I extend a special welcome to the Minister of State, Senator Pippa Hackett. It is nice that a Minister of State is also a Senator. I also welcome Members to this very important debate. I remind them that the Minister of State will have ten minutes to deliver her opening statement. We will then move to the party leaders. Senator Garvey will have eight minutes, followed by Senators Mullen, Paul Daly, Lombard, Boylan, Hoey and Higgins.
Forestry Licensing: Statements
It is good to be here. I thank the Seanad for the invitation to update Members on the latest developments on forestry policy and licensing. I have come here directly from COP26, having returned last night. Clearly, as we all know, the discussions there on climate change and the need to move to carbon neutrality are thought-provoking and resonate very strongly with me and, I am sure, with everyone here too.
Climate change is the challenge of our era and the one that future generations will judge us on. In that context, forestry has very much to offer. If we harvest our wood resource and unlock our potential for tree planting, we will have renewable resources and a consistent rate of carbon capture and storage to help us on the pathway towards significantly reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. This Government is committed to the future of forestry in Ireland, as we recognise its importance to society, the natural environment and the fight against climate change. It is our goal to deliver on our ambitions for forestry in the future. While there are many elements to meeting this goal, I am more than aware that, right now, the continued need to issue licences is still an immediate concern. The backlog is, I know, a source of deep frustration for those within the sector and resolving it is something I have made a priority. We are moving in the right direction in dealing with this difficult issue and I will provide Members with some updates today.
It is important that these discussions are based on facts. It is untrue to say that very few licences are issuing. In past two months, we issued more than 1,000 new licences. This rate of licensing means that licences are issuing at double the rate of applications received and every week means a net reduction in the number of licences on hand. By October this year, we had issued licences for the whole of last year and we remain confident that we will issue more than 4,000 licences this year, which will be 50% higher than last year.
The volume of timber licensed this year is on track to be the highest ever licensed in a single year. By the end of this week, we expect to have passed the 7 million cu. m mark. The volume of forest roads licensed this year will also be the highest ever. The target for annual forest roads in the climate action plan is 125 km. We have already licensed over 200 km and will come very close to doubling that target for the year. Notable too is the number of private felling licences approved, which is something forest owners and those in the sawmilling sector have been calling for. To date, we have issued more than 1,000 private felling licences to farmers at a volume of 2.13 million cu. m. Coillte, which supplies 75% of timber, is fully licensed for 2021 and we expect its 2022 programme will be fully complete by the end of the year.
As Senators will recall, I introduced emergency legislation this time last year to make the forestry appeals committee, FAC, more efficient in how it conducts its hearings. This has been remarkably successful and the committee now has 30 appeals to hear, down from almost 1,000 at the peak. I acknowledge the FAC for its work on this.
I am not claiming that everything is resolved; far from it. I am well aware that the output of afforestation licences has not kept pace with felling licensing. Getting afforestation licensing back on track remains our main outstanding priority. We are addressing this and now have ten ecologists dedicated to afforestation. By their nature, afforestation licences are more difficult to process as they represent a change of land-use activity and there are strict assessment requirements. As things stand, 5,700 ha of approved land are available for afforestation and I encourage every landowner with an afforestation licence to make use of it. Indeed, the reasons behind the differences between the land area licensed and the area planted is something we need to examine in further detail.
There has been some commentary on how long it takes to issue a licence and I fully understand this. It is, unfortunately, the case that when one has a backlog, timelines are impacted. Right now, the average time for a decision on a forestry licence is approximately 11 months. This figure is reducing and we are working hard to reduce it further.
Overall, our improved output reflects our investment in resources within the Department, with 27 ecologists now working exclusively on forestry files. We have also increased the number of inspectors and administrative staff dealing with forestry. This, of course, was needed, given the complexity of the licensing environment and increased need for public participation. We are keeping resource requirements under continuous review. However, I firmly believe that issues in forestry now will only be resolved through a collaborative approach involving stakeholders, communities and NGOs. We must take a longer term view and put in place a strategy which aims for consensus and for a national vision for forestry. This is why I established Project Woodland.
A phrase I heard during my visit to COP26 was this: “If you want to go somewhere fast go alone, but if you want to go the distance, then bring the team.” I would like to acknowledge the members of my forestry policy group and Project Woodland, who have committed their time, effort and knowledge for a year now to this cause. Project Woodland was set up earlier this year to deal with both current and longer term issues in forestry. As I said, it involves all stakeholders working together and is addressing many areas, including that of timelines for issuing licences. In regard to timelines, the reality is that before we can agree on specific key performance indicators, certain aspects of Project Woodland must first be completed. We have started a full review of the forest regulations legislation and environmental requirements which will be led by external consultants. We expect that to report back to us next February. This will review the existing statutory framework for the licensing of forestry activities in relation to environmental and public participation obligations.
We have also had an independent systems analyst looking at our processes. She has submitted an interim report to the project board of Project Woodland on this end-to-end process review. This will hopefully yield some process improvement gains in due course. Complementary to this are two proposals to help improve the quality of applications received as this is an important aspect of service delivery. These two proposals for the payment of an environmental planning grant and for a pilot project for pre-application discussions are well advanced.
The Mackinnon report, which underpins Project Woodland, was wide-ranging in the scope of its recommendations to improve the licensing approval process. I can appreciate that there are some who are of the view that Project Woodland is not delivering as quickly as it should. However, this is not easy work. There are diverse views in Ireland right now on the current and future forestry policy. However, I am determined to build a vision and strategy that provides a place for new woodland creation, while highlighting the multi-functional benefits they can bring. A new Irish forest strategy, which will chart the way forward for forestry for the rest of this century, is under development. This renewed vision foresees the right tree, in the right place, for the right reasons, including the right management.
As a nation, we must think about what we want from our trees. Everyone will get a chance to have their say as part of an extensive consultation to create a shared national vision of what our forests will look like in the future. Public consultation will include a public attitude survey, a deliberative dialogue, and engagement with young people. This will inform the design of the next forestry programme, which will commence in 2023.
We also need to look at smaller-scale tree planting. I would like to see every farmer in this country, where possible, planting trees. To encourage that and to tackle climate change we are drafting legislation which will allow for small-scale planting of native trees. I intend that between this, other measures that will be incorporated into our agri-environmental schemes, and a fit-for-purpose new national forestry programme, we will see many more trees covering our land over the next few years. I am concerned that the public narrative on forestry right now is both too narrow and too negative. Farmers are disengaging for sure. The licensing delays have played their part in that. The bottom line is that for too long we have tended to see native tree planting and forestry as somewhat separate. I intend to bring them together. We will be doing that under the climate action plan and Project Woodland.
I want to talk briefly about where we should plant our trees. Yes, there are land areas that should never have been planted. We are actively working to address this through Coilte, which has already identified some of its estates for rewetting and restoration projects. I hope that the land use review would help us in identifying lands which are suitable and those which are not, such as deep-peat sites and sites of conservation interest for habitats and birds. I also want to see wood embedded in our housing plans. Using timber for construction displaces high-carbon steel and concrete. On the importation of wood, we have always done this and will continue to do it. Yes, the price of wood is currently inflated but this is a global issue. I dispute accusations that this is solely due to our licensing issues.
Finally, I wish to assure Senators of my commitment to continue with the progress made in dealing with the licensing backlog, to continue the work of Project Woodland, and to deliver a fit-for-purpose forest strategy for our country.
Fáilte isteach, a Aire, agus failte ar ais ó COP26. I found a beautiful poem to remind us about the importance of trees. I will read a few lines from it. A lovely bard and wandering minstrel in Clare made this known to me many moons ago.
