I do not think the situation has got worse. I agree that it is not a lot better, but it certainly has not got worse.
Forestry and related issues, particularly the resolution of licensing issues, are a major priority for the Department and me. We recognise the importance of forestry to farmers, forest owners, forestry contractors, sawmills, nurseries, wood processors and the wider rural economy as a whole. It is a hugely valuable and important sector.
In order to deliver fully on the potential of the sector, we need a well-functioning licensing system. I am the first to acknowledge that we have fallen short in terms of turnaround time for licences. This continues to be a problem. Steps have been taken to address the situation. We have invested hugely in resources and taken on more ecologists, forestry inspectors and administrative staff. They have seen some gains in output, but I agree that more work remains to be done. We have set ourselves an ambitious target of 4,500 new licences for this year, which would be a 75% increase on last year and we are determined to meet this target.
In terms of felling, the volume of timber licensed this year is up 27% on the same period last year, which is an improvement. In terms of product to sawmills, Coillte which is the main provider, is fully licensed on felling licences for 2021, although not all of its output is immediately available. We hope to rectify that very soon.
I established Project Woodland to work with the most important stakeholders to examine all aspects of forestry, including a review of processes with a view to reducing the licensing backlog. This process is being implemented intensively and the working groups are meeting regularly. I understand that they are due to come forward to me with recommendations in some cases. I have asked for a timeline for clearance of the backlog. I remain confident that the framework now in place under Project Woodland will address our current difficulties and will result in a licensing system which meets the needs of forest owners.