I propose to take Questions Nos. 682, 690 and 705 together.
I fully recognise the impact the current forestry licensing delays are having on the sector at the moment. It is my immediate priority to resolve the issues which have led to this backlog and to issue licences in the volume needed for this important sector to continue to contribute to our rural economy and to help achieve our environmental goals.
You will be aware of the delays caused by changes to the licensing system which means that a significant number of cases now need ecological input in order to comply with environmental requirements. We are tackling these delays by means of a systematic project plan. We have invested heavily in resources including the recruitment of additional ecologists, forestry inspectorate and administrative staff, with extra resources to be added in 2021. This has already resulted in an increase in the number of licences issued, and the last quarter of 2020 saw the highest number of licences issued last year. This positive trend has continued into January.
The total number of licences which issued in 2020 was 2,593. Over 4,300ha of new afforestation and 129km of forest roads were licensed. The total volume of felling licences issued for 2020 was just over 5 million cubic metres, of which almost 2m cubic metres representing 40% of annual output issued in the last quarter of the year. This positive trend is continuing this month, with 177 licences issued in the first two weeks of January, which includes timber volume of nearly 450,000 m3. The aim is to sustain and build substantially on that output and ensure the consistent high level of output that the sector needs.
We have also implemented changes to the functioning of the Forestry Appeals Committee and acted quickly to propose and implement the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act. I have significantly resourced the FAC and four appeals committees are now set up and hearing appeals. This is an increase from one Committee that was previously in existence. This is reforming how the FAC does its business and will result in a more fit-for-purpose, environmentally sensitive and sustainable forestry licensing process, which serves appellants and applicants alike, and will mean that land-owners receive more timely decisions on their licences.
Of course, my Department also processes other support schemes including support for Ash Dieback. The national response to Ash Dieback has moved away from eradication of the disease in light of experience and scientific evidence that such an approach is no longer feasible. Previous reconstitutions scheme for ash dieback have cost in the region of €7m. A new Reconstitution and Underplanting Scheme (RUS) has been launched and focuses on ash plantation management. This approach categorises plantations into three groups based on the plantation age and tree size. Different support options are available, depending on the category into which the ash plantation may fall.
To date, 195 applications for the scheme have been received and approvals are being issued as applications are assessed and authorised.
My Department is actively supporting a number of research projects into the control and management of Ash Dieback disease, in particular projects with a key long-term focus of developing an ash tree breeding programme to identify trees that show strong tolerance to the disease and the genetic basis for tolerance.
I would like to re-iterate my commitment to supporting the forest sector and to building on the recent progress so that a continual improvement in delivery is achieved.