Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 4 May 2017

Vol. 949 No. 2

Priority Questions

Areas of Natural Constraint Scheme

Charlie McConalogue


1. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the position regarding the process of reviewing qualifying areas for the areas of natural constraint scheme; if his Department has completed the mapping exercise; when the maps will be published; if he will confirm the reports that the review is being delayed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21350/17]

This asks the Minister for an update on the review of qualifying areas for the areas of natural constraint scheme, if the Department has completed the mapping process and, if so, when the maps will be published. Do the reports that the scheme review will be delayed at European level have substance and will the Minister update the House on that?

Under the rural development regulation, each member state must designate areas eligible for payments under the areas of natural constraint, ANC, scheme. The ANC scheme replaces the previous disadvantaged areas scheme and less favoured areas scheme. The designation of eligible areas under these schemes to date has been based on a range of socio-economic factors. Under the new rural development regulation, eligible areas must instead be designated using a set list of bio-physical criteria. In cases where a member state does not introduce this new system for payment, the old scheme remains in place but payments must phase out on a digressive basis. A proposal to introduce an optional extension to the 2018 deadline is currently under discussion at European Union level.

The bio-physical criteria set out in the legislation to underpin the new system of designation are low temperature, dryness, excess soil moisture, limited soil drainage, unfavourable texture and stoniness, shallow rooting depth, poor chemical properties and steep slopes. My Department has commenced work on this project and relevant technical experts are currently working on sourcing and analysing the data for the new criteria. Department officials have also been in contact with the Joint Research Centre and DG Agri in the EU Commission about technical issues arising. This analysis will identify areas deemed to be facing natural constraints, which will in parallel be subjected to a refinement process. It is envisaged that stakeholders will be consulted as this process develops.

I thank the Minister for his response but he did not indicate his own position on a time extension for the current review. It was reported that the Minister and Austria sought this extension. Will he confirm that is the case and why this is so? He indicates that people in the EU are currently considering that request but will the Minister give an update on when they will make a decision? Will it come at an upcoming Council of Ministers meeting or will it be communicated to the Minister?

It sounds as if this is a matter of kicking for touch by the Minister and that he does not really wish to deal with the issue. That is my suspicion, so will he deal with it? If an extension is being considered and if it is granted, will it still be the case that the maps must be submitted by the end of this year? If so, will there be proper consultation with farmers in advance? It is crucial that fairness is brought to the scheme and that we ensure payment levels reflect the constraints on the land for which they are paid.

The areas of natural constraints or disadvantaged areas payment is enormously significant for almost 100,000 farmers and I or any incumbent in my office would be obliged to take every step possible to protect the payment against anything that threatens it. When there is a review there is a question over what the outcome of the review will be. It would be preferable if we could seek and secure a continuation of the existing arrangements for a period of time, and it is undefined at this stage how long that might be. It would be incumbent on me to pursue that option.

What arose in the context of the refinement of EU regulations dealing with the rural development programme was a request proposed by Austria, which we supported, that this particular proposal would be deferred for a period of time. It is likely to be at least 12 months. The Commission has yet to finalise that. It is part of what is called an omnibus regulation. To the best of my recollection, it was raised at last month's Council of Agriculture Ministers meeting and we supported the Austrian proposal, as did a number of other member states. It is not certain yet whether the Commission will acquiesce in that request, but I believe it would be a good development. It would secure the status quo for a period of time that has yet to be defined. The reason an extension of time for the current scheme is being sought is that various member states are struggling to have the necessary work completed. Some members states have it completed and can opt into the new regime as soon as they are ready, but the Austrian position arose because it is not ready. We are not ready either and if this gives us more time to prepare, that is well and good.

A consultation with the stakeholders will be critical to the preparations at any stage. I have given a commitment to that in the House previously when the Deputy and others have raised this matter. That will continue to be the case.