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
That is by the great poet Joyce Kilmer. It brought to mind interesting lines from the Pope. I met the Bishop of Ferns last week. We were talking about the fact that even the Pope is now asking bishops to tell their priests to give sermons on the importance of taking care of our forests and nature. Trees play such an important part in that. For all the lower plants, the trees provide shelter and foliage. They say that the carbon sink of a mature beech tree is the same as the carbon sink of an acre of land. We really have to look at trees in a whole new way. In the past, it was all about getting trees out of the way for developing land and industry. Hundreds of years ago we were covered in oak trees. Apparently, Fionn mac Cumhaill went from one end of Ireland to the other without putting his foot on the ground. Now, we have the lowest forestry rates in Europe. However, we have one of the best hedgerow systems. It is important to recognise the part that trees play in our hedgerow systems, such as blackthorn and ash. We have to be mindful of the hedgerows for that reason.
In the not even a year and a half since the Minister of State, Deputy Hackett, has been in Government she has played a blinder. She was handed a poisoned chalice with a huge backlog of licensing. It is easy to blame the current Minister, but the Minister of State has focused on being positive. She has put a lot of energy into trying to resolve the issue as opposed to blaming other people. There has been good progress made. As she has outlined, there have been many more licences distributed this year. More will come at the end of the year. Everything takes time. I am sure she would have given out 10,000 licences if she could have done so. It is not as if there is not a big want and desire there. I want to acknowledge that.
There is important work to be done around forestry in making sure we have the right trees in the right place. We should not say that all sitka spruce is evil and that if it is not native woodland it is bad. That kind of narrative is creeping in as well. There has perhaps been an over-extension of lands taken over completely by sitka spruce in the past, which has caused this issue. However, we are far more intelligent. We should be able to have a nuanced debate about forestry instead of polarising sitka versus native woodland. That does not serve anybody. As the Minister of State outlined we need sitka spruce and softwoods to help build the country as well. It is important that we have a proper debate about forestry and that we do not polarise. We have seen what polarisation does. It does not resolve any issues, it just drives a wedge. We have to come together as a country and as a Government to try to resolve these issues.
Lots of good work has be done by a number of farmers. They have stopped clearing their hedges. There was a big movement to make all their fields as big as possible. I see that now is waning, which is a good thing. There is a new appreciation for hedgerows. If one calls to farmers, they will say that they do not hear the birds they used to hear. They have seen what can happen within a few years. If we put trees back again, it will change everything in the land. It will give shelter to the animals and it will increase the different types of birds again. There is such a richness around trees. I used to go to some of the green schools. If I asked a child to tell me something about trees, they would give 50 reasons trees are amazing, from the desks they are sitting at, to the nuts that they eat, to the things that trees have been used to build, to the paper they write on, and so many other things. Trees have to be greatly valued.
Under old Brehon law, if someone chopped a tree, they were fined a cow, but if they chopped an oak tree or a hardwood tree, they were fined a cow in calf. That is nostalgia but, at the same time, there was a real value for trees, and we need to bring that back again. We have to focus on getting the right tree in the right place and there is some work to be done around that. I have a couple of acres of Sitka spruce and I am still trying to figure out the best way to deal with that. I have used some of it already, making some really rough furniture, and I have burned some in my wood stove as well. We are going to have to be very clever in how we use trees. If forests are managed properly, we can produce good timber - if it is the right tree, if the forest is maintained properly and if we grow native woodlands.
During Covid, we all got reconnected through finding a nice forest anywhere we could near us. It is good for our mental health and our physical health to walk among the trees. It is so important that we get this issue right. I am very glad we have someone like the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, in this place, facing this challenge, because I know she is deeply concerned and is coming from the best place possible to try to rectify the situation.
It was good to attend the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine yesterday. I was listening to some of the plans around eco-agri schemes which will see trees planted on every farm in Ireland, which is very important. I did a module in tree science many moons ago in Drumcolliher. One of the things that really struck me was that a tree, say, a willow tree, is like a column of water, so trees have such an important part to play in that they can stop soil erosion and assist in drainage. We have underestimated the value of trees but that is changing and, in some ways, the lockdowns reconnected people with the importance of trees.
I was at a Sharon Shannon gig last week. The Bishop of Ferns was also there. We had such a beautiful chat about the importance of trees. We are going to work together on bringing that to the people who attend church on Sundays, which many people do in Ireland. It shows how it has come into the middle of Ireland and how it has become so important. It is not just the tree huggers and the sandal wearers anymore because it is too big and too important an issue. The farmers want to harvest the trees and everybody is coming from the right place. We need to focus on not causing polarisation and focus on getting the job done. It does not help to be tearing strips off each other and we do not have time for that anymore.
We will have to look for extra supports for the nurseries because there is going to be a huge demand to plant trees. The Minister of State might outline if there will be more supports for tree nurseries. I know from doing tree seed saving myself that it can take a couple years to even get a sapling established. Of course, I could cut a slip of willow and stick it in the ground, which is a great one, and I have done that as well. It is very important that we have the right tree in the right place. I look forward to hearing more about the future strategy and how we plan to increase the coverage. Well done so far on trying to deal with the backlog in licensing and some progress has been made, although there is plenty more left to do. I thank the Minister of State for her work to date and look forward to hearing her response.
Not alone did we find out that Senator Garvey has a great knowledge of trees, but she is good at reciting poetry as well. I call Senator Mullen from the Independent Group.
I welcome the Minister of State and compliment her on the good work being done. I know that there are many challenges and that there is road to go. I also compliment Senator Garvey on reminding us of the importance of trees. They are indeed wonderful and we should think a lot about them. I would like to see that furniture. I do not know how rough it is but it would certainly be better than what this pair of paws would produce, I am sure.
I remember being in Rome a number of years ago and visiting the Basilica of San Clemente, which is a beautiful church and one of the treasures of Rome. It has been run by the Irish Dominicans for many years and, in fact, it was a priest from Lanesborough in the 19th century who caused the excavations to be done that discovered, right at the base, the remains of a temple of the Mithraic cult. It is wonderful at so many levels. The beautiful apse at the back of it, which I think is executed in wood, dates back 800 or 900 years and depicts the tree of life and, of course, there is the whole Christian linkage with the cross. It has the interconnectedness through the swirling branches and leaves, with all aspects of human activity - all trades and so on - and it is one of the treasures of the world.
To return to more practical issues and today's topic, I recall that the Government had set a target of 4,500 forestry licences to be processed in 2021. I heard most of the Minister of State's speech on the screen before I came to the Chamber. She told the Dáil recently that the target will be missed and that it is likely that 4,000 or so licences will be issued. Of course, it has to be acknowledged that is a major improvement on 2017, when just 3,000 were issued, but it is still a long way off the 6,700 issued in 2016.
As we all know, what led to the collapse in the number of licences being issued was the very broad right of appeal which existed against the issuing of licences, with virtually anybody being allowed to challenge a decision. The latter gave rise to a backlog of appeals extending to two years. Of course, there has been a knock-on effect in many areas and we have discussed in this House before those knock-on effects, in particular the limiting of the supply of timber needed for homebuilding. In September of last year, I spoke in the debate on the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020, which was designed to deal with the backlog in the licensing system. The Minister of State has given us an update on where things now stand in regard to that backlog 13 months after the passage of the Bill into law. However, I want to recall one of the cases I knew of where a 20-year investment had been held up and caused much financial pain as a result. It is important that we continue to remember there may be a great many people in similar situations.
It is a two-pronged approach that is needed, first, that better quality licensing decisions be made in the first instance and, second, that when those decisions are appealed by those who have a direct stake in the matter, such appeals are processed speedily. The question for us will be whether those two aims are being met following the passage into law of the new legislation last year.
One deficiency which I pointed out in the context of the Act was the issue of the right to appeal. Originally, it was proposed that that right should be restricted to those who have a direct interest in the matter by virtue of the fact they occupy adjoining land or have contributed to the consultation process at an earlier stage. To me, that seemed entirely reasonable. It is in line with the rule which generally applies in court settings that a person may only pursue either litigation or an appeal of an administrative function if they have locus standi to do so because they are somehow affected. That approach prevents a glut of spurious appeals or actions by persons who have little or no direct interest in matters at hand but who may have some other motive. There is no reason why an exception to the general rule should exist in regard to forestry licensing and I would be glad to hear the Minister of State's continuing thoughts on that. My understanding was that we had approached a position last year where virtually 100% of forestry licences were being appealed, which suggested a very large number of vexatious appeals being made.
