Forestry Sector: Discussion (Resumed)

The agenda for today is the ongoing issues in the forestry sector. I welcome Mr. Brendan Gleeson, Secretary General of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; Mr. Colm Hayes, assistant secretary general; Mr. Seamus Dunne, head of the forestry inspectorate; and Mr. Eamon O’Doherty of the Forestry Service, all of whom are joining remotely. They are very welcome to this meeting.

We have received their opening statement, which has been circulated to members and will be published on the Oireachtas website. They will be given ten minutes to make their opening statement before we go to questions and answers.

Before we begin, I have an important notice on parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Participants in the committee meeting who are in locations outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that the constitutional protections afforded to those participating from within the parliamentary precincts do not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether or the extent to which participation is covered by the absolute privilege of a statutory nature.

We appreciate Mr. Gleeson taking the time to come before the committee today. This is one in a long series of meetings we have had on forestry. As a committee, we would rather not have all these meetings but we are extremely worried about the forestry sector. I would have to say that we are sceptical of the dashboard in the last two weeks, given the way the figures have increased very substantially. Unfortunately, we have seen in the past that when officials were coming to a committee meeting, the figures for the previous two weeks would be substantially increased. In the eight weeks preceding these two figures, the issuing of licences was at an intolerably low level. A point that I want to make before Mr. Gleeson's opening statement is that even with the improved level of licences issued in the past two weeks, we still only issued 12 afforestation licences this week and five the previous week. In the whole month of August, only 15 afforestation licences were issued. We will struggle to hit 2,000 h of afforestation this year, which has huge implications for the sector going forward. In 25 or 30 years' time, a generation will ask what the hell they were doing in Ireland in 2020 and 2021 and why no trees were planted.

We had a long session this morning on nitrates, the implications of the nitrates directive and what way it is going to affect agri-industry in general. We have a huge opportunity with forestry to tackle climate change and reduce emissions while increasing rural wealth rather than putting it in jeopardy. I know other members will have similar things to say. It is intolerable that our level of afforestation is so low. We have a clear target in the programme for Government which is constantly being missed by 70% to 75%.

It is not out of any ill will that we keep bringing the officials back in before us. We have had the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, before us on forestry in the last couple of months. We are extremely concerned about the sector.

I was talking to a contractor yesterday evening who says he now has licences but he does not have a workforce. Unfortunately, he was left so long without licences that his truck driver, who would normally carry the timber to the mill, has left him and some of his machine operators have also left him. We know from other sectors that it is very hard to source employees at the moment. They have gone through 12 months where the level of licences issued was at an intolerable level and they found it impossible to keep their workforce together.

We have seen more licences in the last two weeks, but we have seen that before and it has not been maintained. As a committee, we are extremely concerned. We issued a report a couple of months ago with recommendations for the sector and, unfortunately, we see the sector still struggling. That is the context in which we have asked the Secretary General to come here today. It is out of concern for the industry and the plight the industry finds itself in that we asked him to come before us today as a witness. We look forward to his opening statement and there will then be questions from the members. I call Mr. Gleeson.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I thank the Chairman and members. To clarify one point, Mr. O’Doherty is not present because I had understood from the communication I received from the secretariat that there could only be three of us. I just want to make that clear. I am happy to be accountable to this committee at any time and I want to make that clear too. I will quickly run through the opening statement and we will be as helpful as we can after that.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to update the committee on matters relating to forestry. I know the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, also updated it last month and that it receives our weekly updates on licensing output.

I want to start with licensing. The committee will be aware that two judicial decisions, People over Wind and Peter Sweetman v. Coillte Teoranta, in 2018, and The Heather Hill Management Company CLG v. An Bord Pleanála, in 2019, changed the manner in which licence applications had to be processed in the most profound way. The net result of these judgments was that approximately 80% of licence applications had to be screened in for a comprehensive ecological assessment compared with just 2% before that. At the time, the Department was simply not set up for that volume of assessments.

In addition, the number of appeals against licensing determinations exploded. It went from 21 in 2017, to 150 in 2018, to 321 in 2019 and it peaked at 582 in 2020. For a period, virtually every Coillte licence was being appealed. Dealing with this volume of appeals was hugely time-consuming for staff at a time when the system was struggling to deal with licence applications. Equally, the appeals structures we had established were not designed to deal with these kinds of volumes.

This combination of events, combined with a licensing system that was never designed to cope with such a sudden and significant change in the number of appropriate assessments and appeals, led to a significant backlog in licence applications. Responding to these pressures has not been easy. The frustration of those in the industry, of those in nurseries trying to sell stock, of forestry companies and farmers trying to get licences to plant, thin and fell trees, and of sawmills trying to get timber for processing, is perfectly understandable. In framing its response, the Department has been acutely aware of the pressures on these people. However, it is also aware of its obligations to all citizens to ensure that its systems and processes are compliant with the legal framework established to protect the environment, and to ensure that citizens have the right to the kind of public engagement envisaged under EU law and the Aarhus Convention. In her report on the implementation of the Mackinnon report on forestry, Ms Jo O’Hara said: “Stakeholders from across the spectrum are not fully persuaded that the current interpretations of the European Directives as they apply to forestry are correct - but for a range of different reasons”. Therefore, for every person out there who thinks the Department is excessive in its application of environmental regulation when it comes to forestry, there is someone else who thinks the opposite.

This is how the Department has responded to date. In regard to appeals, we introduced primary legislation to align the forestry appeals system with the planning system. The legislation complied with the Aarhus Convention but introduced fees for appeals and submissions, allowed for oral hearings, and allowed the forestry appeals committee to subdivide so it could hear more appeals.

The system is working much more effectively now. The forestry appeals committee has approximately 50 outstanding appeals to hear, which is considerable progress when one considers it once had almost 1,000 such cases on its books. It is now on track to meet its commitment to a two-month turnaround for any new appeal received.

On licensing, we have significantly increased the resources in our forestry divisions. The number of ecologists has increased from one in 2018 to 27. The number of forestry inspectors has increased from 40 in 2020 to 61 now and we have a system that is capable of issuing more than 100 licences a week. In July the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, wrote to the committee to explain there would be a significant but temporary fall-off in the number of licences issued in July and August. This was because a new statutory instrument introduced by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage in late June required us to introduce an additional 30-day consultation period between the completion of an appropriate assessment report and the issue of a final appropriate assessment determination.

This meant appropriate assessment reports could not proceed to determination, new procedures had to be developed, some applications had to be manually examined to redact information that would, if published, have breached general data protection regulation, GDPR, rules and documents had to be input into the forestry licence viewer for second stage public consultation. All of this was unfortunate but unavoidable. That second period of consultation is built into our system now and we have resumed normal service, with 136 licences issued last week and 110 issued the week before. While we expect a high level of output to continue, of course it will not be the same every week. However, the administrative burden associated with this process was greater than anticipated. We lost eight weeks of high output as a result of this development. It will have some impact on our ambition to issue 4,500 licences this year but we will continue to focus our efforts on issuing licences at a high rate on a consistent basis for the rest of the year.

I am aware there has been some concern expressed recently at the pace at which afforestation licences are issuing; the Chairman has mentioned it himself. The Department has taken immediate steps to rectify this by dedicating additional resources specifically to afforestation. This includes a team of ten ecologists that now works specifically on afforestation. Our aim is to issue more of these licences in the run-up to the planting season this autumn. This will add to the 5,700 ha already available to the sector. As always, we encourage all landowners to proceed with that licence.

The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, has established Project Woodland as a collaborative project, with working groups representative of stakeholders looking at the backlog, reviewing licensing processes, developing a vision for the forestry sector that citizens, communities and farmers can get behind and looking at the Department’s organisational and administrative structures. In the context of that exercise, the Department has taken on a full-time external project manager to manage the project. It has taken on a systems analyst to examine and make recommendations about the way we do business and the IT systems underpinning our approach. It is procuring an end-to-end regulatory and process review sought by the working groups. This review will examine the EU and national legal framework, will examine the licensing regime in comparable member states and will make recommendations. The review group will work closely with the systems analyst and engage with the working groups in this regard. As we are now in a position to shortlist a preferred bidder, this is at a very advanced stage. We are developing a proposal for a grant to contribute to the cost of environmental reports for applicants, which we will put to the working groups shortly. It is looking at how it can develop a pre-application consultation, again on foot of a request from the working groups, and is facilitating a public consultation on the development of a vision for the forestry sector that will feed into the new forestry strategy to be developed next year.

In the meantime, the Department is working with companies to improve the quality of information provided with licence applications. Companies have received individual feedback on felling licences and we conducted the same exercise for our forest roads. Good quality responses are being received from the forestry companies. It is important that this continues and we will continue to play our part in ensuring that we make clear the type and quality of information we require. This has been key to increasing output recently and will remain the case. This is even more important for afforestation applications where the regulatory questions can be more complex and rely on detailed assessments from the applicant.

Forestry can provide a really important range of societal benefits; from a climate change and biodiversity perspective, from a public amenity perspective and from a rural and economic development perspective, which is critically important. Building a vision for the sector around which all strands of society and public opinion can coalesce will be an essential element in developing an effective strategy for the next ten years. We need to rebuild confidence in the licensing system and that there are immediate and more strategic imperatives that make that critical. We are working hard to make that happen. I am confident we are making progress. I thank members for their attention.

I wish to address one thing the Chairman said at the outset, which I have seen in various dispatches, about the facility to increase the number of licences issued in the week immediately preceding a committee. I wish that were true because if it were, it would mean we could just turn on the tap and issue increased numbers of licences. If we could do that we would just keep the tap on all the time, to be frank. However, it is just not the case. It would be such an obviously transparent tactic it would be ridiculous. We do not do that. The licences issued in the past two weeks are the fruit of work that has gone on over the past three or four weeks. We cannot just press a button and increase the number of licences. I just wish to be clear about that.