The Minister indicated that we are not ready, but previously he indicated that he expected to be in a position to come forward with the maps in spring of this year. Certainly, that was indicated last year. Then it was changed to early summer. It is now early summer and the Minister has indicated that he is not ready. Can he elaborate on the state of his unreadiness and on the exact position in that regard? There has been no consultation with the farming community yet in terms of the current position of that mapping exercise, nor have any maps been provided. If an extension is granted at European level, and the Minister indicated that it could be for an indefinite period, will the Minister still have to submit the maps by the end of the year? Also, with regard to the €25 million that is committed for next year, will the Minister give a commitment that it will be allocated in a way that reflects the constraints on the lands for which it is being paid? A reform of the current payment system is required to ensure that there are increased payments in cases where lands have more constraints while at the same time ensuring that the valuable role of the ANC payment in the income of up to 100,000 farmers is protected.

On the latter point, the €25 million commitment in the programme for Government is an endeavour to restore payments which were previously withdrawn. Obviously that payment commitment remains, but that is a matter for the budget later this year. It is certainly my intention to deliver on that commitment. It is unclear what the Commission's requirement would be if it amends the regulations in this area. I suspect it would then give member states more time to comply with the regulations. We had hoped that we would have been in a position to publish maps in the summer of this year, as I indicated at all stages. We are not in that space yet. If we get an extension of time it will enable us to meet with the new deadline at greater ease in completing that job of work.

At all stages it will involve consultation with the farming organisations. I appreciate that meetings are being organised the length and breadth of the country by concerned farmers, including farmers who are within the disadvantaged area who fear that they may be excluded under the new bio-physical criteria and farmers who are excluded under the old socio-economic criteria who have an ambition to be included. Obviously the consultation process and the information that will be contained in the Department's analysis in due course will be communicated to farmers at the appropriate time. They will be given an opportunity to engage with officials and myself and my colleague, the Minister of State, at that stage. The process will be the same, but I suspect that if the Commission amends the regulation it will extend the timeline for preparation of the maps.

Areas of Natural Constraint Scheme

Martin Kenny


2. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he will ensure there will be transparency regarding the outcome of the review of areas of natural constraint and that all farm organisations will be consulted before its final approval and prior to approval being sought from the European Union; and if the category of mountain type land will be retained after the review. [21382/17]

My question is similar. Many farmers are very concerned that if the category of mountain type land were removed they would be at a severe disadvantage. Perhaps the Minister could give me an assurance on that.

I apologise for the repetition. Under the rural development regulation each member state must designate areas eligible for payments under the areas of natural constraints, ANC, scheme.  The ANC scheme replaces the previous disadvantaged areas scheme/less favoured areas scheme.  The designation of eligible areas under these schemes to date has been based on a range of socio-economic factors. These eligible areas must now instead be designated using a set list of bio-physical criteria. In cases where a member state does not introduce this new system for payment, the old scheme remains in place but payments must phase out on a digressive basis.

The biophysical criteria set out in the legislation to underpin the new system of designation are: low temperature; dryness; excess soil moisture; limited soil drainage; unfavourable texture and stoniness; shallow rooting depth; poor chemical properties; steep slope.

My Department has commenced work on this project, and relevant technical experts are currently working on sourcing and analysing the data relating to the new criteria. Department officials have also been in contact with the Joint Research Centre, JRC, and the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development, DG Agri, in the EU Commission regarding technical issues arising.  This analysis will identify areas deemed to be facing natural constraints, which will in parallel be subjected to a refinement process.  It is envisaged that stakeholders will be consulted as this process develops.

As Deputy McConalogue said, many people are wondering about this extension being sought by both Ireland and Austria. Is that because there was a view that they would not be able to meet the deadline and there was a delay in trying to get the mapping done and over the line? Ultimately, we are dealing with farmers' money and many farmers are very concerned that they are being kept in the dark on this. I am sure the Minister has been lobbied about this as well. The various farm organisations and individual farmers are anxious to know when the maps will be done, when they will be able to see them and when they will get some certainty as to where all of this is going. Places such as Leitrim, Sligo and west Cavan in my constituency are mountainous areas and they have a serious natural constraint. The hill farmers in particular are concerned about where this is going. Can the Minister give an assurance that this mountain type land will be retained within the scheme? Also, will he respond with regard to the delay that was expected and on why the Minister and the Department considered it necessary to seek an extension?