It has to be acknowledged that environmental campaigners do good work but there can be serial litigants in their ranks as well. They have suggested that limiting the right to appeal breaches the Aarhus Convention on justice in environmental matters. That convention states that there must be “adequate and effective remedies” and that the procedures must be “fair, equitable, timely and not prohibitively expensive”. Limiting the right to appeal against forestry licences to those who are affected by them does not appear to breach either the spirit or the letter of those requirements under the Aarhus Convention. I note as well, in fairness, that under section 4 of the 2020 Act, the Forestry Appeals Committee has the power to strike out appeals that it considers to be vexatious. Again, I would be glad to hear more from the Minister of State about how she thinks this is operating in practice and whether many appeals have been dismissed on the grounds that they are vexatious.
One aspect of the passage of that legislation that troubled me was that environmental groups – again, I acknowledge their importance and their role - seemed to have success in scuppering sections of the Act which related to environmental bodies and their ability to mount appeals. An Taisce had originally described the proposal as being arbitrary and restrictive. I did not think so and that proposal, and what was contained in the Act, seemed to me to be reasonable. Environmental groups must not be actively prohibited or discriminated against but people do not have a God-given right to police all forestry licences or developments generally. It seems that it is all about a balance of some sort being struck. That is an issue that needs to be continually examined.
I will leave it at that. I look forward to hearing what the Minister of State and other speakers have to say
Thank you. I call Senator Paul Daly, who is representing Fianna Fáil.
I welcome the Minister of State for this debate on forestry. It is an ongoing debate, and has been both prior to and since she assumed the position as Minister of State with responsibility.
That led to the Minister of State's predecessor, the former Minister of State, Andrew Doyle, commissioning the MacKinnon report, which the Minister of State mentioned and a copy of which I have before me.
When a Department or a Minister of State commissions a report and when it hits the public domain, the stakeholders involved are usually up in arms and saying the group was employed by the Department and the report is written in favour of the Department. I want to try to be solution-focused and solution-led. On this occasion we have all the stakeholders lobbying us to have the MacKinnon report implemented. They have welcomed it with open arms and in their minds it contains many of the solutions. I know the Minister of State has employed Jo O'Hara to try to push that along but I have the solution in this report in my hand if we could only implement it. That is where the priority needs to lie.
The MacKinnon report recommends that there would be one licence coupled with something like a management plan. When you get a licence to sow forestry, you have to come back to get a licence to thin. Then you have to get another licence for an access road and eventually you also have to get a licence to fell that forestry. No wonder there is a backlog when you need four licences for one piece of forestry. I welcome that the Minister of State has mentioned she would bring in pre-licence consultation, like a pre-planning meeting if you were applying to the council to build a house. We should let the one licence deal with the whole lot after that and incorporate into the conditions of that licence a forestry management plan which would deal with the maintenance, thinning, access road and eventual felling. Confidence in the sector and in potential future foresters is gone because of the fact we have got to this situation with the backlog in licensing. We need to rebuild and reinstate that confidence or we will never meet our targets. The programme for Government and climate action target is 8,000 ha of new forestry per year, but if we do 2,000 ha, we will be doing well.
The MacKinnon report states that there needs to be a fixed time for planning. If you put in a planning or a licence application, you should know that you will have an answer, let it be good, bad or indifferent, within a fixed time. Licensing processes are dragging on and there is no fixed time. People in the industry will tell you that 60% of people who have put in applications and who are considering sowing trees in an area of land, which is their livelihood and asset, have been waiting so long that they have formulated or proceeded with other plans and done something else with that land. By the time the licences eventually come out, they have moved on and they are lost to the system. With that in mind, I suggest the Department could do an analysis of the licences that are sitting in the backlog and contact the applicants. While we are trying to alleviate the backlog, it would be unfortunate if a lot of time, money and energy was spent working on licences which were granted only for the applicants, unknown to the Department, the officials or the people who are dealing with the licence, to have made alternative plans for their land because of their impatience and because the thing had taken so long, causing them to move on. If we could do a trawl and a weeding-out process of the backlog to see how many of the applicants are still genuinely interested, that would be one way of shortening that list in the short term.
Another issue that is coming up a lot is the lack of correlation between forestry and the environmental schemes and the inclusion of forestry within the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, system. It was a big mistake, and I hope it can be corrected soon, that nobody from the forestry side was involved in the stakeholder consultative committee in the formulation of the CAP strategic plan. This is a wrong that needs to be righted and it is to be hoped that can be addressed shortly. The major issue that has arisen with CAP is that for people who entered environmental schemes in the previous CAP, their GLAS eliminated their forestry or vice versa. They could not have both. That is reflected in the figures for forestry. Some 852 farmers planted trees in 2015 and that reduced to 100 in 2020. The people in the industry will tell you this happened because of the correlation between farmers who wanted to get into GLAS and were made to choose between the two. It was not possible for them to partake in GLAS and plant forestry. That has to be addressed and that would have been highlighted more had there been stakeholders from the forestry side on that stakeholder consultative committee.
I welcome and agree wholeheartedly with what Senator Garvey said about the Sitka spruce and the native trees. I am a lover of our native trees. Senator Garvey put it well. There needs to be a mix, but there is almost an "us and them" situation arising where people's vision of forestry is being clouded by their love of the native Irish tree and it is dominating the debate. We need the correct mix and we need Sitka spruce for its speed of growth, its sequestration qualities and the soft wood timber that should be used a lot more in our building of houses going forward.
I said I wanted to talk about potential solutions. I welcomed the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020 that the Minister of State introduced, and I compliment her on getting it to the floors of both Houses so soon after her appointment, but we need to go that step further. As I said, the answers are in the MacKinnon report and we need to get that implemented sooner rather than later. The backlog is what it is and we do not have the colour of the amount of afforestation applications coming in. If we were getting the number of applications for licences to plant that would equate to planting 8,000 ha per year, what would the backlog be? I am not being critical in saying this but, in such circumstances, if we were not alleviating the backlog to solve the problem, then the backlog should actually be a lot bigger. That sounds like a contradictory statement, but if we were getting what we needed, we would have a serious backlog.
There are other measures that need to be looked at, including the land use change when you go into forestry, which is off-putting for a lot of people. If you plant once, you are obliged to replant when you harvest that timber and that puts a lot of people off. It scares people that because of the longevity of the project they are tying into, they will tie the hands of the next generation behind their backs. If you plant forestry and fell it, you more than likely will make the decision there and then to go back in and replant anyway, but the fact you have to sign on the dotted line and that you know you are possibly signing for your successors and the next generation puts a lot of people off.
I also ask the Minister of State to go back and look at the grants of licences. While she gave the figures for the kilometres of roads and the cubic metres of timber involved, there has to be a correlation between the two. There is no point in any of us coming in here and saying that so many licences have been granted for the felling of trees if the roads are not being permitted for those forests. There needs to be a correlation between those figures. I also refer to the time when trees can be felled. A licence that is granted today with a felling date of 2023 will not help the immediate crisis we find ourselves in.
We are all in this together. We need to reach the afforestation target of 8,000 ha per year but the biggest problem we have in reaching that is getting the people to come with us. It is like what the Minister of State said earlier. If you want to go somewhere fast, you go on your own, but if you want to bring the team with you and get there successfully, you have to get the confidence of the people back. We have to get the people who want to grow trees doing so. We are on 12% afforestation with approximately 770,000 ha. The European average is 40% and that says it all, but the positive in that is that the 770,000 ha that are planted are storing 312 million tonnes of CO2 and will take in another 3.6 million tonnes of CO2 annually. If we were on the target of 8,000 ha per year, those figures would be welcome to everybody.