While we will not get into an argument about that Mr. Gleeson, it has happened on more than one occasion. I call Deputy Fitzmaurice.

I welcome the witnesses. I agree with the Chairman on the number of licences and funnily enough in the last two weeks it has increased again but we must take what is said to us verbatim. I read Mr. Gleeson's opening statement and listened to him. He referred to the Sweetman case in 2018. Mr. Gleeson is probably aware that at the biogeographical conference in 2004, Ireland submitted 832 sites that were adopted as sites of community importance. Mr. Gleeson is probably aware that in 2010 and 2011, on the Department's website, copied from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Department stated it was going to comply with all parts of the habitats directive. Why did it take until 2018 for the Department to come back and use all this stuff about the legal stuff that went on in 2018 and the different cases with us today? This was here six years before that. In actual fact, it was here 12 to 14 years before that. I, as a bog cutter, knew about it in 2009. Why did the Department not deal with it before it came to a head in 2018?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

First of all, I accept much of what has been said about the licensing system and we have an awful lot of work to do. However, it is important to put on the record there was a series of external factors here that led to this situation, and Deputy Fitzmaurice has mentioned them. When directives of this nature are brought into force, sometimes there is not legal clarity until there are judicial decisions. The point is there were two judicial decisions in 2018 and 2019 that had a profound effect on the way we did our business. That was the reality.

I have not got much time and will be pretty blunt with Mr. Gleeson. We were nobody down in the middle of countryside as turf cutters, yet we knew about appropriate assessment. We knew about screening out. Mr. Gleeson and his Department headed up in 2012 and it was not being done and the procedures were not put in place. This has landed us with somebody else bringing it to court. I am not saying I am an admirer of what they did but the gate was open for the sheep to go out the gap and Mr. Gleeson's Department let that happen and he can never deny that.

I have a second question. I want to run through them quickly because there are many people looking to come in.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

Can I just respond to the Deputy?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

First, I am not in any way critical of anybody who takes a court case. A person is perfectly entitled to do that. I refer to what changed in those court cases. Our view had been that where there was mitigation, you could take that into account in determining whether an application needed to be screened in. What changed in those court cases was not that we denied the need to do appropriate assessments but that the circumstances in which they were required changed. That is what happened. It was not that we ignored the requirements.

The reality of it is there was a 15 km buffer zone in 2011 and 2012. I dealt with it at the time. Everybody knew about it at the time and unfortunately it was not dealt with. Let us move on to the next question.

The monthly target for the licences that are with the ecology section has not been reached. Mr. Gleeson has talked about the number of staff he has got in. It has not been reached in any month this year. In actual fact, for two months we had 12 and 34 licences. I am aware Mr. Gleeson talked about the delay but some of those were coming from a few months earlier. Why, with 27 ecologists, was there not even one a month done for two months? Can Mr. Gleeson explain that?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

First, we are trying to develop a system here that works smoothly but it is not a production line. This is not the Ford factory where we are able to punch out these licences month by month. It is true that we have not met our targets for ecology - I am not sure that those targets are realistic - but we have increased our licensing substantially. What we know now is that we have a licensing system that is capable of delivering more than 100 licences a month. That is a significant advance.

The question I am asking Mr. Gleeson involves 34 and 12 licences. That is 46 licences. The Department has 27 ecologists. That is fewer than one ecologist to do one of them in a month for two months. What is wrong there?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

That is the impact of the statutory instrument that we notified the committee about in July. I will ask Mr. Hayes to develop on that point.

Mr. Colm Hayes

That is exactly it. The figures that the Deputy is referring to are the output of licences in those months on which-----

Will Mr. Hayes clarify one point before he says too much? The Minister of State was before us in June and made us aware that there would be one month of a delay, which every Deputy here agreed to, and that was the month of July. I am looking at July and August. We were told that four weeks would be the total of the delay but the delay seemed to go on and on. What is the reason for it?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

To address that question, we wrote to the committee on 20 July stating there would be a delay through July and up to the middle of August. That was based on our assessment of the impact of this on our administrative system. When we tackled this it was more complicated than we thought it would be. For example, we had to go through every application manually that was lodged before 11 January and we had to redact personal information from every single application. That is something we were not set up to do. The period extended to eight weeks beyond where we thought it would extend to and it was because the process of establishing a new system to deliver this public consultation was more difficult than we initially thought.

Has Mr. Gleeson received - the Minister of State is supposed to have received it - a scathing letter from one of the committees in Project Woodland about how frustrated the members are getting? Are there, as we hear, people ready to resign from the Project Woodland committee system?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

We have received communication from various committees with views on what the project board said in its interim report and that is exactly the kind of exchange I would expect. This is an important process. It gives stakeholders a say in what we are doing. We are engaging in activity now that is specifically as a result of the recommendations of those working groups. As I say, just today, we have selected a recommended tenderer to conduct this process review. That will really help us to deliver on many of the objectives of Project Woodland. We will continue to engage with the working groups and the project board will meet every one of them in the near future.

In 2017, there were 1,409 applications for planting. This year to date, there are 330. What does that tell Mr. Gleeson?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

Obviously, it is a significant concern. There is a range of reasons we have ambitious forestry planting targets over the next ten years. It tells me that, for whatever reason, farmers do not at present see forestry as a viable option and I think that-----

Given what has gone on, would Mr. Gleeson blame them?

Allow Mr. Gleeson finish, Deputy.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I would not. I am not in the business of blaming citizens for their actions because people are entitled to do whatever they want to do.

Would Mr. Gleeson blame them, I am asking, with the way the licences were held up?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

That is a factor, but it is also the truth that forestry is a relatively profitable activity for drystock farmers that can co-exist with their drystock enterprises. There is a very significant degree of negativity around the sector at present, certainly, to a significant extent caused by the licensing issue, but that is not the only reason. We have to work together to build back confidence in the system.

Agreed. For example, I know a guy who has 50 acres. He put an application in. It was in two and a half years. He was sitting there waiting. All that land is now ploughed. It is now drained.

It now will have 30 years of slurry. It will have 30 years of fertiliser and 30 years of cattle, with the help of God, for that person, all because of what went on within in the licensing system. That is the reality of what the Department has ended up with. That is the reality of what is happening on the ground, just so that Mr. Gleeson will know.

The number of licence applications in the system in July was 5,300. A year ago, when Mr. Hayes and Mr. Dunne were in, with the 1,900 and the famous 2,500 that were missing, that were 4,400. Have we improved at all in the whole year?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

We have improved because we are issuing licences now at an exceeding rate. For the seven weeks before the statutory instrument came into place we were issuing licences at a rate of just under 100 per week. We predicted a sharp drop-off, which was more prolonged than we expected, and over the past two weeks we are back up over 100 per week. We have improved.

Deputy Fitzmaurice's anecdote about that individual is unacceptable. Nobody is denying that but these matters are not simple to fix. There are issues about the legal framework we work in. There are issues about resources. There are issues about the numbers of ecologists that are available out there. This work we are doing in Project Woodland to reassess the legal process and to reassess our own processes will be important. I hope-----

I have two quick questions. Did Mr. Gleeson allude that 80% of all applications now have been screened in because of the environmental rules?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

Yes.

When there is an application two or three years in the system, does the Department's ecologist go out to site when he or she is screening?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

No. My understanding is that it is largely a desk exercise. I will ask Mr. Seamus Dunne to respond to that.

Mr. Seamus Dunne

The screening is carried out by the district inspector. The district inspector normally goes out onto site. Sometimes the ecologist goes out onto site; sometimes he or she does not. No, mostly.

Have the ecologists gone out to site in the past year?

Mr. Seamus Dunne

They have gone out onto site in the past year.

If an application is two or three years in the system, would it mean that the ecologist would definitely have gone out to site?

Mr. Seamus Dunne

It does not mean, one way or the other, whether the ecologist was on site or not.

Would Mr. Gleeson feel - we would have talked to Mr. Hayes and Mr. Dunne about this previously - that the senior inspector has no choice now but to screen things? An ecologist has certain degrees or letters after his or her name that can stand up in court. Does Mr. Gleeson feel that there is a fear among his senior inspectors to screen anything out and does he fear that because of the unenviable situation that they are in, many of his inspectors would have lost confidence in senior management because of what has gone on in the forestry sector over the past number of years?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

Deputy Fitzmaurice used the word "fear". I am not sure "fear" is a relevant term here. The reality is that all of our officers and forestry inspectors operate the system on the basis of their judgment of what is consistent with the law. If we were casual about that, we would expose applicants potentially to worse outcomes in the long term. I accept it is difficult in the short term.

In terms of our senior management, as far as I am concerned, I am dealing here with people who are extraordinarily dedicated who are working 12 and 14 hours a day to try and resolve a very difficult situation. That is my position on this. I am not aware of any loss of confidence in them. I certainly have not lost confidence in them.

When the new CAP consultative committee was set up, I think, in 2019, what officials from the Forestry Service did Mr. Hayes appoint to that committee?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

Sorry, I will take that question because it is not part of Mr. Hayes's responsibility. First of all, our forestry supports are delivered to a most significant extent outside of the Common Agricultural Policy and for a variety of reasons, which I will be happy to explain to the Deputy, that is best for the future. There are a variety of sectoral groups that wanted to be part of that group. It is always open to the forestry representatives to make submissions to that process but there is a much more significant process going on in relation to forestry - at least I think it is a more significant process - which is the development of a vision for the sector with a view to putting a national forestry plan in place.

Through Project Woodland, all our forestry stakeholders are bound cheek by jowl with the Department in the development of that strategy.