As I said in response to Deputy McConalogue, I appreciate the importance of this income source for farmers.

I appreciate it, given the regions to which the Deputy referred. It would be wrong of me to give a guarantee on what areas will and will not be included because I cannot. I would be surprised if, in respect of the aforementioned areas, there was any significant change.

It is because of the importance of the payment that we took the opportunity to support the Austrian request. We were not alone. I recall that France and a number of other member states were also supportive of the proposal. In the context of the uncertainty around this debate, it allows us to say that for the period of time the extension will be secured the status quo will remain. That is in itself a reassurance.

At this stage, we do not have a guarantee the extension will be granted. The Commission is considering the request that was made and supported by a number of member states, including Ireland. As I said, we will remain committed to the ANC system, the commitment in the programme for Government in respect of additional payments in 2018 and consultation with farmers in due course where the information is available.

I thank the Minister. The point he made that he cannot guarantee he will get the extension, and that nobody else can, raises the question as to how far down the road he is of getting the maps prepared. How close to completion is the work? If we are in a situation where within a short period of time the Commission says there cannot be an extension, what will the position be? Have the Department and its officials reached a stage where they are ready to produce the maps? Are they finding it difficult to try to set out the new criteria and map it out? It is important people know the level of preparedness if we do not get an extension.

The obligation as now envisaged is that the process would be completed in time for the 2018 basic payment scheme. It is 15 May this year and I think it will be around the same date next year. I am sure if the deadline remained we would have met it. As I said, in respect of the uncertainty around this, if it was possible at a European level to have an extension of the current regime for any period of time, be it a year or whatever, that would be preferable to the uncertainty that would have faced some farmers in respect of the current process. That is why we supported the current regime.

As I said, if it was the case that we were obliged to have this process concluded I am sure we would have met that deadline. It would have been reckless of us not to because not meeting it at that stage would have meant that we would have been obliged to phase out the payments on a digressive basis. We certainly were not going to go down that road. The judgment call I had to make was whether it was desirable to have an extension of the status quo. My judgment call was that for the almost 100,000 farmers who were in receipt of the payment it was preferable to the risks associated with the entire review process.

GLAS Payments

Charlie McConalogue


3. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the number of persons who have not received 85% of their total 2016 payment under the GLAS and AEOS schemes; the reason for the delay; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21351/17]

I ask the Minister to outline the total number of GLAS and AEOS scheme applicants who have not yet received their 85% payment for 2016 as promised by the Minister and Department, and if he will update the House on the current situation.

GLAS and AEOS provide valuable support to farmers to deliver environmental benefits and public goods which will enhance Ireland's sustainability credentials into the future. They provide support to Irish farmers aimed at enhancing biodiversity, water quality and the mitigation of the future impacts of climate change, while allowing Irish farmers to improve their agricultural practices.

The GLAS scheme is the latest agri-environment scheme available to farmers. It forms part of Ireland’s rural development plan 2014-2020. To date, in excess of 50,000 farmers have had applications approved into the scheme under three different tranches over a 14-month period. The approval of these farmers into the scheme has been achieved a year ahead of the original target set when the scheme was launched.

The first full year of payments to participants in the first two tranches of the scheme is 2016. To date, over 91% of these participants have received their 2016 GLAS advance payment, which represents 85% of the total 2016 payment due. There are some 3,000 applicants who have not yet received this payment as their applications have not passed all the regulatory cross-checks of Department databases and validation checks required to support these EU co-funded payments.

As the Deputy is aware, this is a complex scheme with over 30 different actions available which allows farmers a choice of environmental actions to suit their farms. However, with this flexibility of choice for farmers comes increased complexity in administrating the scheme. My Department has committed significant resources in developing systems, including IT systems, to support this level of complexity, with the system required to support multiple changes in land parcel details and multiple combinations of actions across holdings and parcels.