I welcome the Minister of State and her speech. If possible, the Minister of State might issue that speech to Members of the Seanad at some stage as it is important we would get a copy of it. We have had serious debates this year about the forestry issue in this Chamber, in the Dáil and in the Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I am not sure how many times it has happened but on multiple occasions the Department has been before the Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine to discuss this issue and I know there will be another debate on it in the Dáil in the coming days. That shows the real interest there is at a political level in trying to find solutions to what is a significant issue and in how we will address these shortfalls in reaching our targets.
The Minister of State mentioned in the Dáil that we would not reach the targets.
Is the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, confirming that we will reach the target of 4,500 licences? That clarification would be very helpful. It is something the general public needs to hear. Afforestation licensing, in particular, is something we will all be judged on, albeit not in the short term. Future generations will judge us on the afforestation licences of the last few months. In June, July and August only 34 licences were issued. We were significantly below the 30% mark that we were hoping for.
Looking at where we are going with the licensing programme, if we do not have afforestation lined up we are going nowhere in real terms. Last week I met a man in Skibbereen who had an application in for afforestation for three and a half years. He was in Skibbereen mart buying cattle, having walked away from the forestry project. Senator Paul Daly has previously mentioned the big issue of people walking away from the programme. We need to have more forestry, we need more people involved and we need to get confidence back in the sector. There have been protests outside Leinster House. Several delegations have come to meet me on a conciliatory basis about how we can reach the targets. We have effectively lost the confidence of the sector. It will take a significant body of work to build up that confidence. That is the body of work that needs to be done with regard to licensing.
There are 4,500 licences being proposed. The industry was looking for 6,500 licences so we are behind the curve on what the industry says it needs to survive. Raw timber is coming into Cork Harbour on a monthly basis to keep the mills going in that part of the country. It does not make sense, even on the carbon side of things, to have raw timber coming into Cork Harbour and out to the sawmills. It is illogical in so many ways when we have the potential to do so much here in Ireland. That is having a huge impact. I have asked questions about the biosecurity arrangements on site. Is the Minister of State confident that we will not bring in the spruce beetle? We have seen what happened before with ash dieback. We brought that in due to inadequate biosecurity. Are we running the same risk by bringing in more of this timber? The potential is there. The capability exists for the spruce beetle, which is currently in the southern part of the UK, to come here. Most of this timber is coming in from the north. Its arrival would decimate our entire industry. It would wipe it out. We need to make sure that biosecurity is appropriate at our ports. That is another major issue which the entire industry will be talking about. In fact, all of society will be affected because there will be nothing left if the spruce beetle gets in.
We need to build up the confidence of the foresters on the ground. The biggest issue we have in this context is the timelines. A person who submits an application to the Department tomorrow morning will have no indication when it will come back. It might be two months, two years or 20 years. In fairness, 20 years would be the exception. That is where we are at. If a person makes an application to Cork County Council for a housing project, he or she will get a fixed timeline all the way through. Such timelines are not available for foresters. The Minister of State successfully brought legislation before the Oireachtas this time last year which solved the actual appeal issue. I believe the time is appropriate now for her to bring forward legislation to put timelines in place in her Department, so that there is a timeline applicable to each application. People cannot wait three years for a decision, or even to know what stage it is at, in afforestation. It does not make sense. There is no logic in that. There is communication or interaction on the backlogs. As a result, they are walking away from us. We need to bring forward drastic measures. I believe the Minister of State's long-term policy is appropriate. What we are proposing in Project Woodland is the way forward, with one licence for an entire project all the way through. That is where we need to go, but we will not get there in the short term. How do we get confidence back into the sector? We will be at 30% afforestation again next year. I cannot see the sector changing. I cannot see the farming community rallying behind something if they do not get confidence. We need to have a drastic change in policy to get confidence in order to get people planting.
The Minister of State was at COP26 and saw where we are. More than any other Member of this House, she has knowledge of what is required. In light of what is at stake, it is illogical that we are achieving 30% of our target afforestation at the moment. All of this means that we must make some drastic changes to legislation. People have been attacking the Department about officials. I do not blame the officials or the staff. They are doing a good job, but the legislation is not strong enough to ensure this is delivered on time as it must be. As a result, there is going to be leakage. A personal applying for planning permission tomorrow morning will have a timeline from start to finish. He or she will have a timeline for further information all the way through. We have been through it, but when it comes to licensing we have no timeline. The time has come for emergency legislation to put a fixed timeline in place so we can get the backlog cleared. Then we can move ahead and implement Project Woodland, which is the key to solving the problems of this sector going forward. We have seen in Scotland how something like Project Woodland can happen. We have a unique problem here that needs a unique decision. It is in the hands of the Minister of State to do that.
I will not use the full eight minutes. It is an understatement to say that forestry is an important sector in our economy. Many jobs depend on it. It also has a serious knock-on effect on our climate ambitions. We know our forests are going to play an important role in the fight against climate change. It is important not to overstate that. We are facing a significant challenge as we seek to get as close to zero emissions as possible. Some hard-to-escape emissions will need to be compensated for with removals from forests. The land use, land-use change and forestry, LULUCF, sector is currently a net source of emissions so we face a major challenge to get that down.
The climate action plan, which was released recently, highlighted:
For example, planting a hectare of forest today, will remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as the trees grow, but will deliver most of its sequestration potential in the period after 2030.
As such, the failure in afforestation today will not only affect our ability to meet our 2030 target, but will have further implications after that. Part of the effort to get emissions down will have to involve planting trees in the right place. In a climate action plan briefing last week, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, informed us that we will need to stop planting on mountains and on peaty soils and instead move planting down to the lowlands. This is a very welcome move.
I do not think anybody will be surprised to hear that significant issues continue in the applications for the licences. Members will remember the heated debates of last year as the agriculture appeals (amendment) Bill made its way through these Houses. Unfortunately, the crisis in the licensing system is continuing. I warned at the time that the draconian reforms would not be adequate to address the problems in the system. As is the case in the planning system, it is not good enough simply to expedite bad plans. Fixing the problem means getting to the root of the problem and making sure the plans are adequate in the first place. That is why it is so important to protect the right of the public to participate. The arguments that were made last year fell on deaf ears, and lo and behold here we are 12 months later debating the same issues.
There were some welcome developments in the past 12 months. I am glad to see that new ecologists have been appointed. I would like to hear the Minister of State confirm that follow-up inspections are taking place to make sure that what is being promised under the licensing is actually being carried out. I also welcome the fact that public participation has been provided for on the appropriate assessment in line with Ireland's legal obligations under both EU law and the Aarhus Convention by means of regulatory changes introduced this summer. When the Minister of State engaged with the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine on 4 August, she indicated that following the introduction of participation via the new regulation there had not been much public input. In light of the barrier to public participation presented by the fee of €20 introduced by the Department, I ask the Minister of State to undertake to remove or substantially lower that fee to ensure that participatory rights are not being compromised.
I agree with the Minister of State's suggestion in her opening statement that we need to build more with wood to create a vibrant market for our timber products and to reduce the carbon footprint of construction materials.
However, there need to be adequate building regulations to accompany any plans to move to widespread timber frame construction. We also need training for the construction industry if we are to move to timber frames. We all saw what happened in Kildare when inadequate firebreaks were put into the houses. A whole row of houses was burned down within a matter of hours. I ask that the Minister of State work with her colleague in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to ensure that we end the light touch regulation of building standards in the country and that if we are moving to timber frames, we can assure people that they are built to the highest standard and are fire safe.
Regarding solutions, Sinn Féin would like to see a complete revamp of the regulation of forestry. We know the current process is not fit for purpose and needs to be comprehensively reformed. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine needs to get serious about forestry and supporting the sector. We must find a way to meet the Government's ambitious tree-planting targets and our climate goals. We need a new forestry strategy that moves away from monoculture. Communities in places such as Leitrim have been swamped by monoculture Sitka spruce and have lost their light. We should move towards continuous cover broadleaf forestry. Any forestry programme has to encourage and incentivise farmers to diversify into planting forests and there must be a viable market for them to do so.
