I propose to take Questions Nos. 766, 767, 771, 772, 782 and 784 together.
It is standard accounting practice that towards the end of a fiscal year spending Divisions within the Department will review their commitments for the remainder of the year and release funds that are not committed nor are unlikely to be committed.
The funds released will be disbursed for other commitments across my Department. There remains sufficient funds in the forestry allocation to pay this year's commitments across all afforestation and support schemes, including the ash dieback scheme.
The Department has no plans to expand the ash dieback scheme at present but will continue to keep it under close review.
This underspend in forestry arose because new planting in 2021 was less than anticipated and this is a matter of concern to me. It appears at this stage that the number of hectares of new afforestation, which we calculate as forestry in respect of which a first grant and premium has been paid, will be somewhere in the region of 2,000 hectares. This is despite over 4,000 hectares licensed and approved.
There are 5,000 hectares of approved forestry licences issued and ready for use. I encourage anyone with a valid afforestation licence to plant their land, thereby accessing generous annual premiums and 100% establishment grants.
Along with Minister of State Pippa Hackett, who has overall responsibility for the sector, we accept that delays in issuing afforestation licences may be a contributory factor in terms of low levels of planting and we are addressing these licensing delays through Project Woodland. As regards afforestation, outputs are not where I’d like them to be but there are signs of improvement. My Department is prioritising the assessment of afforestation licences on hand, using the same system as was applied to felling licences, which yielded good results.
Ten Ecologists are now dedicated to afforestation, with more to be recruited. In addition to recruiting new staff I am also reallocating existing Administrative, Forestry Inspectorate and Ecology resources to afforestation licensing files. I expect these changes to result in a higher level of output of afforestation licences than before.
On the matter of community and small scale tree-planting, the Deputy may be aware that we have a Neighbourhood Scheme which supports close-to-home woodland amenities for public use and enjoyment, and that we are seeking to amend the Forestry Act 2014 to increase small-scale native tree planting without the need for an afforestation licence. In terms of the frost reconstitution scheme, I understand Minister Pippa Hackett, who has direct responsibility for forestry, discussed recently with stakeholders and the matter is under consideration.
With over €100 million provided for in the forestry budget for 2022, I am satisfied that there are sufficient funds to fully support increased afforestation and all other forestry related schemes in 2022.