Outstanding 2016 payments under GLAS 1 and 2 have been delayed due to a variety of issues, including the declaration of incompatible parcel usage on the basic payment scheme, BPS, application for a selected GLAS action, changes in parcel boundaries in respect of parcels selected for GLAS actions, an applicant no longer claiming a parcel on his or her 2016 BPS and incomplete documentation, such as an incorrect or incomplete low-emission slurry declaration form or interim commonage management plan.

All cases which have passed all the required checks have been paid and cases continue to be paid as they are cleared. In addition, I want reassure the Deputy that my Department is continuing to review outstanding applications on a case-by-case basis, including contacting farmers directly by telephone, e-mail or letter with a view to resolving all issues with outstanding cases as soon as possible.

In respect of the AEOS scheme, there were 8,640 valid AEOS applications due a payment for the 2016 scheme year. Of these, 7,436 have been paid, leaving 1,204 outstanding. Under the EU regulations governing the scheme and other area-based payment schemes, a comprehensive administrative check, including cross-checks with the land parcel identification system, must take place. As 2016 is the final scheme year of payment for the AEOS 2 scheme, rechecks on payments made for all scheme years must be completed before final payments can be processed. This work is ongoing and payments for valid checked files are and will continue to be released on a weekly basis.

A number of payments under both schemes continue to be held up due to incomplete documentation and all participants are reminded to respond to any correspondence and submit any outstanding documentation as soon as possible to facilitate payment. Payments under both schemes will continue on an ongoing basis as issues are resolved and cases are cleared for payment.

It is a disgrace that 3,000 farmers across the country are still waiting for GLAS payments in May 2017 and over 1,200 are awaiting payments under AEOS. The Minister and Department made a commitment that they would be paid in October 2016. Then another commitment was made that they would be paid in December 2016. At a recent farmer's charter of rights meeting, the Minister and Department committed that all payments would be made by the end of April.

On three occasions deadlines were set and promises made and on three occasions they have been not been met and have been broken. As a result, over 4,000 farmers across the country are waiting on GLAS and AEOS payments.

On a county basis, 200 farmers in Donegal and as many as 400 in Galway are waiting on GLAS payments. The situation is totally unacceptable and it is a political failure on the part of the Minister to manage the issue and ensure farmers are paid on time. If it was the other way around and farmers were not compliant with the scheme, the Department would come down on them and would not be behind the door in terms of applying penalties. Yet, whenever the problem is at the Minister's end and he fails to live up to his responsibilities and promises, he expects a free pass.

I know it is probably a fruitless exercise to ask the Minister to set another deadline and make another promise but can he tell us when the outstanding payments will be made? Can tell us how many GLAS 1 and 2 farmers are on the Department's system? How many have withdrawn from the scheme and how many will be ineligible for payments as per the Department's calculations?

I am not happy that this is the case. It is an embarrassment to me and the Department that this issue continues.

We have no vested interest in holding onto moneys that are due. It is an extraordinarily complex scheme with more than 30 individual actions into which a farmer can opt under GLAS. When one cross references that with basic payment applications and individual plots, it becomes a very complex scheme to administer from an IT point of view. We have applied additional resources but it is taking a great deal longer than we had hoped to resolve the matter.

I was not at the farmers' charter meeting recently but for clarity I note that I understand that the commitment that was given was that all approved applicants would be paid by the end of April. I emphasise "approved". We continue to engage with a number of farmers in respect of outstanding documentation which is an issue on their side. I would have preferred to have been able to identify and correspond with those farmers earlier. I appreciate the financial consequences for those individual holdings and the fact that it makes budgeting difficult if one is expecting every week that a cheque for up to €5,000 will arrive. I assure farmers that we are doing everything possible. We have written to 1,500 of the 3,000 farmers in GLAS who are waiting and I hope we will have corresponded by the end of the week with the overwhelming majority of the remaining 1,500.

On the Deputy's specific question, the number of farmers currently active in GLAS I is 25,460 and in GLAS II is 11,345. The number of farmers approved in the most recent GLAS tranche is 13,600.