I thank the Minister of State for being here. We had a lengthy couple of days earlier in this Seanad term to discuss this issue. We are back to discuss it again. As a member of the agricultural panel, I feel that afforestation is a method of decarbonisation that we do not really utilise enough in the fight against climate change. Given that we have the spectre of COP26 looming large over all discussions about climate action in Ireland and around the world, we are all hyper-focused on it. Everyone saw the clip of our former President, Mary Robinson, yesterday. She was deeply upset and frustrated by what she feels is a lack of action, commitment and real movement towards genuinely tackling the climate crisis. We need to think about what we are doing and all the different actions we are taking here, and how that impacts on climate change.
I note that many have stated in the media in recent weeks that COP26 is one of the more exclusionary gatherings. I was horrified to hear that there are more delegates from fossil fuel companies at COP26 than delegates from nations in attendance. It has also been correctly pointed out by nations in the global south that the biggest transgressors tend to be the ones in front of the cameras calling for climate justice and for all of us to pull together. The sad irony is that we then manage to keep up with the targets that we set ourselves. Many people would say that Ireland is a relatively small nation. However, we are one of the wealthiest nations in the world. We have standards of living, education and infrastructure which are the envy of nations around the world. It is time that we address the fact that our way of life is in no small part fuelled by resources and economies in much poorer countries. It is not fair for us to make calls for others to meet new carbon reduction goals before we step up to the mark ourselves on climate change.
Returning to the topic of forestry licensing in Ireland, my colleague, Deputy Sherlock, accurately summed up the issue in a debate in the Dáil recently when he pointed out the significant cost of missing our afforestation targets in Ireland in recent years. Over the past five years, we have missed planting targets by over 15,000 ha and had this area been planted, it would have had the potential to remove 5.4 million tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere over its lifetime. That opportunity is now lost. Afforestation for 2021 will be approximately 2,000 ha. This is a missed opportunity to sequester carbon. That may sound defeatist. Language such as "lost" is not what I generally like to use but I feel that is the truth of the matter. Inaction on decarbonisation is not a neutral stance. It is destructive. Every day that we are not proactively planting trees is a day that we are contributing to this crisis.
While preparing for this debate, I was struck by the ambition shown about the matter in 2014. I will read what was written on the matter at the time. The publication states:
Forests, products and people – Ireland’s forest policy – a renewed vision was published in 2014. The strategic goal of Irelands forest policy is:
To develop an internationally competitive and sustainable forest sector that provides a full range of economic, environmental and social benefits to society and which accords with the Forest Europe definition of sustainable forest management.
It is probably fair to say that we have not yet quite reached those aims. That is not necessarily a jab at the Minister of State. It is fair to say that Ireland did not reach those aims that we laid out in 2014. Our climate action plan is completely undermined if we do not see a significant increase in new planting. As things stand, every year, we are missing out on millions of tonnes of carbon sequestration. Every hectare of new forest and its timber will offset 150 tonnes of carbon dioxide during its lifetime so every 1,000 ha we do not plant is 150,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide still in the atmosphere. This year, we will plant approximately 2,000 ha. We need 15,000 ha of new forest every year to get to net zero by 2050. There is a large gap between the Government's ambition for tree-planting and what is being delivered.
There is a major challenge in the forestry sector. Not enough progress has been made despite unprecedented attention to forestry at the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. This affects farmers and businesses all around the country. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine continues its snail's pace approach to solving the forestry crisis. The forestry licensing crisis continues with approximately 5,000 applications still in the backlog today. When we were here in September 2020, we listed different figures of backlogs from different people that we knew. There is still a backlog in applications. More applications will go into the system this year than licences will come out and the problem will continue to grow. The Department recently committed to ensuring 4,500 licences this year but it is now clear that we will miss that target.
Planting of new forest continues to be especially badly hit. No progress has been made on afforestation, with less than ten licences issuing each week, with a two-year waiting list. We do not have two years. When we are talking about climate change, it is time to accept that we have run out of road. In fact, we ran out of road a long time ago. Afforestation is just one method that we can use to help to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis. It is time to start accepting that and responding accordingly. This not only has an impact on the climate in the long term but it has a direct impact on farmers and workers in the business-related forestry sector. The single biggest issue in getting farmers to plant trees is the delay in licences, which we are here to talk about. There is too much uncertainty and bureaucracy. Farmers are losing millions of euro in lost timber revenues. They cannot harvest when they want to. Some 700,000 tonnes of logs have been lost to licensing delays in the last two years. This has hit forest owners and sawmills. The licensing crisis is undermining the growth of our sawmill industry and the forestry sector is rapidly losing people because of the Government's inability to deliver licences.
There are solutions to these challenges but urgency and ambition are needed to deliver them. We must find a way to meet the Government's ambitious tree-planting targets and our own climate goals. As Senator Boylan said, we need a new forest strategy that encourages all types of new forests, away from the monoculture Sitka spruce, with a move towards continuous cover broadleaf forests. We need a new forestry programme that will encourage and incentivise farmers to plant forests. There is a gap between what the Government is saying about forestry and planting and what is being heard on the ground. Perhaps that is because of the complexity around licences or because it is overwhelming. I do not think that those connections are being made in the way that they need to be made. We need to re-energise and reward our forestry sector and start to support it rather than holding it back. We need a public campaign to show the great benefits of forests to encourage more public support.
As I said the last time when we discussed this, I have grave concerns about fees and costs being used as a deterrent. I am still of a view that that is really what the fees are for. I want to put my concerns about the fees and how they impact people on the record again. With regard to genuinely engaging with Government, planning and all sorts of different things, I do not know if fees are doing what they set out to do.
Finland is officially the world's happiest country and that is not unrelated to the fact it is 75% covered in trees. We all know the therapeutic benefit of trees. I often go for a walk in Killinthomas in Rathangan, in Moore Abbey in Monasterevin and Mullaghreelan near Kilkea Castle and derive great benefit from it. Of course, today, we want to talk about the commercial aspect of forestry, why it is so important to us and why we absolutely need to have urgent action. I thank the Minister of State for being here and the Leader for affording us the opportunity to address this very important and pertinent issue.
The situation in the forestry sector has been described by the industry as an absolute scandal. It is difficult to disagree with it on that. We are all aware certain High Court decisions have changed the processing of forestry licence applications. In doing some research on the debate today, I came across a parliamentary question submitted to the Minister, Deputy McConalogue. In that response, as a result of the High Court decision, I noted approximately 80% of applications are being screened for a comprehensive ecological assessment. There is no doubt the Department was not prepared for those numbers. In addition, the number of appeals increased from 21 in 2017 to a peak of 582 in 2020.
While, of course, we would expect something of a delay in the issuing of licences, at this point, it is a crisis and a resolution must be found. The statistics are stark. In 2016, the Department issued 6,731 felling licences, compared with just 1,717 in 2020. This year, we are starting to improve and that has to be acknowledged, but we must be able to put into focus and in train Project Woodland, which was launched by the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, in February of this year. I acknowledge the additional resources, such as the increase in ecologists, which has gone from one in 2018 to 27 now, and the 21 additional forestry inspectors. Of course, that is welcome.
Many of us had the opportunity to meet with the Social Economic and Environmental Forestry Association approximately two weeks ago. Its message was very clear in that this would have to be sorted or it would be out of business. We have no option but to get it sorted, for so many reasons. Apart form those who are directly impacted, the backlog is having significant impacts on the ground. People cannot plant their land, farmers are struggling to manage their crops and they cannot harvest timber. This lack of domestic supply is having a significant impact on the cost of wood and timber materials in Ireland. I have heard claims the prices for basic timber products have gone up 60%. That is totally unsustainable.