The new CAP refers to getting rid of red tape in the forestry sector. It outlines the European Green Deal and all its great benefits. Why is forestry, when a forest is being assessed, always done in the negative and whether it may have an adverse effect? I understand that involves the legal side of things. What about the positive side of it being planted, which I have just outlined, rather than 30 years of something else going on? Does Mr. Gleeson believe the Department will be responsible for Ireland paying fines 20 or 25 years from now because we have not reached the target of planting that will be required for Ireland under its mitigation measures?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I completely agree with Deputy Fitzmaurice on the positive story around forestry. We all must talk forestry up, particularly as a positive alternative enterprise that can make farmers more money. That is important and is a no-brainer. Even if it takes time to get a licence, the revenues from forestry are significantly better than the net revenues from many other farm enterprises. That is an important point. I do not know what will happen in 25 years. I have accepted that we need to up our game in afforestation. That involves improving licensing and a whole range of other measures as well.

There is a problem in that. I appreciate everything Mr. Gleeson has said. I want to finish on this point in order to let other members in. Will the Department give us a tip-off, one way or the other, on whether Coillte will have enough licences at its October market because it did not have enough last year? Mr. Gleeson spoke about talking up forestry but the reality is that forestry is a dirty word in rural Ireland because of the total fiasco that has happened. Many people are out of jobs and contractors have lost machinery due to this process. This is the fourth or fifth time that relevant people, whether Ministers, Secretaries General and assistant secretaries general, have been before the committee. We have spent a lot of time on this. The problem is that we do not seem to be making any headway. From speaking with the people involved on the ground, there is more frustration developing day by day. That is not a good way to try to achieve something. Having spent a year on this, does the Department believe that maybe someone in another section should take the reins as he or she might do a better job? Does Mr. Gleeson consider that?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

The answer to the Deputy's first question is "Yes". On the second point, what we are focused on in the Department is trying to improve our processes and assess the legal framework to determine whether there is anything we can do about that. We are open to the idea that an external individual might look at what we are doing. I am not the Pope. I am not infallible ex cathedra. I am open to the idea that people from the outside might look at our processes. We are doing that through Project Woodland.

I thank Mr. Gleeson. I will let another member in.

I thank the Secretary General and his officials for attending. I refer to a point made by the cathaoirleach. When Department officials came before the committee on 29 January they cited several times the number of licences issued in the preceding two weeks. The figure given was 110 licences. We were given the impression that we could expect a similar number of licences to be issued in the future. The next time the Department issued more than 100 licences was the week beginning 21 May. That happened to coincide with Department officials coming before this committee again. We find today that the licensing figure for the previous two weeks stands at more than 100. Considering that Mr. Gleeson has said that those figures reflect what happened three weeks previously, will he give an assurance today that the licensing figure for the next three weeks will be more than 100? What specific number of licences will be issued? Will Mr. Gleeson give an assurance that for the rest of this year we will consistently hit the mark of issuing 100 licences per week?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I will address a couple of points in that. I do not know how to rebut Deputy Carthy's assertion. Perhaps the Deputy is not making an assertion but rather is drawing a pattern from what we have issued, which is fair enough. I cannot say definitively how many licences we will issue next week or the week after. I am confident that we will issue in or around the figure of 100 licences over the next three weeks. That is my view. It is our ambition to continue with a consistently high level of licensing after that. Every licence involves an individual application. We do not have a production line. We have ecologists who look at these matters in a serious way. If they did not do so, we would have a bigger problem perhaps, although it would not be in the coming weeks. In the short term it might solve a problem over the coming months but in the long term we would end up with another judicial review or be back in the courts again.

Bearing that in mind, I refer to applications on hand that have not yet been approved. They include one from 2017; three from 2018; 26 from 2019; and 98 from 2020. What departmental resources go into those historical long-standing applications to provide either support or guidance so that discussions take place to ensure they are taken off the books?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I ask Mr. Hayes to respond to that question because there have been some developments recently.

Mr. Colm Hayes

Historically, in the interests of fairness and equality, we try to clear out the oldest files because they are longest on the books. We have engagement, particularly on the afforestation side, with forestry companies and applicants. If an application is that long in the system, we want to know whether it is likely to be viable and whether the landowner is still interested and, in which case, whether we should proceed. It is in everybody's interests that we only work on licences that proceed to planting. In the case of afforestation, about 40% of what we approve does not end in planting. There are a few in the system. It is possible there are cases, as in any land question in Ireland, in which there are legal issues and land disputes. I would have to look at the individual cases referred to by the Deputy.

The policy is to maximise the output of licences and to go back to historical cases. We have what we call a triage team of inspectors. In May, it did a historical exercise looking back over every single felling licence on our books and reviewed the environmental harvest plan that was with them. This was a very thorough exercise. Cases in which it was deemed the harvest plan was suitable proceeded to the next stage - the ecologist. That is borne out in the much higher figures for private licences that have been issued because the ecologists are dealing with something that is in a more suitable state. Those which were deemed to have gaps in their harvest plan went back to the companies. They did not go back lightly. They were returned with a bespoke report from us which outlined where the gaps were, if there were bits missing and were asked to come back to us. As the Secretary General said in his opening remarks, the companies have responded and are coming back to us. We are staying in touch with them and these cases will be moved on. That is borne out in the higher private felling figures in recent times. That triage exercise is now a feature of our review of any licence application that comes in. It is work that we have to do. We are doing the same with afforestation applications now. We have completed a similar exercise on forest roads as well. There is a huge amount of background work which is not visible nor possible to report upon on any dashboard, but it is something which pays significant dividends.

Let us look at the approvals that were granted this year. The number of days applications that were in the system ranged from 21 days - which is three weeks and is obviously very effective - to 1,008 days. I have been scratching my head to think of any other legal or regulatory framework that would have such disparity of timescale but I cannot find any. What actions have been taken to ensure there is some form of systemic confidence provided to people so they can have a sense of the length of time an application will take to process?

Mr. Colm Hayes

The Deputy has hit on the nub of the question which is that the ultimate confidence in our licensing system comes from an applicant knowing that when he or she submits a licence application, all things being equal, he or she will receive the licence within a fixed period of time. Generally speaking, the stakeholder expectation is that that period is four months or 120 days.

We are very clear that we are not at that stage yet. The average is approximately ten months at present for a licence application. As Deputy Carthy said, there is a huge range from one month to two or three years in some exceptional circumstances. It is approximately nine months at present for a road licence.

The ultimate aim of all of this Project Woodland, when you throw it all into the pot, is driving down that average. That is where the confidence comes back. It touches on Deputy Fitzmaurice's point as well. How do you encourage farmers to apply for more afforestation? It comes from them knowing that when they apply they will receive a decision - good, bad or otherwise - from us within a reliable period of time. We are not there yet but we are making significant progress. Our averages in terms of the number of months for each type of application has to be driven down and we are monitoring that extremely closely. That is the ultimate measure of performance.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

Deputy Carthy made a good point there. He will accuse us of talking about averages but one has to look at the outliers as well. I accept that. It is unacceptable if there is an application in the system from 2017 or a small number from 2018. We have to rule those out and deal with them. That is part of the reason we did this triage exercise. That is an unacceptable situation. Nobody could defend it.

These are approvals. I want to know if lessons are being learned from the approval that was granted after 1,008 days so that a similar type of application will not take that long in future. Are we learning lessons so that we can address whatever issues were with that particular application?

Mr. Colm Hayes

Absolutely. It is all about continuously improving the process. It goes back to the Secretary General's point. We are bringing in outsiders to externally review our process and procedures. We want people to come in and tell us if we are doing things wrong if we have over egged the pudding here. There are lessons learned all the time.

Touching on what the Deputy said when we were in front of the committee in May, we average approximately seven weeks, in or around 100 licences per week then. We were maybe only a week or two into that when we appeared in front of the committee last. The statutory instrument hit. Now we are back to north of 100 a week. We have to keep that going and we are confident that those figures are in front of us. This is all a process of continuous improvement. It is about bringing people in. It is about training them. It is about the skills and the qualifications. It all goes into the mix.

Nobody can stand over a licence that is with us for three years. You would really have to go back and review and question that. We do that all the time when such a case appears.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I will make one point. We have thrown resources at this because we are in a crisis. We are trying to resolve the issue. Ultimately, we have to improve our processes as well. There is not much point in throwing resources at a system that is ineffective. That is why we have engaged these external people to review the legal framework and to look at what they are doing in other member states. We have got the system analyst to look at our IT systems and our processes. Ultimately, we need to know we have the most efficient process possible and then we have to deploy the appropriate resources to deliver what we need. The outcome we want is that the backlog is gone and somebody applying can reasonably assume with confidence that he or she will get a licence within a fixed period. That period may not be 120 days but if somebody applies and knows that he or she will get a licence in eight months or six months, that is better than where we are now. We need to get to that position.

On a slightly different point, is the Department still targeting 8,000 ha for afforestation this year?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

It is fairly clear we will not plant 8,000 ha of afforestation this year but it is a national target. We will have to revisit our system and make sure we can deliver on that. Nobody could pretend we will deliver that this year. We will not.

What about next year?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

We really have to turn the ship around to deliver that next year. The control is not only in our hands. We have to fix our systems here. Ultimately, it depends on people who are willing to see afforestation as a viable activity to improve their income. That requires a bit of a cultural shift. It will require us to refine our processes to make sure they are running efficiently.

That is the ambition but I would be a foolish man to say everything will be perfect by this time next year. That is the ambition but I think-----

Will Mr. Gleeson accept that every year we do not reach that 8,000 ha means there is going to be a big burden placed on somebody in the future?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I do.