I thank the Minister for the response. Last December, farmers were waiting for a payment of up to €4,500 which they had factored into their financial year last year and their income plans for Christmas. It was one thing to be embarrassed that it was not paid then, but the Minister is still embarrassed in May with over 4,000 farmers continuing to wait for payments. It is a political failure to allocate sufficient resources to deal with the issue and to ensure that farmers were not left in the lurch, which is what has happened. That is down to how it was handled by the Minister and the Department.

In the coming year and the current budget, €214 million is allocated for GLAS. There was a commitment that when the scheme was up and running at the maximum of 50,000, there would be a €250 million per year spend. What the Minister has in the budget for this year's payments is €36 million less than was initially indicated would be required. That is the Minister stoking up a situation where there will be insufficient funds to pay all of those who will be expecting payments at the back end of this year. Can the Minister comment on that? It behoves him, considering what happened last year, to make every effort and adopt every measure to ensure a similar scenario does not emerge at the end of this year. First and foremost, those who are still awaiting payment should be paid promptly and as a matter of priority. Efforts to do that must be made by the Minister.

This year is the first full run of GLAS payments and there are problems which were not foreseeable in respect of the complexity and challenges posed to the IT system. It is not a question of resources from either an IT or staffing perspective, it is simply the volume and complexity of applications and having to walk through each application individually across parcels of land and up to 30 different options. When one is explaining, one is losing. I appreciate that. For farmers who have not been paid yet, it is cold comfort.

As this is the last year of AEOS, there is an obligation to sign off on the full period of the scheme. That is why there is a more onerous duty on us in respect of the final payments on AEOS. Equally, we are working through that obligation.

Deputy McConalogue has raised his point before about our commitments under the rural development programme generally and specifically in respect of the funding under this scheme. We will spend every penny of that funding and pay out. I suspect it will be like this year's basic payment scheme. Once we got through the teething problems associated with the first run of that last year, most people accepted that the initial payments ran through much more efficiently last October. I hope that what we are seeing now with GLAS I and GLAS II will not be replicated in future.

Greyhound Industry

Michael Lowry


4. Deputy Michael Lowry asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his views on the current crisis in the greyhound industry which is administered by the Irish Greyhound Board; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21384/17]

I ask the Minister to outline his views and provide a comprehensive statement on the current crisis at the Irish Greyhound Board. For those of us who live in rural Ireland and who are familiar with what has happened, it is very sad to see the level of disunity and rancour that exists. The industry is tearing itself apart and there are no winners in this situation. Everybody loses, in particular the owners and trainers of greyhounds who cannot run them at the high end of the market. Harold's Cross has been a bone of contention. As the Minister is aware, an agreement was concluded with the Department of Education and Skills to purchase Harold's Cross last week. Does the Minister intend to approve the sale of Harold's Cross?

We have not had racing at Shelbourne Park for 12 weeks with the result that owners and trainers have lost prize money in the region of €300,000. As a result of Shelbourne Park not being available, we also have a situation in which trainers are running dogs down the country which is putting pressure on local tracks. I ask the Minister of State to outline his view and the view of the senior Minister and the Government.

Bord na gCon is a commercial State body, established in 1958 under the Greyhound Industry Act 1958 chiefly to control greyhound racing and to improve and develop the greyhound industry. Bord na gCon  has faced very difficult financial challenges in recent years and continues to operate in a difficult financial environment. Through the period of the recession, a significant reduction in commercial income from attendances at stadia, tote receipts and other sources coincided with a reduction in State funding for the sector.  The impact of these pressures has been  exacerbated by a significant debt burden. The Government has worked to restore State funding to its previous levels, but the challenges of reducing the debt and increasing commercial incomes remain significant. These matters  have been of significant concern for my Department for some time and it was against this background that Indecon Economic Consultants were asked to conduct an objective assessment of the board's activities. Indecon made a number of recommendations to improve the financial position of the board, including measures to reduce costs at loss making tracks, the development of new co-mingling and fixed odds betting opportunities and the development of television rights and other commercial opportunities at stadia. While all of these recommendations are important, Indecon also recommended that the board actively engage in a programme of asset disposals in order to reduce the debt in a meaningful way and in this regard referred to a number of specific assets, including Harold's Cross greyhound racing stadium.