We are in the midst of a significant housing crisis and a decade of Government failure to invest in public housing or increase our housing supply has left us in a situation in which thousands of families are in precarious living conditions and need to have the chance, opportunity and dream of owning their own homes. One of the many ways of tackling this is to dramatically increase our housing supply, which requires significant amounts of timber. Our colleague, the Minister for Housing, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy O'Brien, has secured record investment in housing, but we need every single euro to stretch as far as it can.
Allowing timber prices to skyrocket will result in a dwindling of our resources and budget and impact on our ability to utilise this unprecedented housing budget to the fullest. We are relying on the Minister to deliver on this issue. I acknowledge it is not an easy one to solve, especially in light of the recent High Court positions, but we need to get it sorted for those who are dependent on a viable and functional forestry sector and those who are dependent on having timber for our house building and many other projects.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Hackett. We are quite close in location and she is conscious of the serious concerns on this topic. A forestry company, in which people are employed, is working in Ballinasloe and is struggling. It is dealing with farmers and its clients. What can it do? It is stuck in no man's land. I met with them during the year and last year and we have raised this in a number of fora. It is good to hear a higher number of 27 ecologists have been recruited, who are dealing solely with the backlog. I appreciate the measures the Minister of State has put in place to deal with the appeals and that they have reduced to 30 from a high of 1,000. That is all very positive and shows she is taking measures to reduce the current backlogs.
However, ecologists seem to be very hard to find on the ground these days. What are we doing to increase the number of available ecologists? What sort of courses are out there? From the apprenticeship and further education side, what basic degrees or diplomas could be used as a launch pad to a career in ecology? We need to increase the number of ecologists. I find it frustrating. An article in the Irish Farmer's Journal from September referenced numbers of licences. I know we have had the habitats directive and so on since then, but the article looked at highs in 2016 of more than 6,500 licences being granted and compared it to 2020, when approximately only 1,700 licences were granted.
The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, has commented on the consultation period of 30 days, which is causing disruption to this process. Is a measure needed to remind people who are applying for licences to do so six months in advance? It is absolutely shocking. How do we manage that better? Do we need more ecologists? Is streamlining needed in the Department on how the process is handled? Are we being proactive in communicating with people who are submitting applications, with regard to the lengths of time this will take? My colleagues here and Senator Daly have mentioned the streamlining of the process. There are a number of planning permissions.
This has been raised with me over and over again. I attended IFA meetings in Galway, recently, in Athenry. There were huge numbers there and what comes up over and over again, along with the CAP and other concerns farmers have, is forestry and what we are doing about it. We are working together in government. We have many goals and objectives to achieve and there are ways by which we will be doing that over the coming time, but this is knocking on our doors all the time. When we attend these meetings, this is what is cropping up and we are responding to the concerns for farmers on this.
The Minister of State also mentioned how we can use wood more in construction and so on. It is important we are considering how we use timber in different ways, but the concern is about the ways we use timber right now. We cannot get timber. This is quite positive and may be aspirational, but we need to deal with the immediate demands for timber. What are the plans for streamlining and for potential legislation to streamline the planning permissions for road building, from planting to harvesting? How and what are our strategies around that? That will be crucial to showing we will make a difference to these huge challenges, which the Minister of State has in some ways inherited, but we have to resolve. It is on our watch. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit for her time.
I have no doubt that the Minister of State's heart is in the right place in her efforts to deal with this issue and I welcome her statement today. Senator O'Loughlin quoted figures on licences going back to 2016 which were quite high but in some of the intervening years there has been a drop. This should not have all been dropped on the Minister of State's desk. It is not all her fault. Part of the problem has been building up for quite some years. Like many others here, I have met foresters in the hotel across the road recently. To be honest, I have never seen people as upset and frustrated in a few years. They were really under pressure and were pleading with us to try and sort this out. I welcome there being some light at the end of the tunnel in terms of licences this year and we hope that 2022 will show further improvement. We must reflect on the amount of jobs that rely on it. In my area, there is Murray Timber Group of Ballygar which as the Minister of State knows is a huge employer, as is Masonite in Carrick-on-Shannon on the Roscommon-Leitrim border and Glennon Brothers in Longford, which I am sure Senator Carrigy will mention. We want to recognise that in terms of solving this problem. Many of those people will have to import timber, and are already doing so, which is not what we want.
I will not go into the whole Mackinnon report but I want to support Senator Paul Daly's remarks on its implementation. I know that the Minister of State is aware of that and is trying to work on it. It needs to be implemented as quickly as possible. A number of speakers, Senators Dolan, Daly, O'Loughlin and others, have spoken about the process. The fact that you have to go four licences though this whole process is simply not workable. It is causing a lot of frustration. I would urge the Minister of State to consider, as Senator Paul Daly said, one licence with a proper management plan. We should insist on a proper management plan with one licence. That is very important.
Many others have noted that we talk about climate action and its importance in terms of reducing our carbon count. It will be so important. Senator Paul Daly mentioned the agri-environmental schemes. We must get the forestry sector right, not only to protect the employment that is there but for climate change because it can make a huge contribution. Farmers and foresters in general are very willing to work in that regard. There is a huge emphasis on planting trees, as the Minister of State knows.
Project Woodland has been mentioned. There are extra ecologists and inspectors, as Senators O'Loughlin and Dolan noted, which is good. I think it will help to further alleviate the difficulties in the system. There is nothing as nice for me as walking on Sliabh Bawn, which I am inviting the Minister of State to visit again, very close to my home in County Roscommon, walking among the trees, looking at the nature. There is a great therapeutic value in trees and forests and they should be developed for the local communities too, which is really important.
We have to acknowledge how successfully Sitka spruce grows in this country. Many of the timber companies are exporting this. It is greatly sought after in places such as England. We have been importing timber from Latvia, and not since today nor yesterday but for a number of years. We have to get the balance right and manage it properly but Sitka spruce grows really well on Irish land. It is probably the only thing that will grow on some of that Irish land which is exceptionally good for it. Our native trees are very important, of course, but we must realise the economic value of Sitka spruce. I accept that we need to plant them in the right areas.
There is a lot of repetition there. I am pleading with the Minister of State, and I know she will do her best, to work as hard as she can to solve this matter because it is of grave concern at this stage. She is going in the right direction. Hopefully it will be a success.
It is disappointing that we are here today despite unprecedented attention on the forestry sector at the recent joint committee on agriculture. Like others, I have met with the IFA and other farmer organisations and with businesses. Senator Murphy mentioned Glennon Brothers in Longford. It is probably the largest timber manufacturing company in the country. It recently took over Balcas. It employs over 300 people in my own county. It is having a serious effect on them as the licensing crisis continues. There is a backlog of around 5,000 applications in the system and more applications are going in. This problem will only snowball and get bigger. We have committed to issuing 4,500 licences a year but clearly this will not happen. There has been no progress on afforestation. Fewer than ten licenses are being issued each week. There is a two-year waiting list. This is having a significant impact on farmers and businesses.
There is a complete loss of confidence in the industry and the loss of confidence in us as a Government to deal with the situation. We are losing millions of euro in lost timber revenues. Some 700,000 tonnes of logs have been lost in licensing delays in the last two years. This has hit both forestry owners and sawmills dramatically. That has had a knock-on effect on the building industry. There has been an increase in cost of around 45% in recent months. For someone looking to build a house that adds significant extra costs. Someone might have got a mortgage to build a house and then the next thing the price of timber has increased and increased again.
We recently launched a climate action plan but that plan is completely undermined if we do not have large increases in planting. We are missing out on millions of tonnes in carbon sequestration. Every hectare of new forest and its timber will offset 150 tonnes of carbon dioxide during its lifetime. Therefore, 1,000 ha that we do not plant is 150,000 tons of carbon dioxide still in the atmosphere. This year we will plant around 2,300 ha yet we need 15,000 ha of new forest each year to get net zero by 2050. There is a huge gap between the Government's ambitions for planting and what we are actually delivering.