All right. I must ask this question because it is put to me by almost everybody who contacts me on this issue. Has the Department carried out any analysis? In other words, has it got its own dashboard in relation to approvals and files processed by individual inspectors and ecologists? Put differently, are there blockages at a HR level in terms of addressing these issues?

Mr. Seamus Dunne

We do monitor people's work, obviously. We have a line management structure and that is what it's there for, that is, to manage, liaise and manage individuals' output. We do indeed do that.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I went down and met the forestry inspectorate just before the summer. I found staff there to be really tuned in, highly engaged and really sensitive to the concerns of industry. What we have there is a really strong resource and we must encourage them and assist them in what they do. There are imperfections in the system and there are differences from licence application to licence application. We manage all that as best we can and we have the same systems as anybody else for managing people and managing output.

Okay. As I said, the question needed to be put because it is being put to us on a regular basis. Every system, even the best ones in the world, can have deficiencies and they must be monitored. I will finish with another question and come back at the end if time allows.

Mr. Gleeson has mentioned the external independent review of the forestry licence process a number of times. I agree it is good to have external reviews of operations, particularly where issues arise, but in the words of the Minister, there will be a particular focus on how other EU member states approve these processes. Is that a statement that Mr. Gleeson's Department has never carried out an analysis of what other EU member states are doing, prior to this?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

No. We are aware of what other EU members states are doing. We are acting on the basis of our best judgment as to what the habitats directive and the general legal framework requires. That is all one can really do. It is true to say there a number of differences between Ireland and other member states. We have a very large number of applications for small plantations. I think this is done on a much bigger scale in many member states. We also have a contested sector. We went through a period where nearly every application for a Coillte felling licence was being appealed to the forestry appeals committee. I am certain there are lessons to be learned from other member states but I cannot guarantee members the independent assessor will look at the system in Germany or Finland and say it is all consistent with case law in Ireland and with the judgments from the forestry appeals committee. These things are complicated. If it was simple, if we could, for example, divest ourselves of the licencing system as some people are recommending, then I can assure members that if they think I am ideologically wedded to the idea we are the licencing authority or that we must issue licences, I am not. One can only act on the basis of one's own best judgments as to what is consistent with the law and if we did not do that we would be landing applicants in bigger trouble in the medium term, let alone the long term. There is no simple answer but we will see what comes out of this review. We will certainly be open to advice we get.

Okay. I thank Mr. Gleeson. As I said Chairman, I would appreciate an opportunity to come back in if one becomes available at the end.

I doubt it but we will see.

I welcome the officials back. Much of what I am asking has probably been asked already but it is a cry from the public out there. The public are very angry and frustrated and we as public representatives are equally angry and frustrated. I have a company in west County Cork, GP Wood, that employs many hundreds of people and is severely struggling. It is a very serious situation. On licencing output, there was average of just 46 forestry licences issued per week during July and 44 a week during August. On afforestation, the Department's forestry licence section has given permission for just 2,839 ha of new tree planting up to the end of last month, meaning the State is set to again miss its target of 8,000 ha of new woodland planting this year.

Senior officials in the Department promised to process more than 100 licences per week to resolve the long-running backlog of permits to cut down and plant trees. However, the completion rate for forestry licences plunged over the summer months, at a time of national timber shortage, putting jobs in the forestry sector at continued risk and damaging the State's climate action targets. This is the sixth time this committee has brought in Government or forestry officials to discuss forestry matters in the past 12 months. I have a few questions.

What is the timescale on the Project Woodland recommendation on the regulatory and planning review of the licence system and what is the current status of this recommendation? We need a timescale around this review. Jobs are being lost right now in the industry. We cannot wait indefinitely for this review and then have it gather dust on a Department shelf while foresters and timber processors remain on their knees.

My second question is on afforestation. I recently read the Department's licensing section has given permission for a paltry 2,839 ha of tree planting up to the end of August. What do the officials expect this number to have reached at the end of this year? I am looking for a specific figure. It has been clear from the outset of the year that we would not reach the 8,000 ha target but I want the officials to tell me now what they expect the figures to be by the year's end.

Do the officials still expect the Department to hit its own targets of 4,500 licences being issued this year? That will be a yes-no answer.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I think there were four questions there. The first was about the drop-off in the licensing rate in July. We did write to the committee and I have explained already that was a result of this new statutory instrument that required us to do a second period of consultation between the date of an appropriate assessment report and an appropriate assessment determination. That meant we essentially had to halt licensing for anything referred in for appropriate assessment for that period. That is a new 30-day period and it just took longer than we expected to develop new processes and systems around that. Consequently, we effectively lost eight weeks of high-output licensing and in that period, we were only really able to issue licences that were not referred for appropriate assessment.

The Deputy's second question was on the external review. This is on foot of recommendations from the working groups in Project Woodland. We have run a tender and we got four bidders. I think we are in a position today to say we have a preferred bidder. We must now make a recommendation to the Minister about accepting the bid. I cannot say much more about that except we are at the point of selecting somebody today. There is no danger of it sitting on a departmental shelf because this was one of the working groups in Project Woodland. This successful tenderer will be engaging with those working groups to discuss their concerns and ambitions for the activity with them, so that will happen.

On the 4,500 licences, what I said in my opening statement was that it will be very difficult to meet that target because we have essentially lost eight weeks of that high output. A more realistic target now would be around 4,000 licences. I think that addresses all the Deputy's questions.

I have another question. Mr. Gleeson recently said his Department licensing section was giving permission for 2,839 ha. What does he think the realistic figure is going to be? It is not going to reach 8,000 ha. What will the figure be by the end of this year?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

We have employed ten new ecologists to deal with afforestation licences and our ambition is to get up to 20 licences a week. I am not sure I can give the Deputy a hectarage for that but we also have 5,700 ha of licensed afforestation in the system. I am sure it frustrates him when we say that but it is factually correct.

Senator Boyhan has gone off the call. I call Deputy Martin Browne.

I welcome the officials back again. It is like groundhog day at this stage. As other speakers have said, it is becoming embarrassing to have to keep coming back to such meetings to hear the same thing over and over again. I do not know what way it is going to finish up. I can assure Mr. Gleeson and Mr. Hayes, who answered Deputy Carthy, that targets will not be met this year and if the same carry-on continues next year, we will back here next year and the targets will not be reached then either.

We all accept that the Minister of State, Deputy Hackett, warned us about July. I agree with the Chairman that the figures suddenly improved two weeks before this meeting. The committee was told that an administrative burden is associated with this process and that it is greater than had been anticipated. How long can the Department keep using these types of excuses? Will the officials explain how a 30-day consultation period resulted in an eight-week interruption in licensing? How many objections have resulted from the initial consultation process?

Most of the points have been covered. I visited an ash forest of 3.3 ha over the summer to look at dead and dying trees as a result of ash dieback. The application for the reconstitution and underplanting scheme, RUS, was submitted to the Forestry Service 14 months ago and it has still not been approved. The local authority has reclassified the replanting of part of the area with conifers as development, which requires the landowner to get planning permission for the small area. Can Mr. Gleeson or someone else do anything about this? Will they contact their counterparts in other Departments to have the legislation changed so that planning is not required for areas of less than 10 ha in such circumstances?

We are facing into a serious problem. I do not know who raised the issue; it may have been Deputy Fitzmaurice. We will have no one in the sector in 20 years' time because of the inadequacies of the officials. Farmers are not getting into forestry because they see the runaround people are getting. We all accept that we have problems now but we will have serious problems down the line unless people in the Departments pull up their socks.

It is embarrassing to have to come back in to these meetings. It is like pulling teeth. We are getting the same answers over and over again and the same excuses. We are told we will reach the target. There is not a hope in hell of reaching the target set at the start of the year. Without serious changes, the same discussion will take place again when we do not reach the monthly targets for next year.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

The Deputy's first question was about the statutory instrument and the impact it had. It was never going to be the case that it would just delay things by 30 days. There was a significant process to engage in to put all those files up for consultation. Approximately 1,700 files were put up for consultation. People had to go through the vast majority of those manually and redact personal information to avoid breaching GDPR. That is one example of something that had to be done - 1,700 files had to be gone through manually. The reality is that we would prefer to have done that more quickly than we did, but that is what led to eight weeks of reduced output. That is built into our system now and we are back into a more efficient system.

The Deputy asked about the legal framework. We are stuck with the legal framework we have. The reality is that if someone with a high-cover deciduous plantation switches it to conifers, the local authorities treat that as a planning application. I can certainly talk to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage about that but I cannot guarantee that there will be any change in the regime. For the moment, that is the regime we are stuck with.

The Deputy asked about the target of 4,500 licences. I already mentioned that I do not think we will meet that. I think the figure will be in the region of 4,000 licences because we lost eight weeks of high output as a result of the statutory instrument.

We hear what Mr. Gleeson is saying, and we heard it before, but as far as I am concerned it just seems to be another reason the Department has found to make excuses for underperformance. That is my personal view. I do not know what other people feel. Nearly every month we have someone in from the Department and there is an excuse every time for not hitting the target relating to the forestry licence dashboard.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I am happy to come to this committee and explain things as they are. I have to explain them as they are, and the reality is that there was an external factor here that nobody had anticipated. That is not ideal. I wish we were not in this position but we are, so I cannot tell the Deputy something that is not factually correct. It is factually correct to say there was a new piece of legislation that we had not anticipated that was not promulgated by our Department or Minister and it led to a significant delay. We wrote to the committee and told it that there would be a delay in July. I understand the Deputy's frustration. I know he is representing his constituents. I am sure he knows people who are on the wrong end of this. We understand that, but we are committed to fixing this. If it was easy, it would have been fixed long ago. It is not easy.

