That Dáil Éireann shall take note of the Report of the Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine entitled ‘Issues impacting the Forestry Sector in Ireland,’ copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 2nd March, 2021.
I am sharing time with Deputy Sherlock.
As Cathaoirleach of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, I welcome the opportunity to open the debate on the report. The committee held four meetings with stakeholders. Since the publication of the report, we have held a further series of meetings but, unfortunately, the crisis in the sector continues. I thank the committee secretariat and all the stakeholders that attended the meetings, as well as all the committee members, who put great effort into compiling a vibrant report that has much relevance to the crisis in the forestry industry. Full implementation of the Mackinnon report is absolutely necessary.
Licences should not be required for thinning. There is a deep crisis in regard to licensing and all stakeholders in the sector have become very frustrated with the process. Thinning is an operation that allows a crop to reach full maturity, and it is nonsensical that foresters have to seek a licence for thinning. Roads are also a big issue at the moment. While licences are being issued for felling, access to the sites is restricted by the lack of road licences that are available.
The forestry dashboard is a welcome development borne out of deliberations at our committee meetings, but it needs to be more detailed, with the times the licences have been issued and the periods they have been in the system. It has to be visible to everyone how long these licences have been in the system before they are issued. With that, we would have a visual method for measuring how the Department is performing. It is essential that details of the length of time licences have been in the system be published. We need a forestry charter similar to that which operates in the farming sector, with strict agreed timeframes between stakeholders and the Department, and it needs to meet at least every quarter.
The programme for Government set out that we want 8,000 ha to be planted. Unfortunately, in recent years, we have failed miserably to meet these targets. Approximately 25% of the target is as much as we will accomplish this year. That has been the position for years. In light of climate change and the need to reduce emissions in the agrifood sector, forestry is the key to achieving those targets. It is the cornerstone of doing so. We can achieve it through forestry, which can have not only an environmental gain for rural Ireland but also an economic gain. It is criminal that we are failing so badly with our afforestation targets. In 30 years, people will question why trees were not planted in Ireland.
We have to ensure also that land is available for forestry and designated as such. We have managed to greatly depreciate designated land and it is worth only 20% of what it was worth pre-designation. There is a strong view that habitats for protected bird species and so on can be enhanced by varying stages of afforestation, as well as providing a green area. This blanket ban was a national decision and it needs to be revisited immediately.
We are in the final stages of preparing our submission in respect of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, for the period 2023 to 2027, with a new and enhanced environmental scheme as a key part of this plan. In 2015, 852 farmers planted trees, whereas in 2020, that figure had fallen to 100. The main reasons for this relate to the blanket ban on designated land and the fact green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, participants were prohibited from carrying out afforestation. The new environmental scheme has to wrap its arms around forestry. Farm forestry has to be one of the measures allowing farmers to achieve the maximum payment under the environmental scheme. Environmental forestry measures have to be included to persuade the 50-plus farmers who will be in this new scheme to consider planting a portion of their farm and to ensure forestry will once more become attractive to farmers from an environmental and economic perspective. I cannot stress enough that this new environmental scheme under the new CAP for the period 2023 to 2027 has to embrace forestry. It must also be a measure by means of which farmers can obtain the maximum payment available.
Forestry measures must be counted as part of it.
The Minister of State should use her influence with members of the Cabinet to again move the premium back to a 20-year timeframe. Stakeholders have lost confidence in the industry and a revamp will be needed to restore it. Restoring a 20-year premium would have a major economic benefit for forestry and it would also be the stimulus to once again push forestry at farm level and to make it a viable economic option for a portion of farmers' land. This endeavour must be financed by the Exchequer. This is an essential point. We cannot go robbing the CAP programme for this money, but scope exists to finance this undertaking through the Exchequer.
Turning to the matter of ash dieback, this issue must be adequately addressed but that has not happened to date. In 2012, we had 20,000 acres of privately-planted ash trees. Unfortunately, at least 95% of those ash trees are now diseased. Grants must be provided to allow sites to be cleared of diseased trees. A scheme exists, but it must be enhanced. Fair compensation must be provided to the owners of ash tree plantations affected by the disease, and people who choose to replant their plantations should then be allowed to receive premiums for those plantations in future. If these people were livestock farmers - and we have seen this with pig farmers - who were unfortunate enough to encounter a disease that was entirely outside their control, they would be compensated. I see no reason farmers who planted forestry should be treated any differently. The advent of this ash dieback disease was completely outside their control. We can get into an argument about what caused the disease to be in this country, but that would not achieve any objective at this stage. However, we can say that the disease came in on imported plants. Ash was a valuable cash crop for farmers who planted it and they have now been left with nothing but diseased trees. If people choose to replant the area containing diseased ash trees, then it would only be fair that they would have access to premiums in this regard. It would be a significant gesture to show that this Government is serious about forestry and about helping forestry owners.
I stress that this is the only time I have seen a farming sector, and that is what farm forestry is, afflicted by a disease beyond the control of the people involved in the sector when the Government has not stepped in with some meaningful compensation for them. Access to the premium over several years would not place a significant immediate burden on the Exchequer and it would be reasonable and fair for those plantation owners if that were to happen. It would be a recognition of the great financial loss they have suffered.
We have a sector under pressure. It is a sector in which all the stakeholders have, unfortunately, lost confidence. It is also a sector that rural Ireland badly needs, but not only rural Ireland. If we are serious about addressing climate change and reducing our emissions, forestry will be the key component that will let us achieve that objective, which will also be environmentally friendly and economically friendly for rural Ireland. I urge the Minister of State, therefore, to take on board the recommendations in our report. Putting all our shoulders to the wheel, we can again get a vibrant forestry sector in rural Ireland. I am a livestock farmer, but I fully understand the need for a vibrant forestry sector and that is what I, as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and all the members of the committee want to achieve.