The solutions that I have put forward come from meeting people within the industry and from documents they have sent us. We have to deliver on this. We need to totally revamp our regulation of forestry and fast-track changes to the system. We need to introduce maximum time limits and a functioning licensing system. Senator Lombard noted that a person looking to build a house will have set timelines, eight weeks and three weeks for objections and so on, and a planning decision delivered in three months, yet people are waiting for over two years. We should look at where people want to plant forests that we tie in the road licence and felling licence into that rather than replicating the whole issue down the line.
As others have said we need full implementation of the Mackinnon report. The Department needs to get serious about forestry, to be honest, and to support the forestry sector. We need new ways to meet our ambition in tree planting targets and our climate goals. We need a new forestry programme that will encourage and incentivise farmers to plant forests. We need to develop a forestry development agency. From speaking to the Social, Economic, Environmental Forestry Association, SEEFA, I believe it is the only natural resource sector without a development agency. We need to re-energise and reward our forestry sector and start supporting it rather than holding it back. We need to use more wood and to build a vibrant market for our timber products and reduce our carbon footprint. We need commitments on legislation to be brought forward immediately to solve this crisis and make sure that we, as a Government, can get back the confidence of those in the forestry sector. We are the people who can make those changes and we must do so.
I welcome the Minister of State. We also had statements on forestry last year. I hope that the next time we see the Minister of State here talking about forestry, we will actually be implementing legislation to improve the situation.
Members have spoken about the crisis we have and the long delays, with 5,000 applications in the system at the moment. This proves that there is an incredible interest and a want for what we are discussing. The media like to think we are dragging farmers by the scruff of the necks into being environmental but there are 5,000 applications, granted that 2,000 relate to Coillte. That shows farmers are open-minded towards growing trees and carbon sequestration. We have to support them and move to action.
I commend the Minister of State. When she came in, she was given a poisoned chalice in this regard. There is a huge issue with the granting of licences in this country in general. We have seen the problem with peat, which has fallen through a licensing crack or a legislative crack, whatever the case may be. This situation has been ongoing for more than a decade. We are getting to a crisis point in that we are in stasis and cannot move on.
Anyone who knows me will know I am a huge advocate for native Irish trees. First, they are a clear form of carbon sequestration and they are a pathway to becoming a cleaner and greener country, but they also hold an awful lot of our heritage. Three of our counties – Mayo, Derry and Kildare - are named after trees, as are many townlands. There is an incredible amount of knowledge in our townlands. I think of Anaverna in my home county, which is named after the alder tree, although I doubt there is an alder left in Anaverna. Would it not be lovely to start putting in trees that fit into the townlands, given that they are supposed to be there? We think of areas with the word “cuileann”, which is the holly tree. They were there and those townlands are named after them for a reason. Let us start embracing and using that because our ancestors were very wise to our ecology before they even had the word “ecology”.
We speak about a crisis and about an emergency. We had the Covid crisis and we brought in emergency legislation. We took that, we grabbed hold of it and we changed things very dramatically. We had different recruitment processes for healthcare workers and we started breaking down bureaucracy. This is not just for the Minister of State and it is a whole-of-government problem that relates to the procurement of staff within the entire public system. We have a problem with hiring people. The Minister of State mentioned that we have dramatically increased the number of ecologists; I think there were just two when the Minister of State came into office, or very near that, and we now have a dramatically higher number. That is all down to the Minister of State and her ambition towards our forestry sector.
One thing I would like to highlight is my disappointment that the CAP plan did not contain a hedgerow management scheme. That is a huge door. We have over 700,000 km of hedgerow in the country and, all along our roadsides, they are a highway for biodiversity and sequestration. I hope there will be a proper hedgerow management plan. Even on our motorways, they are cutting down trees to the bare roots and I ask why that is happening. We sit on the M1, seeing bare roots, when it would be far nicer to see trees and wildlife while driving by.
Members spoke about the streamlining of the process, which is very important. For want of a better word, we want a one-stop shop so that, if I want to plant trees on my land, I will go to this Department and it will be taken care of, and I will not have to deal with different organisations and different planning processes.
I apologise for running over time, but I have so much to say on this. I wish the Minister of State the very best of luck.
I welcome the Minister of State and thank her for taking the debate. I know she treats this issue with the same importance as everyone else. I want to acknowledge that. I thank her for coming back from her trip to COP26, which I hope went well for her and for the Department.
To follow on from other speakers, I want to share the frustration that farmers and others in the sector have in terms of the process and the licensing delays. I listened to the Minister of State's speech and she is correct to say things have improved over the last number of months. Fair-minded people will recognise that and see the work the Minister of State is doing to try to alleviate and solve the problem. The issue, obviously, is that because so many licences have been delayed, it takes time to get them all through. Despite all the improving and streamlining of the process the Minister of State has done, the frustration for people who have not yet got their applications or licences resolved increases when we tell them things are speeding up. I have spoken to the Minister of State before and she knows there are a lot of cases in Tipperary, where people have been waiting two to three years for licences. There is a level of frustration and the confidence in the sector is dropping, given that frustration.
We have ambitious targets which the Minister of State wants to meet but which we are missing at the moment. From a Government perspective, we recognise the importance of the forestry sector, and we recognise the importance of maintaining people in the forestry sector and bringing new people in.
The Minister of State talked about the independent regulator. When replying to the debate, she might expand on how she sees the independent regulator's review helping the sector.
A number of speakers referred to nurseries, from which there will be huge demand in the coming years. I live about a mile from SAP Nurseries, which is just outside Cahir. It is run by the Walsh family. They have been in business for as long as I have been alive and they provide a wonderful service. If we are going to plant more trees and put more demands on this sector, they need support. What supports do the Minister of State and her Department envisage for such companies and for sawmills? The sector employs an awful lot of people, for example, at Smartply and Dunne’s Sawmills. There are so many businesses with staff who are either directly or indirectly employed on the back of forestry and it is important we support that going forward. I would be interested to hear what type of supports the Minister of State is talking about for that sector.
On an issue raised by a couple of other Senators, I would like to hear about the timelines. This is one of the real frustrations for people. It is like everything: when people apply for something, they want to have some idea when a decision will be made, or even a gauge. We would often have planning queries or other queries with county councils and we would always have an idea whether it is going to be four weeks or eight weeks before a decision is made. In forestry, when someone submits an application, he or she does not have a clue when it is going to be decided upon.
That is where the frustration starts in the first place. A constituent of mine is waiting three years. Such a long wait means people almost give up hope but they should not because the Minister of State is committed to solving the problem.
While I agree with the many Senators who have spoken about the frustration in the sector, I do not wish to go over the same thing again. I acknowledge that progress has been made. Some people in the sector acknowledge that, but the request is always to speed things up more.
I welcome the Minister of State. I thank her for her proactive engagement on this very serious matter for many in the sector and right across the country.
In preparation for today I spoke to representatives of Smartply Europe Limited at Waterford Port. The company has a positive story to paint because it no longer imports timber. It was doing so last year and into the first quarter of this year. It had to import at a high cost to get product, but it no longer imports as a result of the licences that are coming through.
As the Minister of State will know, there are simply not enough licences being issued. Many people are experiencing delays in the felling system and particularly in terms of planting licences. This will have a seriously negative impact as we attempt to meet our targets for climate action. I do not need to give her a lesson in this area but I would like to remind her that for every 1,000 ha we do not plant, some 150,000 tonnes of CO2 remains in the atmosphere. We must make significant progress this year in this space if we are to meet the Government's ambitions. We are going to plant 300 ha this year when we need to plant 15,000 ha of new forest to meet net zero by 2050.