Bord na gCon has been working its way through the Indecon recommendations, but progress on the development of commercial income has been difficult. In particular, a significant burden of debt remains and inhibits the scope for investment in the sector.  Against this background, the board took the difficult decision in February to close Harold's Cross to prepare it for sale, in part because of its very close proximity to the Shelbourne Park stadium.  I understand that on 2 May the board received an offer from the Department of Education and Skills for the purchase of Harold's Cross stadium for the construction of a school or schools and has decided to accept it subject to obtaining the necessary approvals. To respond to one of the Deputy's questions directly, the Minister, Deputy Creed, and I expect to receive a proposal for the sale of the stadium from the board shortly and will give it due consideration it, taking into account the need to develop the sector.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

There is no doubt that the sector faces a number of significant challenges. It is widely acknowledged that there is a need for improvements in finance, governance and regulation. The Government has restored the Exchequer provision for the sector in recent years and brought forward the heads of a Bill to improve governance, strengthen regulatory controls, modernise sanctions and improve integrity with a view to building a reputation for exceptional regulation in the sector. This is a sector that can make a significant contribution to the rural and urban economy and which enjoys widespread support from many sincere and passionate participants around the country.  If it is to reach its potential, it is essential that it develops a solid financial platform, reduces its debt and builds a reputation for regulatory best practice and integrity.

I ask the Minister of State and the Department to re-enter negotiations to provide for an agreement to reopen Shelbourne Park. We need an answer on the Department's position on Harold's Cross. My understanding is that it is being sold, an agreement almost having been reached for moneys in excess of €20 million.

We have been told consistently by the former chairman of the board that it is worth €4 million to €6 million and that it should not be sold because we would not get value for it.

I would like a straight answer from the Minister of State to my next question because there will be no progress until we know where we stand. I have attended several meetings with groups and individuals and a question I am asked all the time is whether the Minister and the Government are considering sacking the board. Will the board be sacked? Do the Minister and the Government have confidence in it to lead and administer the Irish Greyhound Board? This question needs to be answered. Is there confidence in the board? Will it remain in position? If we had answers to these questions, perhaps we might get down to negotiations on the reopening of Harold's Cross greyhound stadium.

Regarding approval, the details have not been sent to the Department, the Minister, Deputy Michael Creed, or me. The approval of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform must also be obtained. We are not at liberty because the Department of Education and Skills has requested that full details of the sale not be disclosed because of market sensitivities. There has been due process in a transparent way.

Sacking the board is a very simple populist notion. No current member was a member of the board when the decision was taken to develop the new stadium in Limerick, which marked the beginning of the legacy debt. Indecon recommended that the board be strengthened with certain skill levels and that has happened. This is a thankless job and the board has progressed to work down the debt. It is a commercial semi-State company with a duty to manage the greyhound industry. We can play our part with new legislation to try to underpin it, but essentially we have to have confidence in the board to do its job. That is what it is there for. All appointments since 2015 have been made through the independent appointments service. We have not engaged or interfered with it. In line with Indecon's recommendations, those appointed have legal, veterinary, financial and banking skills. People speak about the board, but its membership has changed fundamentally.

At the private and public meetings we regularly attended we were told that Harold's Cross greyhound stadium was not worth selling and that it was valued between €4 million and €6 million. Other public representatives and I have been lambasted, but my theory is very simple. The board needs to spend its money. It is servicing a debt and paying an interest bill of €1.15 million. As a consequence, there is no money left for marketing or the promotion of the industry and breeders and trainers are suffering as a result. The debt issue needs to be resolved. The Minister should ask the board for its solutions urgently.

Does the Minister of State have confidence in the board? Will it be sacked or not? We need to know the answer to this question before we can make progress.

