Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine díospóireacht -
Friday, 29 Jan 2021

Challenges for the Forestry Sector: Department of Agriculture and the Marine

I welcome everyone to the meeting. Apologies have been sent by Deputy Michael Healy-Rae. The Deputy said that he would have liked to have been here but that he is not able to be within the Dáil precincts today.

I remind members that in the context of the current Covid-19 restrictions, only the Chairman and staff are present in the committee room and that all members must join remotely from elsewhere within the parliamentary precincts. The secretariat can issue invitations to join the meeting on Microsoft Teams. Members may not participate in the meeting from outside the parliamentary precincts. Members should mute their microphones when they are not making contributions and use the "raise hand" function to indicate if they wish to speak. Speaking slots will be prioritised for members of the committee.

The agenda today is to discuss the challenges facing the forestry sector. This is one of a series of meetings the committee has been holding to discuss the forestry sector. After today's meeting, it is hoped that the committee will be able to put together a report and recommendations to the Minister on the sector.

I welcome the officials from the Department of Agriculture and the Marine, Mr. Colm Hayes, assistant secretary, Mr. Seamus Dunne, chief forestry inspector, and Ms Patricia Kelly, head of forestry division, all of whom join us remotely. We have received the opening statement, which has been circulated to members. We are limited in our time due to Covid-19 safety restrictions so the committee has agreed that the opening statement will be taken as read so we can make full use of the session for questions and answers.

Before we begin, I have an important notice on parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Those participating in the committee meeting from a location outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that the constitutional protections afforded to those participating within the parliamentary precincts do not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether or the extent to which their participation is covered by absolute privilege of a statutory nature.

We had a meeting here with the Minister of State, Senator Pippa Hackett, and her officials, some four or five weeks before Christmas and there was significant disquiet - to put it mildly - with some of the answers and information we got on that day. The committee gets the dashboard from the Department each week, which is most helpful. It is six months since the Department set targets for itself in respect of the industry. Unfortunately, every week we see that the Department is coming in significantly below its self-prescribed targets for forestry. There has been much focus in the past on felling licences. I have received a great deal of communication in recent weeks from the private sector from people who feel that there is a serious bias towards Coillte in the issuing of felling licences at the moment and that the private sector is not getting its fair share of licences. There is a serious shortfall in afforestation and in the issuing of licences. If we do not plant now, in 30 years people will say "What was Ireland doing and why was there such a shortfall in planting in these years?" I hope we will get answers from the Department on how these issues will be addressed.

As matters stand, we will be lucky to hit 20% of the afforestation target in the programme for Government. That is a serious issue. As I have said, the private sector also has serious issues with felling. The other issue on which I would like to hear the Department's proposals is ash dieback, which is an issue we have dealt with in a previous meeting. Forest owners who are affected by ash dieback feel extremely aggrieved. I would like to hear from the Department officials whether they have plans or proposals on dealing with ash dieback.

Deputy Carthy was the first to indicate that he wanted to speak. He had indicated to me that he must attend a meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts and asked to be given the first opportunity to speak. Due to his clash of engagements, I will allow Deputy Carthy to put the first set of questions to the Department officials. We cannot hear Deputy Carthy. His microphone must be muted.

I can hear Deputy Carthy.

We could not hear Deputy Carthy here in the committee room but I think some of the other participants could. Now that that has been sorted out, would he mind starting again?

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach and I thank him for his indulgence. I thank the guests for their attendance.

The figures that have been presented in the Department's opening statement set out the challenge we are currently facing. The State has a target of over 8,000 ha to be planted per annum. Last year, licences to approve 4,300 ha were issued but only 2,433 ha were actually planted. This equates to about a 25% success rate. Considering that applications were granted in previous years that one would have expected to come on stream this year, the Department should give a rationale as to why the response has been so slow in terms of actual planting.

A set of figures we received from an outside body shows there is obviously a real problem in encouraging and enticing farmers to participate in the afforestation programme. That has had and will have serious implications if it is not tackled. In 2014, 96% of all afforestation was carried out by farmers. That occurred in a year when around 6,500 ha were planted. In 2020, according to the figures we have received, about 24% of afforestation was carried out by farmers and this was in a year in which around 2,500 ha were planted. The removal of the farmer premium appears to be a particular issue that needs to be addressed. Do our guests have a position on that?

The second issue that has come up concerns the Natura impact statements, NIS. This is an issue because they can be expensive but also because of the apparent new two-tier system put in place by the Department. It allows those who can have an NIS carried out privately to be fast-tracked in the process so that they receive approval within two to three months, whereas this can take several years for those who cannot afford it privately. As I understand it, the average cost of an NIS is about €1,100 to €1,300 per year. Can the Department give clarification on this two-tier system? Does it accept that it discriminates against smaller holdings and the participation of farmers in this scheme? Does it have proposals to address this issue?

I understand a proposal has been made for a form of planning grant to be provided to private forestry applications from farmers. Has that been given any consideration?

