are talking about there not being any fertiliser next year. For many farmers, there was no good in putting it out anyway because the deer got the benefit of it.

Foxes need to be brought under control in some way as well. Many here may not realise what happens when a lamb or a couple of lambs are taken by a fox. It is absolutely horrible. That is devastating for sheep farmers who work hard and who have to traverse mountains, glens and valleys to look after their sheep. Every year, 30 or 40 sheep out of every flock finish up without a lamb because of foxes. That is the gospel truth. I do not know if the Minister understands that.

We are completely overrun. There needs to be some policy or Government action taken to deal with the deer and the foxes, and more so the deer because people are being hurt and killed. A mother of three children was killed coming into Killarney within a half a mile of the centre of the town. That is the gospel truth. We need to do something about real issues. This is the Minister's time. They are the Ministers at this time, although I do not know for how long. If they want to prove their worth, they must do something about these issues.

I will share two and a half minutes of my time with Deputy Kehoe. I will be fairly brief. The largest part of this Bill relates to the cull of the mink. We need not to forget those people because they seem to be kicked to the side in the new amendments that have come in. Fair compensation must be given to them. They have worked with the Department in every way. Some of them will say very clearly the Department has not been as helpful in working with them as it should have been. Proper compensation must be given to those people, who have facilitated the Department in every way.

A few amendments regarding forestry have been thrown in at the end of this Bill about mink in what we in rural Ireland would call a half-arsed manner. I cannot get my head around that but this place would baffle you every day.

Let us be frank about this and call a spade a spade. The Minister is bringing in a document, or a way forward, to enable the ticking of a box to say Ireland will reach its target. A press release can then be issued to say the climate action target of 7,000 ha or 8,000 ha has been achieved. To be frank about this, though, we will not have done it as we should have done it. There is one simple reason for that. Every Deputy here who is a member of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine will say straight up that we are blue in the face telling the Ministers about the dysfunctionality of the Department in this regard. It has never reached a target since 2016. The Ministers, however, persist with the same piano players and therefore they will continue to get the same tune.

The bottom line is we will all support this Bill. I do not think anybody has a problem with it. We have commented on how farmers should be allowed to plant a hectare. Let us take the example, though, of the region where Deputy Carthy is from. Why is it the case when an invisible line is crossed into Northern Ireland that farmers can sow three hectares without planning and licences, while farmers in the area where Deputy Carthy is from can do nothing without going through reams of paper and waiting three years for the process to be completed?

If the Minister or the Minister of State is coming into our committee in the afternoon, I urge them to have answers to these questions. We are basically being asked to sign a blank cheque at the moment. When we asked earlier if there was an establishment grant, the answer given was that would be considered down the road when this thing is put together. It was the same when we asked if there would be so much money given each year. The answer again was that would be decided down the road, when the terms and conditions of this scheme are put together and when these people and those other people have been talked to.

Having talked to representatives of the forest industry, it is evident they have lost confidence. That is the first aspect. In addition, is it the Green dream that this is all going to be native woodland? I see pine is included in this proposal. I will not say in this House what I think of pine. I have, however, seen pine trees growing around the country, and those trees should never have been sown because it is the worst timber anyone has ever put in. Why has the wording here not referred to “forestry”? That would allow people to sow whatever native species they wished. People would then be able to sow pine, even though I would not be a great fan of it, or even a bit of spruce in a corner.

I will give an example of what I have seen down the country. Fields are generally square, and when farmers are mowing fields they go around in semicircles, leaving what we call shelter belts. Those could be composed of different species. I often saw spruce trees forming part of those belts and they never did a bit of harm. I also often saw all-native timber stands and that never did a bit of harm. It was a great idea. Today, however, the Department has stated that anything less than 0.1 ha will not come up in the carbon counting. It will, though, come up in the context of the Department's dashboard, when we are all told every week we are great now and we have reached 5,000 ha.

The reality of afforestation in this country now is we are cutting 6 ha for every 1 ha we are planting. The Government has not addressed that issue. The reality is that approximately 45 licences were dealt with last month and 36 in the month before. It is a disgrace what has happened to people who want to plant forestry in this country. What is being done by the Government now is basically saying we are great because we have reached the 8,000 ha target for planting. The question that must asked though is how we achieved it. It was done by using every Tom, Dick and Harry of an excuse to try to tick the box and to cover Ireland's position down the road. I have said this time and again.

What the Minister’s Department has done in the line of felling has worked, and that is good. However, it is like a Mafia situation in that we have to keep bringing in people to keep going after the Department all the time to get results for the people out there who are busting their arses trying to get work in and living from forestry or to keep sawmills going. I am referring not just to the situation now. It is criminal what has gone on in that Department over the past six years. It will be the farmers of Ireland who will be kicked under this new climate agreement. That will happen in five, ten and 15 years' time because of what we have done now.

I thank Deputy Fitzmaurice for giving me time. I appreciate what the Minister and Minister of State are trying to do here and I welcome the amendments, but this falls far short of what we really need. There is a major crisis within the forestry sector. The chair and the other members of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine will agree with me on this point. This is the one issue that has continually been discussed in that committee since the start of this Dáil. It is the one issue which has continued to be debated and discussed since then. It is a sector that is always in a crisis mode and that will continue.

What we require here is stand-alone legislation to fix the outstanding issues which exist. We saw the support for the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020 that came from right around the House. The Minister will get the very same support if stand-alone legislation is brought in to fix the problems that now exist. Having spoken to the nursery people, the planters, the sawmill operators and everybody involved, it is evident everyone recognises the problems that exist and they feel the Department is not getting to grips with the real issues and sorting them out.

Turning to situations where people are trying to build houses, and I know this debate is concerned with the planting aspect, the felling of forestry is also a great problem. There are millions of trees to be felled now while we have this ongoing issue with licensing. Many people who have submitted applications to plant forestry, and many of those applications are still going through the process and being assessed, will never do this because they see the crisis in the sector. It might be useful if the Minister looked at the people involved in this regard and spoke to them about their applications. Senator Paul Daly spoke about this in the Upper House today, and I agree 100% with what he said. If those applicants were telephoned today and asked whether they wanted to go ahead with their planting applications, yes or no, I assure the Minister it would then be possible to deal with and get through the applications of those who are serious and want to plant forestry.

We could all speak here on forestry for the next three or four hours and about the issues in this sector. They can be solved easily, however. I plead with the Minister, the Minister of State, their officials and the Department to look at stand-alone legislation to deal with the real crisis existing in this sector now. I assure the Minister and the Minister of State that support would be forthcoming from all around the House if such legislation were introduced.

Question put and agreed to.