We do know people that are affected. Everybody on this committee knows people that are affected. In the interests of the efficiency of the Forestry Service and how public money is being used, do we have any figures on the average costs of processing a licence?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I do not have that figure but I am happy to have a look at it and to send something to the committee. If it wants to record it in the minutes, we will send it on.

I thank Mr. Gleeson.

I welcome Mr. Gleeson, Mr. Hayes and Mr. Dunne and thank them for their opening statement. I will go back to the deliberations with the Minister at the previous meeting, which, unfortunately, I could not attend, although I viewed the proceedings afterwards. There was a discussion on the proposed regulatory or systems review. Who will provide the terms of reference or the scope for the regulatory review, if and when the people who carry it out are selected?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

The terms of reference were included in the tender documents. They were prepared on the basis of recommendations from the working groups. When the selected tenderer is chosen - we are just on the point of doing that - it will have engagement with the working groups. The working groups comprise people from the industry, people from the environmental sector and a range of stakeholders.

So the terms of reference have already been provided.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

Yes, we had to do that before we ran the tender. We wanted to get this up and running as quickly as we could.

Were the terms of reference put together by departmental officials?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

Yes, but based on input from the working groups. There are specific issues that people have raised such as the 15 km, the possibility of having a single consent system instead of having to come back for consents at harvesting and thinning time, and the question of whether we need the same kind of licensing for more management-type activities like thinning or road building. All of those issues will be comprehended in the review. That will be done by a combination of looking at the legal framework, the way the Department does its business and what is done in other member states. There will be a team and it will be assisted by the systems analyst we have taken on to look at our processes. We will be trying to look at the regulatory framework and then looking at our process to see if there are any gaps or inefficiencies in the process and we will be marrying those two things together to try and come up with the best possible, most efficient set of processes and IT systems within the relevant legal framework.

Okay. I have a couple of more questions based on the output of licences over the year to date and how it may or may not be helping what is perceived to be the supply of timber. What was the clear-fell year on the 92 licences issued in August? How many of them would have had a 2021 clear-fell year on their issue?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I will ask Mr. Hayes to respond.

Mr. Colm Hayes

I can certainly give the Senator the clear-fell year for the Coillte licences issued in that period. I will write separately to the committee on the felling year for the private licences. Of the 51 Coillte licences, two were for harvesting in 2021, 48 were for harvesting in 2022 and one was for harvesting in 2023.

Looking at the dashboards on licence issuing, two licences have a clear-fell year of 2021. Only those two licences can go towards meeting the shortfall in the supply of timber at present. Forty-eight licences will not even commence harvesting until 2022. As we are coming into the winter months trying to meet demand for timber, we are looking at the wrong thing when we are looking at the dashboard or we are not getting enough detail on the dashboard if our concern is timber supply.

Mr. Colm Hayes

We must remember that if we looked at the dashboard this time last year in all likelihood we would have seen licences that were going to be felled this year. In some respects this is a retrospective exercise. We have to look back at licences issued two or three years ago if we want a true picture of the likelihood of a site being harvested in a calendar year. It is not unusual. In all likelihood, people applying for felling licences are applying earlier and earlier because of the perception that it takes longer and longer to get one. With regard to private licences, it is a matter for any licenceholder as to when he or she brings the timber to market. That is a question for themselves based on the price and other relevant factors personal to them. I will write to the Senator on the private licences.

We are getting a lot of coverage at present and a lot of people are on to us about the price of timber and the shortfall of timber in the market. I am trying to get to the kernel of the issue. Of the 1,200 felling licences that have been granted this year, only 419 had road licences. If we were to make an assumption that give or take 25% of felling licences do not need a road licence it still leaves a shortfall of 900 felling sites that will not have road licences. The point I am trying to make is that even as limited as the number of licences we are issuing is, we can start halving it again and again to get to the number that is being felled.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

What the Senator is getting at is the volume of timber that is licensed at present. Do we have a figure for that available now?

Mr. Colm Hayes

To this point of the year it is 4.8 million cu. m. We would expect the figure for the volume of timber licensed this year to be somewhere between 6.5 million cu. m and 7 million cu. m for the year. In all likelihood, this is probably the highest volume of timber ever licensed in any 12-month period.

How much of a shortfall is that on the demand that is there?

Mr. Colm Hayes

The best indicator of the expectations from stakeholders comes from the COFORD roundwood forecast report. From memory, for this year it has a figure of approximately 4.5 million cu. m. It is very difficult. People will make decisions. It is not like bringing cattle to the factory. The trees will still be standing in six months' time if we do not fell them. People will judge the markets. They will look at their personal circumstances as to when to fell. They may decide to wait for a year. Our job is to get the maximum volume out there within the permitted environmental regulations. Last year, we got 5 million cu. m. licensed. That will be exceeded this year, perhaps by 30% or more. We go back to the same theme of continuous improvement. It is a case of all the time putting more and more timber out there, helping those who need it and helping stakeholders to meet their demands and supply requests. I am satisfied that we-----

I know what Mr. Hayes is saying but the point I am making is while we look at the dashboard and see the number of licences granted being way below what we would like to see, even those that are being granted do not necessarily mean the companies mentioned in the various areas that are struggling can get boots on the ground felling trees.

Mr. Colm Hayes

I have given Coillte figures but I am not sure whether Coillte is a great indicator because it is fully licensed for 2021. We would have to go back and look at what it got last year. It is now bringing that to the market through a series of auctions and it is building towards 2022.

I will have to go through the analysis on the private felling figures to see how that works out. We are in September now and it is difficult to look at the figures and state they are an indicator of what will be available on the market for the rest of the year. In all likelihood, the sites that will be harvested for the rest of this year may have been licensed earlier this year, last year or two years ago. It is really a question of when the landowner wants to bring the site to the market.

I have several more quick questions. Based on what we have agreed on here, there will be a massive shortfall in our target of 8,000 ha this year and possibly in future. Has the Department had communication with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications on what possible amendments the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, may have to make to the climate action plan because of the shortfall in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications is well aware of the rate of afforestation. We have not specifically communicated with it on changing the climate plan. The climate plan has not been finalised. It is a work in progress. There will be many dimensions to it beyond forestry.

I have received representations from a man who has applied for a reconstitution licence. He had previously received a felling licence. He applied for his replanting licence in February. I made representations on his behalf and seven months later, on 18 August, the answer I received was that the current estimate was that it would take at least nine months. I was asked to note that the timeframe was indicative only and that it may take longer than nine months to complete the appropriate assessment, AA, process. I was told that at that stage it was not possible to provide a definitive timeframe. The point I want to make in the question I am asking is that this is a reconstitution licence. This man previously applied for and received a felling licence. He signed a contract 30 odd years ago whereby he is duty-bound to replant the land. Unlike Deputy Fitzmaurice's friend, he cannot go out and plough and sow a crop during what is now looking like a two-year gap. The Department is making him wait to replant what he is obliged to replant by contract with the Department. He is out of pocket. He has no source of income from the land as he cannot plough it or graze it. He has a contract that he will be breaching if he does not replant. He previously had a planting licence. He is replacing forestry with forestry and trees with trees. He will be in limbo for at least two years.

How many similar applications for reconstitution are sitting in the system? Is there a case for an amnesty for reconstitution licences? Only two years ago, the man got a felling licence. What has changed in the geography of the area, the lie of the land or replacing trees with trees that this man could be told he will be waiting a minimum of 16 months and that is not definitive? What he is doing is keeping to a contract he has with the Department that was signed many years ago. He would prefer not to replant but he has no choice. He is being left in limbo for two years. Will the witnesses answer this and tell me why there could not be an amnesty for such applications? How many applications have been made for reconstitution planting?

Mr. Colm Hayes

I am slightly unclear about the relationship between the felling licence and the reconstitution and underplanting scheme licence. Will the Senator send details of the particular case to me directly and I will look into it immediately?

The correlation I am making is that as there was an environmental assessment for the felling licence, why redo it all for a replanting licence on the same site when replacing trees with trees? I will forward the details of the individual case but the question I really am asking is how many people are in the same situation. They are in limbo. They are caught. How many such applications have been made? Why can the Department not give an amnesty to these people? They are replacing trees with trees and forestry with forestry.

Mr. Colm Hayes

I take it the Senator is referring to the replanting and underplanting scheme for ash dieback.

No, I am referring to afforestation. I am referring to a man who received a felling licence and removed his forestry. Under his original contract, he has to replant trees on the land he has felled. He obtained a felling licence and felled it. Now he is applying for a licence to replant it and he has been told it will be the best part of two years before he receives it.

I want to support Senator Daly. I know of two constituents who received the exact same answer from the Department as Senator Daly. Both of them were replanting their land as well after clearfelling. They had to sign up to say that they would replant when they planted their land 30 years ago. They cannot understand why there is such a time delay when there is no change of land use or anything else; it is only replanting. If one cuts a crop of barley, one does not have to go back and look for permission to sow a crop of barley the year after.

This man is hugely out of pocket. Deputy Fitzmaurice gave an example of a man who ploughed and will have some income off the land. This man is not deciding to go into forestry. He is not grazing the land now while he is waiting. There is nothing on the land because it is a harvested forest.

Mr. Colm Hayes

If it is a harvested forest and it was licensed, the replanting permission comes with the felling licence. It is not a separate process. It is not a two-strand process. When a person gets his or her felling licence, he or she also gets the permission to replant.

I have the correspondence from the Department. I have the licence number from the felling licence and I have the response, which says it will be nine months, at least, before he gets his felling licence.