I note in the opening statement that last year approximately 34% of new planting was broadleaf. This was a welcome increase from approximately 21% just three years ago. It meant the 30% broadleaf planting target was met for the first time. Do the officials accept that, to balance out years of historic failure in this regard, we need to substantially increase that percentage? What measures are being put in place to encourage further development of broadleaf planting?

Finally, with respect to the proposal from Bord na Móna for planting on its land, we have seen in different parts of the country the disaster that has occurred when peatland is planted with forestry. We have seen mudslides. There is clearly a big question as to the environmental benefit of planting on peatland, which is quite a useful source of carbon sequestration. There appears to be a problem in that much of the land used for afforestation is peripheral land. Land that might be considered more premium has not been considered for forestry, either by private sources, local farmers or anybody else for that matter. I ask the officials to give a view on how they could change that.

Mr. Colm Hayes

We are here to build on the November session with the Minister. As the Chairman said, our statement is taken as read. It does contain some important updates and I am delighted that it has been circulated. There have been a number of updates across forestry since November, which does not seem that long ago. The Chairman has asked us to focus today on licensing and ash dieback and we will do that.

I counted five questions altogether from Deputy Carthy. Please remind me if I miss one but I will try and deal with them as they arose.

The first question is on why planting rates are below the approvals rate. As the Deputy pointed out, approximately 4,300 ha were approved in 2019 and only approximately 2,400 ha planted. There are a number of explanations. The highest months for approvals came at the end of the year and we expect these licences to have a three-year duration. Some of this planting will inevitably take place this year but once we grant the licence, it is at the discretion of the landowner and the forestry company as to whether they wish to proceed. There is an issue, which we have flagged previously, with the low conversion rate from approvals to planting, which does not happen in felling and roads. Usually approximately 60% of all hectares approved end up being planted. That is something that is in everybody's interest to resolve given the difficulties there are right now in the processing of a licence.

Our figures would show that the sector has just under 5,000 ha at its disposal, which are completely out of appeals. Inevitably, landowners will change their minds. I am sure the delay in issuing licences has played its part. We would hold our hands up on that. There are a number of factors but there is almost a need to talk to landowners and companies individually as to the exact reasons. As we have said, it is certainly our goal, and it should be everybody's goal, to drive up the conversion rate of number of hectares approved to number of hectares planted, and to make it almost one for one if we can, although we accept some fall-off.

The issue of the farmer premium and non-farmer premium has arisen. There was a decision taken in the current forestry programme to flatten those into one level. As Deputy Carthy rightly points out, it has caused the previous ratio to disappear.

There are now more people who plant classified as non-farmers than farmers. This is an issue. The last thing we want to see is farmers disengaging from afforestation. We absolutely see them as central and core to planting. They are the biggest landowners. As many people point out, forestry offers a fantastic alternative land use for farmers and an alternative and secure income as well, so we want to see them engaged. It would be a huge pity if that was not the case. Ultimately, on the question of whether there should be a distinction between the non-farmer and farmer rate, we have extended the current forestry programme but we are kicking off the drafting of a new national forest strategy. I have no doubt this will be one of the issues but that is probably the place for it to be discussed. At its heart, we want farmers to be engaged as well.

The question of a planning grant is something that was recommended in the Mackinnon report last year. As I noted in the submission to the committee, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, has commissioned Jo O'Hara, an external consultant, to advise her on the implementation of the Mackinnon report. I am fairly certain that is something that will feature there. We set out our stall in terms of dealing with this crisis last summer. We made it clear that dealing with volume was what this sector needed to stabilise things. The number of licences does not always equate to volume, be it hectares or kilometres. A good quality NIS that comes in from an applicant makes our life easier. If one's side is screened in, there are two ways in which one can have it dealt with. A good quality NIS coming in is something that helps us. We flagged that up and interested applicants availed of that.

There is a question on broadleaf planting. We welcome the increase to 34% last year. That did not come about by accident, but as a result of targeted policy changes. Many members of the committee will be aware of the midterm review of the forestry programme in 2018 when we got a significant increase of approximately 8% in the rates for broadleaf grants and premiums. We have developed a number of other initiatives. As members of the committee may have seen, last week the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, participated in an initiative with Aldi, which wants to plant 1 million native trees in partnership with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine under the woodland environmental fund. It is a public-private model. A number of initiatives have taken the rate of broadleaf planting from 21% to 34%.

I will go back to the point on the national forest strategy. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, has made it quite clear that native woodlands and broadleaf trees must play a bigger role. The policy forum for discussing that will be the national forest strategy. It is definitely on the right road. It has taken a sharp increase, which is very much related to the policy changes that have been made. Farmers, to their credit, and forestry companies have responded. We are very pleased with that.

Deputy Carthy's final question was on planting on peatlands and the role of Bord na Móna. The Department is certainly aware that Bord na Móna and Coillte are collaborating on a potential, very significant, native woodland project to plant native woodlands on former cutaway bogs. At face value, it is something we absolutely support because it is very clear that if we are to achieve the planting targets set out in the climate action plan and the programme for Government, we are going to need all landowners to plant trees. I refer not just to farmers, but to public bodies with big tracts of land as well. Of course, the planting of native woodlands on peatlands will be done with full environmental compliance at its heart. We know that Coillte and Bord na Móna are working on an environmental impact assessment which we expect to receive in the near future. There is no question of this being planted without the full environmental rigours being applied. If it is not suitable, it is not suitable. If it is suitable, it would be fantastic but it is an open question at the moment. We wait to see what the environmental impact assessment, EIA, will show us.