I agree with previous speakers that the sector lacks confidence in the entire system and that this will lead to people withdrawing. When someone gets a felling licence or seeks to plant a forest, the advice given is not to go there. We must acknowledge that is the reality, but we need people to plant and we need to make progress with felling licences. I will give one example. A constituent of mine owns 21 acres. A forest was planted by Coillte with oak 18 years ago. At the time the standard procedure was to thin the oak trees by planting Scots pine but 18 years later the pine has overtaken the oak, thus having a seriously negative impact. The man does not want to fell the oak trees at all. In fact, he recognises the contribution that his oak trees make to the climate. In reality, without a felling licence to thin the pine trees, his oak trees will be lost. He is 14 months in the system. I have been told by officials in the Department that his file has been reviewed and completed. Unfortunately, his file must get an ecological assessment. It will take a number of months before the file is picked up, and then the file must go through the mandatory 30-day consultation before being returned to the ecologist and subsequently to the district inspector. This lengthy process is very frustrating. I have given just one tangible example of existing cases. I acknowledge that there is urgency in this space but the Department is simply not getting through enough cases in order to have the impact we need.
I wish the Minister of State well in her role. I know that she is committed to this issue. If we are to have a proper system, timelines must be attached, as many Senators have referenced. We discussed the replacement for the strategic housing development process in the Seanad yesterday during the debate on the Planning and Development (Amendment) (Large-scale Residential Development) Bill 2021, which puts statutory timelines in place for preconsultation, council decision-making and decision-making by An Bord Pleanála. In that case, the Government will apply a €10,000 fine if An Bord Pleanála does not meet its targets. We need to consider adopting a similar measure for the felling licence system. As other Senators have said, we must merge the licences for felling, roads and planting into one as otherwise we will not streamline the process, as needed.
The Minister of State has a minimum of ten minutes and can actually take 20 minutes.
I thank all of the Senators for their valuable input because they reflect the views not only of their constituents but also of the people who approach them, write to them and contact them on this issue. Therefore, it is important to discuss the licensing system from my perspective, from the perspective of my Department and from the perspective of the public.
Senator Garvey and a number of Senators highlighted their appreciation for trees and the importance of trees. Senator Garvey also highlighted the need for a mixed model. Senator Paul Daly highlighted the need to deliver across the board for forestry, which is a longer term aim for where we want to be. Part of that discussion is to engage widely as I am currently doing. In terms of a new strategy for this country, Irish Rural Link is already being engaged with publicly and it will engage in focus groups with communities affected by forestry. We will have a wide-reaching engagement with young groups online and there will be bilaterals led by the Department in terms of what we design for the future.
The main concern in this Chamber today is the current problems and impasses. Some similar themes have emerged. Confidence in the sector is an issue and we need that confidence back. We need to address how we do that and embrace that. We need to get farmers and landowners back on side because ultimately we are going to need them to deliver for us into the future.
Another element that arose is the need to have a co-ordinated approach to licensing. This issue needs to be examined. There is not much point having a felling licence if a road is not in place. I think that is something that we need to look at. There is a systems analyst now in place in the Department who considers the end-to-end process. These are the exact types of things that we look at and try to improve.
Senator Mullen has left but he talked about the appeals process as did one or two other Senators. We have a third party right of appeal. We are glad we have this important right. It is not just about directly affecting individuals. People can lodge submissions and observations on forestry applications because an application might have an impact on an environment or habitat. I think that option should be open to everyone and it is open to everyone. Certainly we are committed to that.
The appeals legislation that was brought in last year has proved very successful and has dealt with the backlog of appeals. Appeals still come in so we have not stopped appeals. That is good because we need that right of public participation, which Senator Boylan highlighted.
One or two Senators, including Senator Boylan, raised the need to consider timber for building purposes. That is an important issue and I referenced it in my opening address. Indeed, we need to look at the building regulations to permit that.
I will engage with my colleagues across Government to deliver on that.
Senator Dolan acknowledged the positives, as did a couple of other Senators. I appreciate that. Regarding future skills needs, we are talking about ecologists and the numbers that we have recruited. It is becoming more difficult to recruit them and I will certainly engage with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, in exploring how we can open the door to recruiting not only ecologists, but also hydrologists and a variety of other people with the skills we will require in future. This will probably not just be the case with forestry, but also with any land use change. This is important.
Several Senators also spoke about the need to streamline the process. We are looking into doing that. As I said in my opening statement, we have initiated an independent review of the regulatory and legislative context in line with the environmental requirements. Senator Ahearn asked what this will do. Ideally, it will inform us as a Department. A Senator said earlier that when the Department does something, people then remark that it has been set up by the Department. This review, however, is independent and it will examine the processes and give us indications as to where we can perhaps streamline the system. Perhaps we are underdoing it or overdoing it, but we will wait to find out and do whatever it tells us. If that review tells us that we need to do more, such as to recruit 100 additional ecologists to get through this situation, then we will have to get those 100 ecologists. I hope it does not tell us that, because that would mean we are spiralling into a situation where we could not keep up with the demand. Clearly we need a fit-for-purpose licensing system. No one is denying that. Considering the targets we must reach, that must be done as soon as possible. I am hoping therefore that that independent regulatory review will inform us about what we must do in future to develop that fit-for-purpose model.
Senator Carrigy also mentioned farmer confidence and how important that is. Senators also mentioned costs and the rising price of wood, and I referred to that aspect in my opening statement. It is wrong to say that this is solely due to our licensing issue because there has been a global increase in the demand for timber recently. There is a huge demand now. We operate in a global system and we are a net exporter of timber. While we have been importing more timber than we should be, I understand that there has been a drop-off in recent months. That is a good sign, and hopefully the level of imports will continue to drop off and we will be more self-sufficient in producing what we need.
Senator Lombard mentioned the appearances at the committee. In the last year, between me and my officials, there have been a significant number of committee appearances to discuss forestry and that again highlights the concerns which exist in this area. The number of licences awarded in July and August dropped off as a result of a statutory instrument introduced at the end of June. We had been making good progress on licences issued in June. That dropped off in July and August, but it has picked up again since. I would like to think that we have turned a bit of the corner and we must just keep building on that momentum and keep driving on.
There were also one or two comments on biosecurity. We are permitted to import timber from one part of Scotland. There is free trade within the EU, however, and biosecurity has never, unfortunately, been a part of our Department’s responsibility in respect of that trade. We do have a special plant health status in respect of other products and we do apply biosecurity measures for those.
Turning to queries about farmer confidence, Senator Murphy said that he has met many foresters, farmers and owners, as indeed have I. He spoke about streamlining the process, and this is a theme which keeps coming through. I do not feel at this stage that there is a magic bullet in the form of legislation that could be brought in. I hope that the independent review might bring forward some suggestions in that regard. However, even if we were to consider bringing in legislation, it would have to stand up to national and EU law. In a way, it has been breaches of EU law that have resulted in us being in this situation in the first place. We have moved from a situation where we were issuing 6,000 and 7,000 licences each year to the current situation because of that very reason. We must, therefore, be cognisant of EU law. If we were to introduce legislation that was in breach of EU law, then we would just be taking steps backwards. I urge caution about thinking that we can just change the legislation quickly in this area. I am not sure how long I have been speaking.
The Minister of State is fine.
I am just about finished anyway. We have committed to implementing the Mackinnon report and that is the basis of why Project Woodland was set up. The work is ongoing, but it is not as quick as people would like. I think Senator Ahearn asked about timelines in this regard.
Everybody wants to know that. I also want to know how long everything is going to take. However, we are making progress. It takes, on average, about 11 months to deal with a licence application submitted now. That does not include those who have been waiting long term for licences. I ask those who have licences and who are waiting to keep in touch with my Department. I ask those people waiting for a felling licence to ensure that they have submitted a good quality harvest plan. It is important that that is done. Senator Cummins gave an example in this regard, and I thank him for that. There are examples like that from all over the country, and it is good to hear of them.
That is pretty much everything I have to say. I ask the Senators to follow up with me if I have missed a specific query. I thank them again for their views. I am fully cognisant and fully determined to sort out this situation. We are making progress, albeit slower than people would like to see. By some strange twist of fate, I will be in the Dáil this evening to talk about forestry issues again and I expect to hear something similar from the Deputies. It is good to talk, and we will keep communicating and engaging. I like to think that we will get further along if we do this together. I thank the Senators for their time.