Mr. Colm Hayes

Okay, there are some crossed wires perhaps. The Senator can send the correspondence to me directly and I will look at it immediately. In ordinary circumstances, without reference to that particular case, there is no need for anyone with a felling licence to apply for replanting permission. It comes with the felling licence. There is ordinarily a gap between harvesting and replanting for silviculture reasons and companies and landowners may leave it for up to two years. That is not a legal requirement or a licensing requirement, however. That is the general rule. The Senator might send me the correspondence for the particular circumstances he outlined. I will be very happy to look at it immediately.

I call Senator Lombard.

I welcome Mr. Gleeson and his team this afternoon. I will be very brief. I have two or three questions on which I hope to get clarification. The first is with regard to targets. I believe Mr. Gleeson has given clarity that he believes the Department will not hit the targets that were set at the start of the year. Has the Department revised its targets for this year yet? More importantly, has it put targets in place for next year? What are the proposed targets it has put in place for next year?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I said to the committee that I believe a more realistic target for this year is approximately 4,000 licences. I am happy to advance a target for next year but if we can continue to issue licences at a rate of approximately 100 per week, and if we end up with a refined process, then I would be optimistic that we can certainly exceed that significantly next year. That is one of the things we are looking at now and that we will be looking at in the context of our process review. At the end of that process, I believe we will be in a position to make a much more realistic estimate of the licences to be issued next year. If, however, we can continue to issue licences at the rate of approximately 100 per week over a year, that gives us something close to 5,000 licences.

Will Mr. Gleeson at some stage provide the committee with that information regarding having 100 licences per week over 52 weeks amounting to 5,000 licences? Will he be putting that in writing to the committee in the next few months? This is September. When does Mr. Gleeson think he will have that information for the committee?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I will be very happy to do that and will do so sometime in the autumn. What I do not want to do is create a hostage to fortune now and be called back before the committee for failing to meet my targets. I want to be as realistic as I can when I do this. I, therefore, want to give a considered response when we have reflected on it and when we have the output of the process review.

I mention the licences or the applications that have been in the system for more than one year. I know that at the start of the year a concerted effort was made to take into consideration bigger applications in order that we could have vast amounts of forestry coming through the system faster. Is Mr. Gleeson proposing to look at these licences that have been in the system for more than one year in order that they can be brought through the system at a faster rate than what is coming through at the moment? There seems to be considerable dismay in many quarters that the Department has licences in the system for more than a year, and in some cases, two and three years. What is Mr. Gleeson's long-term strategy to deal with those licences?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

First of all, it is unacceptable that we have licences in the system that long. I absolutely accept that. One of the difficulties in dealing with a crisis is that one must do things to keep timber in the system and to keep the system moving. In a functioning system, we would have dealt with all this long ago. We have started looking back at those licences now. Mr. Hayes may wish to talk through his triage process and what he is doing on those.

Mr. Colm Hayes

The Senator is correct. We previously indicated to the committee that in order to stabilise the sector, there was a certain prioritisation, particularly on felling, for the larger files. We have gone back now and done a chronological exercise. I am not sure if the Senator was present earlier when I went through the methodology that we applied here. We have a triage team that went back and looked through every felling licence and roads licence that was on our books. The team had a look at the associated harvest plan that was with it and made a judgment on whether it was suitable to go forward to the next stage. If it was, it went forward to the next stage. It was a more efficient process and we are seeing that coming through now, in particular in the higher private felling licences from May, June, early July and now in the last two or three weeks.

The team has done a similar exercise on roads and it has now moved on to afforestation as well. Where it deems that the harvest plan is not up to scratch, we go back to the forestry company with detailed bespoke feedback to identify the gaps, advise what it can do to plug them and get back to us. To their credit, the companies have been coming back to us on those. It is a system of continuous improvement. We need them to come back. We want to make sure we have work in front of all of our people. We have communicated very clearly to the sector that if someone wants a felling licence, a good quality harvest plan is the key to unlocking that. We have given them advice on what that harvest plan should look like. To their credit, companies are responding and we need to bring that forward into the afforestation piece now as well.

That review or triage exercise continues now. The inspector does it on receipt of an application in terms of whether a harvest plan is fit to go forward and, if not, it goes back to the company. At any one time, we have between 600 and 700 applications back with companies for them to work on. It is up to them how quickly they come back. We would encourage them to come back as quickly as they possibly can because if it comes back and it is good to go then it should issue. This is about good communication between us and the individual companies. We are very happy to have any number of sessions on that if it means there is a good flow of material in both directions.

Because we have an issue regarding the amount of timber we can cut, we have had in increase in the importation of timber, particularly coming in from Scotland. Is the Department happy with the virus security we have at the ports? Has it made any efforts or any change in staff to make sure that the biosecurity measures in these ports are up to standard? It should be taken into consideration that we previously had issues with ash dieback coming into the country. We had issues with how that actually came in. In some parts of the UK and the Continent, there is a bug that could have a huge impact on the spruce tree population.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I will ask Mr. Dunne to answer that question.

Mr. Seamus Dunne

To clarify, there is a big difference between what happened with ash dieback and the Scottish import. I cannot emphasise enough that ash dieback came in from another member state. We do not carry out import controls, nor does any other member state, within the community. There are no teams of inspectors that carry out inter-community border controls. It is different with Scotland. We had an import into Cork yesterday. We will have another import into Cork tomorrow. There will be inspectors inspecting those. We carry out inspections on third country regulated timber imports. As I said, a large consignment came in yesterday and there will be a large consignment tomorrow. We do, therefore, carry out import controls on third country imports.

I call Deputy Kehoe.

I welcome the Department officials this afternoon. I want to pick up on a number of points the officials spoke about. They mentioned how we should be talking up the positive story around forestry. I talk to farmers from my neck of the woods in County Wexford and from other parts of the country who have contacted me because they know I am on the agricultural committee. There is very little positivity when it comes to forestry because they see the delays waiting on plantation licences, felling licences and everything like that. The licences in July and August have been mentioned so I do not want to go back over that. There is huge frustration in the groups and organisations in and around forestry.

They believe they are not being listened to. One of the officials has said that there is not an easy fix to the problem. If there were an easy or quick fix, what would it be?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I accept what the Deputy said about the general narrative out there and the licensing is part of that. My point earlier on was that forestry is still a pretty good option, from an income point of view, for farmers and it can coexist. It is not an alternative. It can coexist with livestock farming which is good. Of course, we have to fix the licensing problem. The Deputy was asking me what the quick fix would be, if there were one. If there was a quick fix, I would have done it long ago but things have been suggested. It has been suggested we have some kind of an amnesty. I do not know of any legal basis for that. If we wanted to be cavalier about it, we could say we will give everybody an amnesty as we are under fierce pressure from the agriculture committee and the sector and get many of these licences off the books as we can, in as quick a time as possible. We would end up in the High Court in ten minutes and then applicants would be in bigger trouble than they are now. We would have a significant problem.

We have to be careful, judicious and responsible about how we apply the law. This sector is quite highly contested in Ireland, which is not the case in many other member states. It is certainly not the case in Scotland, if you talk to Jo O'Hara with whom I have had many long conversations. It is just a different kind of dynamic in Scotland. I mentioned we had a period in which every Coillte licence was being appealed. People are entitled to appeal but that gives a sense of the difference in the dynamic here. We have to be very careful of staying on the right side of the law.

We have an external body. We are on the point of selecting it to do a regulatory review to look at the systems and members states. We are entirely open to recommendations that might come from that exercise. It will be informed by the working groups established under Project Woodland. These include representatives of various people with an interest in the sector. The power of that vehicle, which we have to be careful to cherish and look after because we take it very seriously, is that it brings people who have different views on forestry together to create a single vision. What you find there is that people on the environmental side are appreciative of the pressure on small commercial interests that are trying to plant forestry. Of course, they have their own equally legitimate perspective on compliance with environmental law. We have to balance those interests but we have to stay on the right side of the law. Sometimes, the courts make determinations that you have not anticipated but it is not a realistic proposition to just throw it out the window and have an amnesty. Some of the-----

If you go back to the legislation that was passed approximately one year ago on the appeals mechanism, which it might have improved, and if we reintroduce that legislation with minor changes and tweaks, it would make a huge difference. I am conscious other members want to get into it but the price of timber is gone through the roof, in terms of house building, pallet companies and such. It is because we are not issuing the felling licences. There is a significant amount of timber to be felled in Ireland but the amount of imported timber has skyrocketed over the past 12, 18 or 24 months. Mr. Gleeson spoke about the terms of reference the Minister of State put out for the tender of the external regulatory review licensing system. Can he give me confirmation that no Department officials will be involved in the drafting of the terms of the external regulatory review of the forestry licensing process?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

"No" is the answer to that. The Department is contracting with somebody to do a big job on its behalf. I could not possibly, as an Accounting Officer for this Department, say the Department will have nothing to do with that. We have had a series of recommendations from the various working groups and the recommendations of those working groups have fed into the preparation of terms of reference which have been published as part of the tender. We then had a group evaluating the tenders which came in. Four tenders are coming in. On the evaluation group, there were people from the project board, of which I am a member, but I was not a member of the evaluation group; chairpersons of the working groups and people from the Department. It could not be any other way.

To be perfectly frank-----

Can the terms of reference be widened once the winning tender is announced? We might be able to do a little more work if that were the case.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

The contract has yet to be signed. I have to be very careful about this. We cannot really broaden the terms of reference but we can have discussions with the preferred bidder about some of the nuances of what it will do. Bear in mind, we are in the middle of a tender exercise so we cannot change the goalposts. The Deputy will understand that.

