I thank the Chair and the committee for the invitation and welcome the opportunity to be here to update members on developments since the last appearance by my officials before this committee on 27 May. As the Chair indicated, my officials were also here on 29 January 2021, 3 December 2020, 17 November 2020, and I was here on 3 November 2020 on issues relating to forestry. I acknowledge the ongoing interest of the committee with issues impacting the forestry sector in Ireland. As the Chair said, I am joined today by Ms Patricia Kelly and Mr. Kevin Collins from the forestry service, and the project manager of Project Woodland, Mr. Eamon O'Doherty.
While there are many issues affecting forestry, licensing is the most immediate and impactful challenge this sector faces. I am more than aware of its importance and it continues to be my top priority. My officials, as well as working groups under Project Woodland, are completely focused on turning this situation around and we all want to reach a stage where licences are issued in a timely fashion. We have been making inroads into this problem, as many members will have seen from the dashboard figures which are published weekly. It is of note that the number of licences issued in June, at 415, was the highest since July 2019, and that the number of private felling licences issued in June was the highest in the past five years, at 220. This is progress indeed and it is a trend I would wish to see continuing.
As regards the total number of licences issued in the year, this figure was at 1,900 at 23 July, which is around 42% of our annual target of 4,500 licences. While one may expect that this should have been higher, it has always been our intention to intensify output in the latter half of the year, on the basis of system improvements and streamlining of procedures. These improvements have already had an effect, as can be seen in the number of licences issued in June. The system improvements introduced in the preparation of the various appropriate assessment documents have allowed our ecologists to optimise their time, and to concentrate on the ecology aspect of each application. Currently, these improvements are applied to tree-felling licence applications and roads licence applications only, and we will be turning our attention shortly to applying the system to afforestation files. This should increase output on these files.
Speaking of systems improvements, it is the case that better quality applications have a smoother progression through the licensing process. In order to make the system more efficient, and to give a clear picture of why certain files are held up, we recently provided registered foresters and forestry companies with a list of felling files which require further information before they can be progressed by ecology. We have found that around half of the applications for private felling files screened in for appropriate assessment require further information. Working together with the registered foresters and in the spirit of co-operation, we can improve this situation to the benefit of forest owners.
Members will have noticed a downturn in licence output for July. This is directly linked to the introduction of a second 30-day public consultation process for applications subject to appropriate assessment. These requirements arise from the European Union (Birds and Habitats) (Amendment) Regulations 2021, which were recently introduced by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. This means that any application that is screened in for appropriate assessment, and which has had a nature impact statement or an appropriate assessment report, must be advertised with all relevant documentation on the forestry licence viewer for 30 days for public consultation. This is part of an extensive public consultation process which affords all interested parties an opportunity to have their say in relation to projects with the potential to impact European sites.
There is no denying that this adds extra time to the processing of these applications. We must now advertise all such cases, and we are currently working our way through them. A total of 536 cases went to public consultation up to 23 July, an average of 178 per week. The first of these will exit this process on 6 August. We have not, to date, received any submissions on cases advertised, but if we do they will be taken into account before the file progresses to decision.
The reality is that this has indeed affected recent output, as certain files ready for decision were interrupted. We are committed to making up this ground and I expect that by mid-August we will see an increase in the number of licences issued and a return to previous levels. This new requirement means that we will have to redouble our efforts to reach our target of 4,500 licences this year, but I remain hopeful that we will do this.
The number of licences issued is not the only metric and the volume of timber licensed is a crucial factor for the sawmills. The volume issued to 23 July 2021 is 3.727 million cu. m. Overall output to 23 July is afforestation at 2,732 ha and road lengths licences at 157 km. We are making progress but there is a way to go and clearly there is more to be done.
As I said earlier, Project Woodland is key to this. Its work is focused on identifying the means to improve the system by introducing efficiencies and on resolving the backlog. I will take this opportunity to recognise the excellent work done so far by the project board and the four working groups. Since we introduced the project in February, there has been intense and active engagement by all involved, and the first interim report by the project board, published two weeks ago, bears witness to this productivity.
The board has received a number of excellent papers and recommendations from the working groups and has examined each, has spoken to the chairs and has evaluated the recommendations in detail. It has provided feedback and suggested next steps, as outlined in the interim report. I am glad to say that the board has agreed to immediately advance two of these recommendations. Members here will be well familiar with the first recommendation, a regulatory review, which was one of the committee's own recommendations, and one I wholeheartedly support. It was also recommended by the backlog working group and the process improvement working group. It involves an independent regulatory and planning review of the licensing system to be conducted by an independent expert or experts and it has already been advertised for tender. It will review the existing statutory framework for the licensing of forestry activities in relation to environmental and public participation obligations in order that practical advice can be provided to the Department on how to work more efficiently within the existing legal framework. Arrangements in other EU member states will be considered to see if lessons can be learnt from them. The review will also evaluate the current 15 km radius for screening for appropriate assessment, having regard to the requirements of European Union law. The business systems analysis currently being undertaken by our business analyst, Shelly O’Sullivan, will interact with and run parallel with the regulatory review, so that best possible system improvements are delivered.
The second recommendation, made by the shared national approach working group, is the prioritisation of an effective and inclusive public consultation on a shared vision for forestry. Our future vision for forestry must ensure we bring nature and communities with us. This important work has commenced and stakeholder and public attitudes to the role of trees, woods and forests in Ireland’s future will be canvassed through various means and fora in order to reach a shared vision. I expect that our forest strategy will be influenced by the new European forest strategy which was published on 16 July 2021. We will be aiming for a balanced strategy for forestry in this country to address environmental, societal, and economic needs.
Of interest to members too will be the project charter for Project Woodland, which has been published along with the interim report. This was drawn up by the project manager, Mr. Eamon O’Doherty. The charter outlines very clearly the scope, tasks, governance structure and reporting and communications framework for the project.
Members have on previous occasions raised the ash dieback scheme, which I know is of interest to many forest owners. As the scheme has been in place for more than a year, I thought it timely to assess the response to its operation to date. One question that arose was the availability of management options for plantations greater than 25 years of age. After careful consideration I have now revised these management options as set out in Circular 12/2021 of 23 July 2021, which is published on the Government website. This change brings sites that are more than 25 year of age into the scheme. We will review those cases more than 25 years of age that were refused under the previous rule and issue a fresh decision.
Another development I bring to the committee's attention is a proposed new riparian native woodland initiative under the national forestry programme. We are all aware that we face significant challenges in meeting Ireland’s environmental objectives. This proposal focuses primarily on addressing our water quality goals but will have associated and real benefits for climate change and biodiversity. It builds on the success of the native woodland establishment scheme, which can now be more specifically focused to target water protection. The plan is to introduce, in addition to the current grant and 15-year premiums, a once-off bonus top-up payment of €1,000 per hectare to those landowners planting critical source areas in EPA pollution impact potential zones and, similarly, in accordance with drinking water source protection plans. The extra payment will also be made available in other defined circumstances. These are to be identified by my Department in consultation with Inland Fisheries Ireland, the OPW, Irish Water, the local authority waters and communities office, LAWCO, and other water bodies. We hope to roll this out in the autumn, once all details are finalised. We will promote the scheme widely and, in particular, encourage farmer uptake. My officials are engaging with Teagasc advisers, the local authorities water programme, LAWPRO, community officers and with the agricultural sustainability support and advice programme, Inland Fisheries and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage so that we can achieve this.
I am confident that we are moving in the right direction and that the momentum already shown in dealing with all of the issues facing us will be maintained and indeed gather pace in the second half of this year. I thank members for their attention and I am now happy to take their questions.