I thank the committee for its invitation. This is my first appearance before it as Minister of State with responsibility for forestry and I welcome the opportunity to engage with the committee and answer whatever questions its members may have. It is clear that they have a keen interest in the forestry sector, which is not surprising. I share their interest, which is reflected in the programme for Government. As they will know, the programme is ambitious for the future of forestry.
Forestry is an integral part of the rural economy, and the majority of the 23,000 private forest owners are farmers. As a farmer and forest owner myself, I fully understand how well forestry can sit alongside a productive farming enterprise. Payments and grants received through the forestry programme have allowed countless farmers to diversify their farm incomes. This has had a positive effective on the rural economy. Since 1990, the State has invested some €3 billion in forestry and continues to offer generous payments to those who sign up to planting. Taken with the thousands of jobs created right across the forestry supply chain, the wider impact on the rural economy is formidable. I intend to continue with strong State supports for forestry during the lifetime of this Government.
While forestry benefits the rural economy, it also delivers other benefits to society. As committee members know better than most, tree planting is increasingly recognised as an efficient way of reducing net emissions and responding to the climate emergency. It makes a critical contribution to the agriculture and land use sectors' response to climate breakdown. Forests are not only a carbon sink but also help in preventing the erosion of soils and reducing flood risks, and they provide us with fantastic recreational spaces. These spaces have proven more valuable than ever in the current circumstances. As we all know, time spent in nature surrounded by the sounds and scents of trees can restore our mood and refresh and rejuvenate us.
Our forests are contributing to our biodiversity goals. The forest estate in Ireland is diverse, with 29% of forest cover made up of broadleaves and native woodlands. We hit a milestone this year, with the highest recorded planting of native woodlands at 450 ha. This totals more than 1.4 million individual native trees, half of which were planted by farmers. The creation and restoration of these woodlands is an important part of the forestry programme, given their historical and cultural significance.
However, forestry as a land use has become has become divisive. This is often characterised by some misunderstandings, and a priority for all of us with an interest in the sector is to ensure that any strategy is informed by facts and science. It is also essential that all stakeholders communicate directly and constructively. It is for this reason that I have established a new stakeholder forestry policy group, which will meet for the first time this Thursday. The group will help to provide input from a broad range of stakeholders on the big forestry questions as well as on short-term and longer term issues such as the development of the next forestry programme. For now, though, the focus is on the immediate priorities, in particular licensing issues.
The committee has asked me to address the ash dieback scheme, which I will turn to now. The ash tree is of historical and cultural significance to Ireland and the unfortunate effects of ash dieback have been felt in ash plantations throughout the country. As the eradication of the disease is no longer possible, we have now moved into a phase of disease management. This is the approach being followed under the new ash dieback scheme known as the reconstitution and underplanting scheme. The revised approach set out in the new scheme categorises plantations into three groups based on plantation age and tree size. Different support options are available depending on the category. The scheme aims to promote the vigorous growth of ash through thinning to realise as much of the potential value of the crop as possible. Since its launch, almost 200 applications have been submitted and we are moving to deal with them so that forest owners will have certainty in how to manage their individual situations.
This is a valuable reconstitution scheme, one that recognises the difficulties faced by the landowners concerned and is a responsive and well-considered measure. It is important that we move to process the many applications and allow the applicants to get on with managing their plantations. Committee members may have questions about the scheme. I will be happy to answer any that arise.
The majority of trees planted in Irish forests are home grown. We are generally self-sufficient and a net exporter of forestry trees. When there is an occasional shortage of specific tree species at the end of the planting season, forestry plants are imported by forestry companies. The ash trees that were imported and were later the first trees to test positive for ash dieback disease were not inspected by the Department on arrival, as there are no input controls at member states' borders within the EU. The EU is a single market and all goods, including plants, are not generally checked on arrival into Ireland from other member states. Under European plant health legislation, there are legally based rules around the movement of plants and plant products within the EU. For example, conifer logs from the Continent are free to travel between most countries on the Continent but are not permitted to land in Ireland because we are free of most of the bark beetles that are present in those logs.
I acknowledge that there are major difficulties in the forestry sector relating to licensing. I have been engaging intensively with all relevant stakeholders on this issue and know what is happening. I am aware that the current delays in issuing licences have led to serious difficulties for people involved in the forestry industry. Everyone in this room knows that the licensing and appeals system has come under significant pressure in the past two years. This is not a situation that can be resolved immediately or through a single action. It requires many different solutions and I would like to outline to the committee the many steps that we are taking to help resolve matters.
We reached a point during the summer where close to 100% of certain licences were being appealed and the appeals system was overwhelmed. This was an unsustainable situation and why I moved quickly to introduce the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020. I acknowledge the contribution made to the Act's passage by Members of both Houses and the staff in my Department, who worked hard on it. It was concluded on 7 October and the implementing regulations were introduced immediately afterwards.
These initiatives are already having an impact. We now have four forestry appeals committees in place, up from one less than six weeks ago. The Act allows for other improvements in the appeals process in line with other planning systems, such as enabling the forestry appeals committee, FAC, to determine appeals without an oral hearing where appropriate and the introduction of reasonable fees, which I have done. Importantly, I should emphasise that the FAC is completely independent of my Department. I am confident that these changes will make the system significantly more efficient and fairer for applicants and appellants.
As the committee knows, my Department is the sole licensing authority for all afforestation, forest road and felling applications. All licences must be issued in compliance with EU and national environmental legislation, including the 1992 EU habitats directive.
It is essential, therefore, that all licences are issued in full compliance with the relevant regulations and that the integrity of the licensing process is fully upheld. Due to changes in the interpretation of environmental law, we have had to overhaul completely our appropriate assessment procedures in the past 18 months. The complexity involved in developing and resourcing a new approach to assessing these licences should not be underestimated. We now have a robust and reliable procedure in place.
These delays, however, have led to a backlog of some 1,900 files on our system for consideration. This backlog, which is a subset of our overall licensing output, is of particular concern to me and I am anxious that we resolve it as quickly as possible. We are committed in a project plan to key performance indicators for this cohort of licences that we are not meeting and we must redouble our efforts to do this. We are tackling this backlog through a dedicated project plan. A project manager is in place and a project management board is overseeing and monitoring delivery weekly. We have invested heavily in extra ecologists and now employ 16 full-time equivalent ecologists where previously we had one. Ten additional forestry inspectors have been recruited to deliver on the plan. This is already yielding progress with an increase in output month on month.
I understand that my Department is now sharing with the committee the weekly dashboard of outputs. In that, members will start to see early signs of progress with October bringing the highest output this year. We issued 12 new forestry licences every day in October and more than 300 licences for the month. Our aim is to sustain and grow this level of output. Productivity will improve further as experience grows and as we adjust and review the system to make it more effective. Additional resources will also help. We have also provided updated guidance and advice to companies on how to maximise the quality of their applications, and we are committed to working with all stakeholders to resolve this.
I assure the committee that I am very much committed to turning this situation around and believe we have the right processes and people in place to do so. Notwithstanding the current difficulties, we must look to the future. The Government is committed to the development of a new climate Bill, and forestry will be a key part of that. We have huge potential to increase our forest cover from 11% and I am determined to put in place the strategies and programmes to deliver this. There is a clear opportunity to do this as we have the second lowest forest cover in Europe. To do so will require an ambitious new national forestry programme. It will need to be transformative in nature to encourage farmer uptake and to garner societal support. I will therefore be looking for a partnership between the political system, businesses, State bodies, farmers and communities in developing a vision for forestry. We will start the discussion on this shortly and I look forward to the committee's views on that. I thank members for their attention.