The board will not be sacked. It is as simple as that. We have confidence in it. In its strategic investment business plan it envisaged necessary receipts of €12 million from the sale of Harold's Cross greyhound stadium to work down its debt. While, regrettably, I am not at liberty to disclose the actual sale value, it is substantial enough to deal with the debt significantly. The Deputy is dead right; money needs to be put into the industry in prize money, for promotion and marketing and the upgrading of some stadia that are beginning to look a bit dated, in the same way as horse racing stadia. We need to underpin it with new legislation in order to restore confidence. The Deputy made a point in his opening comments about the industry and sector being very divided. I appeal to everybody to avail of the mediation process available to see if we can have racing again in Dublin. It is very important that this happen without delay.

Forestry Sector

Eamon Ryan


5. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he has considered continuous cover as an alternative, in view of the afforestation his Department has planned; and if he has carried out a review of the potential for higher value output derived from continuous cover. [21383/17]

We are at a point of real change in the forestry industry. There was a massive increase in afforestation to meet our climate change targets. We need to learn from what has happened in the past 50 years and move to what I believe is a form of forestry with a higher value, with a higher value product, with far more jobs and where we protect biodiversity and the long-term quality of soil. It should be in the form of continuous cover forestry as in Germany, Switzerland and many other countries. Does the Minister of State have such a plan? Will he implement a plan to move from clear felling to continuous cover forestry? If so, how will it be done?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. Continuous cover forestry, CCF, is a silvicultural system option in which the aim is to keep the overall forest canopy in place continuously, with low levels of soil exposure and any regeneration gap confined to about one third of a hectare in area. Sites suited to CCF are those where the crop is conducive to seeding, thereby facilitating natural regeneration, and where the risk of windblow is moderate to low following the felling of small regeneration areas or coupes. This silvicultural system is not so much an alternative to afforestation, as the forest must generally be planted in the first instance; instead on suitable sites it may be an option for forest owners where income can be generated from successive thinning operations as an alternative to clearfelling at the end of a rotation.

In the Department's forestry programme, 2014 to 2020, continuous cover forestry is encouraged for new and existing native woodlands under both the afforestation and native woodlands conservation scheme. CCF principles and close to nature silvicultural techniques must also be applied to forests funded under the new agriforestry planting category. Supporting actions for CCF are also included in the targeted training submeasure of the forestry programme. My Department has supported research on CCF under COFORD's low impact silvicultural systems project from 2009 to 2014 and also in the more recent translation from French into English of the guidelines on continuous cover forestry which I will launch tomorrow at the Irish Forestry, Woodland and Bioenergy show at Stradbally Hall Estate, County Laois. I also launched Broadleaf Forestry in Ireland at Avondale in October last year. This COFORD publication provides extensive guidance on the use of silvicultural systems based on natural regeneration and continuous cover forestry. It took approximately 15 years to get the book ready.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

Furthermore, as part of the Department’s mid-term review of its forestry programme submissions have been called for to examine the possibilities to support forest owners in transitioning to continuous cover forestry under the woodland improvement scheme.

With regard to a review of potential higher value outputs from CCF, they would include continuity of income from ongoing thinning operations as opposed to the lump sum at clearfell stage, with a consequent replanting cost. Non-wood benefits include the potential for greater forest resilience and habitat diversity. Under the COFORD's low impact silvicultural systems project mentioned, an economic study of CCF was carried out. The study examined factors affecting economic returns from CCF compared with a clearfelling system. The work will help to inform forest owners on the decision to move to a CCF system. Also funded under the COFORD project was the establishment of six research plots throughout Ireland, with five in Coillte forests and one in a private forest. The purpose is to have demonstration and research areas in different woodland types in Ireland so as to be able to demonstrate the timber and non-timber outputs over time. All management inputs which are time and expense and outputs which are timber volumes and revenues are being recorded. As data are collected from sites, knowledge of the application of CCF systems can be improved.

