The forest estate is expanding and has reached 770,000 hectares, which is 11% of the total land area. This is as a result of significant State investment. We now have a new challenge, to meet 8,000 hectares of new planting each year as set out in the Climate Action Plan. I am very aware that this is in the face of declining planting rates and that this year has been disappointing in terms of hectares planted.
However, I believe that we can, through a concerted and collaborative effort from government, the private sector, public bodies and local communities, reverse this trend and meet the Climate Action targets so essential to delivering on our national climate change objectives.
Support for afforestation from Government is delivered through the generous grants and premiums available, across 12 different planting categories which offer real options to suit every landowner. Farmers can continue with livestock farming, while supplementing their income by planting trees, and we intend communicating this message widely. To this end, we are funding 15 promotion projects countrywide this year and next in the amount of €830,000 and Teagasc is actively promoting forestry through a substantial programme of educational and forestry events.
Communities can and have become involved through the NeighbourWood Scheme, funded by my Department, which supports the development of accessible woodlands for public use and enjoyment.
The Woodland Environmental Fund allows business to discharge their corporate responsibility and to support the national effort by paying a supplementary €1,000 a hectare to landowners for the planting of native woodlands. I am delighted that An Post is supporting this initiative through the establishment of a new native woodland in County Galway, and I know that other organisations have expressed interest in encouraging native woodland planting by means of the Fund.
Public bodies have a role to play too. In this regard, I very much welcome the recent announcement by Coillte and Bord na Mona of their plans to plant 4 million native trees on 1,500 hectares over the next three years. I will be encouraging others to follow suit.
In terms of the afforestation scheme, I acknowledge that changes made to internal Appropriate Assessment Procedures (AAP) has resulted in delays to many files. These are beyond my Department’s control as we are obliged to implement changes to AAP that were required following important Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) decisions and their subsequent interpretation by the Forestry Appeals Committee and others. All forestry licences issued by the Department undergo a legal consent process. Since 2017, all licence afforestation and forest road applications received have been subject to a statutory public notification system and all afforestation, forest roads and felling decisions issued are subject to a statutory appeal system operated by the Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC).
Most appeals have been in connection with our Appropriate Assessment (AA) procedure. The Habitat Directive (Article 6.3) requires that where a plan or project is likely to have a significant effect on a Natura site, either individually or in-combination with other plans or projects, it must undergo an appropriate assessment of its implications for that Natura site. In this regard, the introduction of the 15 km assessment buffer around potential forestry sites is necessary and is an industry norm.
Currently, we are amending the AA procedure in order to introduce a robust and workable system which will address the issues now faced. Introducing this system involves the recruitment of additional ecological expertise and changes in procedures for the forestry inspectorate. Last week, the Department advertised for additional ecologists and we also have access to external ecological support, which will be supplemented in due course. Inspectors have already undergone training and will receive appropriate support in delivering these new procedures; they are not on a work to rule. A categorisation of files affected by these requirements is also underway in order to best assess further action needed and by whom.
Notwithstanding that this has led to a temporary disruption in issuing afforestation licences, we know that the sector has approximately 3,200 hectares of approvals issued this year which are shovel-ready and yet to be planted.
I am fully aware of the concerns of the sector in relation to the AA process. My officials are in regular communication with stakeholders and they have been fully apprised of the issues involved and of my Department’s efforts to address them. They have also been advised of steps they can take to ensure that applications received are completed to an acceptable standard and to take account of any issues relating to sensitive habitats.
Furthermore, for my part, I have commissioned a consultant to review my Department's processes and procedures on forestry applications and approvals similar to an exercise undertaken in Scotland. I expect to receive this report by the end of November and that it will provide an opportunity to make our processes more effective and efficient going forward.