My Department accepts and processes tree felling licences, which cover both tree felling and thinning. A valid tree felling licence must be in place before any forestry tree felling or thinning takes place. Applications for felling licences may be made by the applicant or their registered forester. All forestry licences issued by the Department undergo a legal consent process. Since 2017, all felling licence applications received have been subject to a statutory public notification system and all felling decisions issued are subject to a statutory appeal system operated by the Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC).
I acknowledge that changes made to internal Appropriate Assessment Procedures (AAP) in relation to the issuing of licences has resulted in delays to files. These are beyond my Department’s control as we are obliged to implement changes 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.
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. The Department has 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. A categorisation of files affected by these requirements is also underway in order to best assess further action needed and by whom. Notwithstanding recent delays, to the end of October, 3,866 tree felling licences have issued this year, which is 23% up on last year.
It should be noted that a tree felling licence is valid for up to 10 years and may cover several felling events, for example, thinning followed by clear-fell, and that volume estimates in support of these licences are for indicative purposes only. There are currently 1,983 felling licence applications on hand at various stages in the process, from data entry to ready for decision. Older files on hands are awaiting further information from applicants and not considered “live” until that information is received. To end October 2019, 71% of tree felling licences decisions issued this year were within four months of receipt of the application.