As a former Minister of State, I fully understand that. An issue often raised with me and one which I am passing on as a messenger, as Members of Parliament are, is that nothing has improved in the past 13 months. Back in June 2020, the project plan for processing forestry was to clear the backlog. Everyone referred to the crisis in mid-2020. One of the first questions I am asked is who is the line manager with responsibility for this in the Department. People say it is a complete failure and it is very hard for me not to agree with them. They ask whether the people involved in the Department when it said there was a crisis in June 2020 are still involved. Are these people entrusted with delivering the same results? There was a crisis more than 12 months ago and that crisis is even deeper now.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

First, things are not satisfactory but they are improving. I have explained that and am happy to explain it again. Who is the line manager? I am. I have already expressed confidence in my officials. I have come before this committee many times. I respect it immensely. I have never found myself in a position in which I have to defend individual officials in this way. I will say it again. I have people here who are working 12 or 14 hours per day to resolve this issue. It is not easily resolved. They will continue to do so. They are dedicated and are working hard to resolve the issue. If people want to have a go, I am the line manager. I am responsible for what goes on in this Department.

Mr. Gleeson can understand people's frustration. If he looks back at the situation in July 2020, when he was before the committee, we still have the same issues. There may have been a marginal improvement but there are huge improvements still to be made because the sector is still in crisis. I do not want to waste any more of Mr. Gleeson's time. Just a-----

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I have to come back in on this. We are happy to have external people review our processes and adherence to legislation and that is what we are doing. I am comfortable with that idea because we do not have a monopoly on wisdom. I would love to hear positive ideas about how we can resolve this.

We have to look at the legislation that was passed more than a year ago. I am not sure if the appetite is there to do so. I have been a Member of the Oireachtas for 20 years. I know it is difficult to do so but we have review and strengthen the most recent legislation in this area. Perhaps the Minister and officials at the time thought we would be able to get through the quagmire we were in back then but that was not the case. The legislation has to be revisited and strengthened. We have more ecologists and so forth employed in the Department, yet there is still a crisis.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

The legislation has made a significant difference but it deals with appeals. There is a balance to be struck between the rights of citizens to appeal and engage under the Aarhus Convention and the rights of applicants. The Department no longer sees the appeals system as being the problem. The appeals committee had 1,000 cases before it at one point and we are down to 50 cases waiting to be heard.

Essentially, that problem has been resolved. If there are recommendations as to how we might adjust the legislation, I would be delighted to hear them. There is a delicate balance to be struck. When we were passing that legislation, there were those who said it erred on the wrong side of public consultation and the Aarhus Convention and those who said the opposite. This is a contested area and a contested sector. As a Department, it is our obligation to be on the right side of all of that. The appeals system is not the problem anymore. It can be improved and perfected, but it is no longer the issue. At one stage in 2020, we had 571 applications under appeal. That is all gone now. We still have a steady stream of appeals because people have the right to appeal, but it is much more manageable now. The system is much better than it was.

I have two further questions. If the witnesses cannot answer them today, they might come back to the committee secretariat on them in writing. The joint committee was told by the departmental officials at a previous meeting that Coillte had been fully licensed for 2021. What metrics were used in determining Coillte requirements for 2021 and when did it receive its full allocation of licences? What metrics are used to determine the requirements of private sector felling and how far off is that sector in terms of being fully licensed? What metrics are used by the Department in allocating afforestation licences? In that regard, what targets are in place, what is the timeline for delivery of those targets and what is the forecasted outcome?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I ask Mr. Hayes to come in on those questions.

Mr. Colm Hayes

On the volume requirement of Coillte in any one year, as I understand it, Coillte brings its timber to the market in two forms, that is, a contract position at the end of the year and in advance of the following year and through a series of auctions. It is up to Coillte how much timber is brings to market, but, generally speaking, it indicates to us the volume of licences needed, which is a steady amount from what I have seen over the last three years. Coillte is operationally independent of the Department.

Coillte received its full allocation of licences for 2021 in March or April. In previous years, it would always have been licensed for a particular year in October or November of the previous year. That is where we want to get back to because that is not just a Coillte issue, it is a question of security of supply for all of the sawmills who will have discussions with all of their suppliers, banks and everybody else once that is in the bag. Coillte submitted 1,800 licence applications in the month of March to cover the period 2022-23. Working the maths on that, it will need roughly 50%, or in the region of 900 to 1,000, for 2022. Work in that regard is ongoing.

On the other question, Coillte is one applicant, the same as all of the other applicants. I refer to the point I made to Deputy Carthy earlier. There is a big variation and far too large a variation in the length of time it takes to license a site which, for private sites, can be anything from one month to, as in the example given by the Deputy, 1,000 days. Ultimately, what we are trying to get to, and what everybody is trying to get to, is a reliable, secure timeframe for the processing of licences such that an applicant can be relatively assured, all going well, that he or she will receive a licence within that timeframe. At the moment, it takes ten months on average to secure a licence from the Department. We would acknowledge that this is far too long, but it is a process of continuous improvement. Every metric is up this year on last year. Every category, including roads, afforestation, felling, across all the volumes and numbers of licences, is up on last year. There is improvement. The question was asked about next year. We expect that they would be up next year as well. It is about driving down the length of time to process a licence such that an applicant can be assured he or she will receive the licence in a reasonable amount of time. That is the nub of the issue.

I have one final question. If Coillte has received its full allocation of licences for 2021, and taking into account that 1,146 afforestation licences are still awaiting approval, why have the past two weeks' dashboards thrown out 116 Coillte licences as against 12 afforestation licences?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

We have said that we need to improve the rate of issuing of afforestation licences. We have appointed a dedicated team to do that work. Insofar as Coillte is concerned, approximately 75% of the timber that goes into sawmills is from Coillte. Sawmills rely on confidence about the 2022 supply in order that they can go to their banks in the autumn to get the finance to run their businesses the following year. The contracts that Coillte makes available this year for 2022 are the critical part of their business model. They would be in trouble if we did not do that. It is unsatisfactory. In a well-functioning system, we would be dealing with all of these things at exactly the same time and at the same pace, but we are trying to manage things in a way that makes sense. We accept that the rate of issuing afforestation licences is inadequate. As I said, we have appointed a dedicated team to deal with that work.

I call Deputy Joe Flaherty.

The officials will be delighted to hear I am not one for beating up an official and so they are going to get a small moment of respite. I appreciate that an earnest effort is being made on their part to try to get to the root of this problem. I am sure they do not welcome having to come before the committee to face members but I acknowledge that they have said they respect the work of the committee. I would like to ask a couple of questions and I will endeavour not to go over the ground that already has been trodden.

In regard to Coillte, is there a special line of communication open to it within the Department? I understand Coillte is the biggest player in the market. Is there a dedicated route for it? Are there staff within the licensing processing section who deal exclusively with Coillte or is it a case of fair game in respect of licence applications received, with anybody being able to deal with them? The smaller producers would like clarity on that question. They would like to hear that there is not a dedicated scenario to safeguard Coillte's needs and expectations.

On recruitment, have all of the roles sought been filled or are there vacancies within the team yet to be filled? The Minister's letter to the committee, which I think was dated 20 July, dealt primarily with the issue of what has happened in July and the consultation period. I note it was stated that in all likelihood we will drop back to 4,000 licences by the end of the year. Is there any commonality within the licensing applications? I know some are historical, with some relating to 2017 and others to 2018. Are the officials in a position to say that a typical forestry licence application can take six to eight weeks to process? I am seeking some insight into how the team works. Are there specialists within it such that when issues arise they are handed over to them? Is it the case that the same people work through the licence application from the outset or have the officials at this stage identified that more experienced people should be dealing with the difficult cases? If the witnesses could respond to some of those questions, I would appreciate it.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

Mr. Hayes and Mr. Dunne are more familiar with the intricacies of the licensing regime than I am so I will ask them to deal with that issue.

Mr. Colm Hayes

On Coillte licences, in terms of what is expected in the application and the manner in which it is treated in the Department, in the period of public consultation, the environmental assessment and the ultimate appeals window, there is no difference between a Coillte licence and a private licence in that respect. The onus on the company is the same as it is on any applicant. The onus in terms of the public consultation, the 14-day appeal window and the environmental assessment is the same. We do have a dedicated team at the moment looking at Coillte licences. We are at that point in the year when we are issuing a lot of Coillte licences in preparation for the end of year position, when it goes out to the market and sawmills.

We have dedicated teams for afforestation and private felling licences. The Secretary General stated at the start of the meeting that we have 27 ecologists now whereas two years ago, there mat have been two. We always trying to make maximum and most efficient use of our resources in order to drive output. It is something that is under continuous review.

There was a question around the processing of a licence and whether it is handled by one person the whole way through. Mr. Dunne is the chief inspector and may have a good insight into that.

Mr. Seamus Dunne

Deputy Flaherty mentioned existing vacancies. We have some existing vacancies for ecologists for which we have clearance to fill. Fehily Timoney & Company, our contracting company, has some vacancies it will fill. We are continually bringing in more ecologists into the team to increase productivity.

There is an escalation procedure whereby junior ecologists meet with problems, which go to senior ecologists. We have an escalation procedure when difficult files are being managed by more junior ecologists. They can go to a more senior ecologist.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

Deputy Flaherty asked about resources. We are at a point where we have put a lot of extra resources into this. I am anxious to ensure that we are doing things properly before I throw any more resources at it. We need to see the outcome of the regulatory and process review and then deploy the resources needed to deliver the optimal system. We have put a lot of resources into this within a relatively short space of time because we are dealing with a crisis. We need to get beyond that point, look at this strategically, ask whether our processes are streamlined to maximum effect and identify what resources are needed to deliver the objectives.

I am quite prepared to put additional resources into this, as required, but I want to make sure that we are not throwing more resources at a bad system. I want to put more resources into a functioning system that functions as effectively as possible. That is where we are at.