I am glad that our timing is good in advance of the event to be held in Stradbally tomorrow. I wish the Minister of State the best of luck in that regard. What I hear is recognition of the fact that continuous cover forestry has a real role to play, but in marginal conservative research on native forestry and not necessarily on the scale in respect of which I believe there is potential. This is a moment of real change. We should surely have learned in the past 30 or 40 years that much of the forestry we had planted - it is nothing against the people involved - was on the wrong land and in the wrong location. Minimum services were provided. Effectively, we were foresting to receive grants rather than thinking long-term, which is what one must do in forestry. At a time when the level of afforestation must jump, we need to change. It is important that the Government give a clear sense that the mainstay approach will be towards continuous cover forestry and that the entire support system will work to that end. When we look at such continuous cover forests in Germany or Switzerland - I have seen examples in Ireland where Sitka spruce forests have been planted in this way - they end up with an incredibly vibrant and valuable forest where the value of the output is ten times what we are getting from lower grade fast growth wood. Will the Minister of State make the big strategic leap tomorrow and state we will go with this scale rather than just a research project?

The afforestation programme comes with an obligation to replant.

One of the issues in regard to that scheme has been to make sure we maximise the value of the State's investment in afforestation in the first place, by optimising both the monetary and environmental value from the crop that has been established.

The Deputy is right in that it is necessary to do research and trialling. There are sites that will be supported as part of ongoing research. There are disadvantages from the perspective of the whole economic prospect of the industry if one is going to develop a whole forest sector at national level. Some 12,000 jobs are supported by the industry. We have some significant investment from the processors. The size of the product that comes out of a continuous cover forest is not attractive to them. It is not something they can use significantly. It has a place, but I do not think it is it going to replace the existing afforestation programme. People would not have seen any role for agroforestry a few years ago. Native woodlands schemes were on somebody's wish list, but now they have come to be. We have to look at it as part of the overall afforestation landscape, but not as an either-or.

We have to look to the long term. The Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, has opposed my view of economics in his climate paper. I fundamentally challenge his economics and one of the ways in which I would challenge it is that we are not thinking long term. If we go the direction the Minister of State is suggesting, where this is just a minor research project and a couple of sites will do and where we are going to massively increase our afforestation, then we are committing for the next 40 years to another whole round of clear-felling, where we are just taking land, pumping up the forest as best we can, clear-felling it and starting again. We will end up with soil degradation and it will have an effect on our water supply. It is not a viable long-term project.

One has to think long-term in forestry. It is right for us to think long-term now and say we will think of the world in 30 or 40 years' time. The Minister of State said people involved in the lumber industry do not like the forest project because it is too big and not easy to do for the low-cost forestry outputs they are currently processing. Think differently and of what we are going to be looking for in 30 or 40 years' time. We will be using wood in a completely different way. It will be a highly valuable. It is right for us to plant now with a view to what the world will be like in 2060, 2070, 2080 and 2090. That is the economic vision we have to come to if we are going to manage climate change. It has to be a long-term vision, not a short-term business as usual approach, which is what we are going to do in forestry and is not the right business approach.

The Deputy can take a very narrow-minded outlook on this. C16 is the structural grade standard that is needed for the construction sector. That is structural timber, which is renewable and an alternative to concrete and steel. New, advanced cross-lamination and other technologies are being developed to strengthen such structures so buildings of a higher height and with greater load-bearing can be constructed from timber. There is the forest floor, with the brash and everything else, being used in biomass. There is a renewable source. It is like saying a cow produces milk every day. She also produces calves and, at the end of her time, she produces some leather. It is renewable, and there is a commercial aspect to it. That is not a sin.

It is part and parcel of any system we try to make. We are going to use 2.7 megatonnes in land-use options as part of the EU Effort Sharing Decision with regard to our carbon mitigation. That is a percentage of what our 2005 emissions were on new plantations. I think 3.5 million or 4.5 million tonnes of carbon a year can be sequestered and stored in our post-1990 plantations. There is much going on there, and continuous cover forestry is part of it, but it is not at the expense of it either. We are trying to get 18% and we want another 45,000 ha in the next five years.