I will come in very briefly on that. It was very good to get an insight into the process. I am particularly heartened to note that there is an escalation mechanism within the licensing process. As I said, there is disappointment that we are going to end up with 4,000 licences at the end of the year. I know the witnesses are sick to the teeth of comparisons with the private sector but any private sector business model with a full quarter left in the year would consider escalation mechanisms to try to recoup ground for the final quarter.

I am not in a position to task the witnesses with anything but given there is still a quarter left in the year, it is a reasonable takeaway for them that we should not finish the year on 4,000 licences. There would be an element of defeatism in that. I would certainly like the message to go from me, as a personal message, and the committee that we would not be happy to finish the year with 4,000 licences. My view is that from today we should task the Department with a target of 4,500 licenses by year end in light of the fact that within the Department, there is a mechanism to escalate the process.

When the witnesses come before the committee again I would like them to advise us what procedures were put in place to try to get the figure of 4,500. I do not think it is reasonable for us as representatives of the people and people involved in the forestry sector to accept that we will end the year on 4,000 licences.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I thank the Deputy. As I said earlier, our ambition would be to issue as many licences as possible. I will not come in here and give a hostage to fortune. The Deputy can rest assured that every effort will be made to maximise our licensing output. That will include resources and systems. We have a fundamental systems review under way at present. I hear what the Deputy has said and I accept that is the message coming from the committee.

I have a few questions and observations for Mr. Gleeson and the other officials. I want to elaborate on a point made by Deputy Kehoe about an amnesty. I can appreciate that the Secretary General of a Department wants to avoid the High Court if at all possible. It it is a very bad place for any Department or individual to go.

I refer to thinning licences. It is an operation that is done to allow a crop to reach its full potential. To me, it does not make sense that people have to apply for a thinning licence. People have planted their plantations and in order to allow them to mature properly thinning is part of that process. If we could take thinning licences out of the equation it would be a great help for us to get to the endgame. One could make a very logical case for not having to apply for licences for thinning because all that is being done is allowing a crop to reach its proper potential.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

That would be a great help. It is one of the things we have asked to be examined in the process review. We have asked whether, in respect of licences for management type activities, the consent procedure we have is appropriate or if there could be a lighter touch. We have considered that as a specific issue, but on the basis of the recommendations from the working groups we have included that in the process review that will be under way very shortly.

Mr. Gleeson said he is not afraid to put resources into solving this issue, which I welcome. A director of forestry has been talked about. We will get a new director of forestry to oversee the procedures and issues with the sector. Is the plan that the director of forestry would be an outside appointment with a fresh perspective on the issues in the sector?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

The answer is "No". This is a Government Department and, like other such Departments, people apply for competitions. The objective is to make sure that we have an additional resource at a very senior level who deals with nothing but forestry. At the moment our top official dealing with forestry has to deal with many other complicated issues. I have already said that we have engaged outside contractors. We have an outside project manager and person looking at our systems. We are bringing in outside consultants to examine the systems we apply. It is not my intention to subvert the structure in the Department. I see no reason to do that. To be perfectly frank, it would be an inappropriate thing to do.

We might agree to differ. As Mr. Gleeson said, the buck stops with him. I appreciate that. I refer to carbon sequestration, the programme for Government targets for afforestation and our battle against climate change. Has the Department done a sum on the loss over the lifetime of the plantations that were targeted in the programme for Government? How much of a loss is that sequestration in our battle against climate change?

We will probably be, at best, 5,500 ha behind the target of 8,0000 ha in the programme for Government. Is that the Department's target or do the witnesses feel a lower target is more realistic? Do they feel we could reach a higher target than 8,000 ha? While it is the target in the programme for Government, is that compatible with the Department's target? Has a sum been done on the significant losses of the potential for carbon sequestration and our missed targets?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

The contribution to climate change mitigation factored into our accounting between now and 2030 is about trees in the ground now. The planting we are doing between now and 2030 will be of assistance to us after 2030. There is a programme for Government target of 8,000 ha. It is not for me to resile from that. We have to be ambitious about this. If the Chairman is asking if we could plant more than that, it would be foolish of me to say that we can in circumstances where we are struggling to meet our existing targets. Our ambition is to develop a system that is attractive enough for farmers and others to want to plant forestry. As I said, we have to fix this licensing issue.

Forestry is a potentially tremendous source of income for landowners and farmers, including livestock farmers. A cultural shift is required and we should not view forestry as an alternative to livestock reduction. It can comfortably co-exist with livestock production and provide a better living for farmers. I accept that we are nowhere near reaching those targets yet and that the difficulty with licensing has been a significant factor in that.

Regarding the blanket ban on afforestation on designated land - hen harrier land and so on - some environmentalists argue that different stages of afforestation can create proper habitats for the species that the designations are designed to protect. I am not saying that we could plant 100% of designated land in the morning, but a percentage of that land could be planted over a period of five, 15 or 20 years. This would make a vast acreage of suitable land available for afforestation. Has any research been done into whether various stages and percentages of afforestation growth could enhance rather than hinder habitats?

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I will ask Mr. Hayes to answer that question. The Chairman touched on an important point, in that climate change is not the only reason to do this. Forests are important for biodiversity, leisure, tourism, rural development, farm income, etc. All of those areas are important. When discussing this matter, we much realise all of those benefits.

Mr. Colm Hayes

The Chairman is correct that there is no afforestation in hen harrier special protection areas, SPAs. That is because, as part of the state aid approval for our national forestry programme, afforestation is not permitted in those areas without, I believe, the express approval of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS.

There is a larger issue, in that a national hen harrier threat response plan is under consideration. We are not the lead Department; the NPWS is. We have to await the outcome of that process. We are heavily engaged in it, but I do not want to prejudge its outcome because we are not the lead organisation. The Chairman has touched on much of what is in that discussion. It is never a black and white issue, as there is a great deal of nuance to the science in this area that will feature in the final version of the response plan. It is a question for the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

This is a bugbear on mine. The capital value of that land was decimated with the designation. While some schemes were put in place, they have not restored the capital value. I appreciate that this matter is under review.

My final point will be on ash dieback. It has not been referred to much today, although it was mentioned by Deputy Browne. It is a serious problem in my county and the surrounding counties. I am unhappy for the plantation owners. What has been put on the table for them is not financially satisfactory. We will not get into how the disease entered the country, but one thing is certain - it was not the plantation owners' fault. They bought their plants in good faith and, unfortunately, their plantations have been decimated by the disease. The ash trees withering away on those plantations is a sorry sight. If this was a disease outbreak in cattle, there would be compensation for the farmer. Following weather events, significant compensation has been put in place for tillage farmers and others whose property has suffered damage from wind or rain. In this instance, though, a large number of farmers who planted their land with ash and justifiably expected to have a significant cash crop to harvest after 35 or 40 years now find that, when they pay the cost of labour to clear the site, their crops are worthless.

I have made a suggestion at this committee and other forums. If those people decide to replant their sites - everyone should be given that choice - after clearing them, it would only be natural justice if they again had access to the forestry premium. They are starting from scratch and, unlike other plantation owners after clearfelling, have had no cash benefit. To have no premium available to them when they replant would be unjust and unfair. Reasonable compensation is always put in place for affected parties where virtually every other disease at farm level is concerned, and rightly so. The situation of plantation owners whose trees are diseased is no different than a disease in cattle or damage done by a weather event, but they have been left high and dry and proper financial compensation has not been put in place for them. Will Mr. Gleeson use his influence to see if they can access the premium again for a 15-year period? That would be a reasonable and fair economic solution for them. No one would have to admit liability in terms of where the disease came from. If it got through a security breach or whatever, I do not want to get into that argument. These plantation owners deserve to access the premium. It would give them a chance to replant and have confidence in forestry again.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I note the Chairman's comments. I will not make a commitment at this meeting. I have been knocking around the area of animal disease for a long time. When the Chairman was in a previous life back in 2001, I was dealing with other issues. There must always be a balance between what the taxpayer should pay in cases like this. To be frank, we have never had a scheme that covered all of the costs associated with a disease outbreak in any species, but we try to ensure that the taxpayer makes a reasonable contribution to people who are in difficult circumstances. What we have in this instance is a scheme that covers the full cost of reconstitution and the balance of the premium available. That is how matters stand now. I cannot commit at this meeting to change that, but the Chairman has made a case, one that he has made previously.

We are ending on the button. I got cross words from the clerk for going a good bit over time this morning.

We have had a good discussion on forestry. I appreciate the participation of Mr. Gleeson and his officials. This is our sixth meeting on the subject. As I stated at the outset, that is because of our concern for the sector. We on this side of the table might be getting cranky, but we have justification for that. All we want is to see the sector exploiting its full potential. That is what we are trying to highlight and is what we have done in our report and its recommendations.

I hope that we will see a steady stream of licences between now and year's end. As Deputy Flaherty stated, we would love to see significant impetus being given to trying to reach the target of 4,500 licences that was set by the Minister of State early this year. I would appreciate it if the Department could get us as close to that target as possible. The committee is worried about the afforestation figures. In the past two weeks, only 12 licences for afforestation have issued. This has to be addressed. We are approaching the back end of the year and planting season. I urge that there be a dramatic increase in afforestation licences for the next couple of weeks. It was mentioned that X amount of afforestation licences were in the system. I did not catch the figure, but it was substantial. I would like to see a significant number of them being issued before the end of the year.

It would give us all confidence that the trees were going into the ground and that our sector was starting to get back on an even keel. I thank the witnesses for their participation. The next public meeting of the joint committee will be held on Tuesday, 21 September at 3.30 p.m., with the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, regarding the impact of peat shortage on the horticulture industry. The meeting is now adjourned.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.35 p.m. until 3.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 21 September 2021.