I hope I have answered Deputy Carthy's questions.

When the officials are answering questions, will they indicate who is going to answer first. I ask that the answers could be kept fairly brief because there is a huge number of questions to be asked by the committee members. As I said in my opening remarks, we are a long way off hitting the targets we set six months ago. I would like to see a focus. The question was asked as to why there has been a huge drop in farmers planting trees. We will go back to that because we have two hours to deal with everything. Why farmers are deserting afforestation is an issue that must be addressed today.

I will ask some individual questions for the officials in my five-minute slot. The weekly dashboard in November shows that the Department issued only 84 private licences. That does not reflect the Department's target of reaching 200 files. In November, the committee was informed that 16 ecologists had been hired and at the time there were 84 files on hand. Each ecologist was dealing with five files per month or one file per week. How much are the extra ecology resources costing the Department and the taxpayer? I do not believe there is good value for the taxpayer here, particularly when one considers the number of ecologists versus the number of files being processed.

Which of the officials to take that question?

Mr. Colm Hayes

I will clarify for the Deputy. We have three strands to our licensing programme. There is the Coillte strand and then there are two different categories of licence. The Deputy referred to November when 84 files came off the project plan. There were, however, 91 other private licences that also issued in November. These did not go near the ecology private plan. That is 175 licences for the private sector for the month of November. I am glad to have the opportunity to clarify that. The project plan is one subset of the overall licences and the average of about 300 licences per month since October is made up of Coillte, private ecology and private non-ecology. In private licence terms, when one combines the two for the month of November, it was some 175 licences.

There is no question that those figures would not have been achieved without the input of the resources and the additional ecologists. The starting salary for an ecologist is approximately €32,000, but I would have to check that figure for the Deputy. This might give the committee an indication of the costs involved. There is no way we were going to get from the base where we were to 300 licences a month without that investment in resources. As an investment it is growing. The committee will receive our dashboard on Monday for the month of January, but I expect the figure for January to be somewhere around 350 licences. Again, this dwarfs anything we did in any month last year. It is a process of continual improvement. Ecologists come in, they must be trained and they have to get up to speed. When they do get up to speed, it starts to come through. It is from October, November and December onward that we start to see the benefit. The onus is on us to take that to the next level for the remainder of the year.

At the rate of-----

I am sorry Deputy. A specific question was asked about the cost. If Mr. Hayes does not have the exact figure, we would like the Department to supply it as quickly as possible.

The Chairman is right in saying that. I was going to touch on the matter. At the rate of one file per week per ecologist, as we are seeing currently, how long will it take to clear the backlog?

I presume the ecologists are costing big money. As taxpayers and committee members we want to see a larger turnover of files. The current rate of turnover of files is not good value for money. It was mentioned that there was a great deal of work involved. How long will it take to clear the current backlog based on the rate at which files are currently being processed?

Mr. Colm Hayes

To be clear, the 16 ecologists are spread across the strands of the licensing. Some of them are working on Coillte licences and others on private licences. In regard to the 300 licences, the output is a mix of the output across the 16 ecologists. In the context of a sector that is worth €2 billion annually to the economy and is in crisis, it is an investment that is absolutely essential in our view. In this day and age, it is not possible to function without ecology resources being at the heart of everything we do. That applies to the forestry companies as much as it applies to us.

In terms of the question, we have about 1,900 licences in what we classify as our ecology backlog. We have set ourselves targets this year which will involve clearance of that backlog by the end of the year. That is a massive challenge. We would hope to have the capacity to do more in terms of files that are screened in for ecology. In overall terms, we processed about 2,500 licences last year. We would be very hopeful that we can process somewhere in the region of 4,500 licences this year, which will be an 80% increase on licences issued in the last year. That is a massive challenge. I cannot underestimate the challenge when it comes to an individual licence. Part of the work in regard to the 4,500 licences will involve the clearing of the backlog of files on the ecology work list in addition to the private files which do not go near ecology and the Coillte files as well. I hope this gives the Deputy and the committee an indication of where we see the broad outlook for the year.

Mr. Hayes might come back to me on the number of ecologists in the different sections. He mentioned that there are a number of them within Coillte. Is that the reason Coillte is getting more applications through than are coming through for the private sector? I ask Mr. Hayes to have a look at that and come back to me on it.

What is the administrative cost to the Department in 2021 to achieve 2,300 ha? If Mr. Hayes does not have that information available to him today, he might come back to me or the committee on it.

I am conscious that other members are waiting to get in. The industry stakeholders have submitted a very detailed and costed proposal to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to help alleviate the ecology crisis. I have read the Mackinnon report. The industry stakeholder recommendation is also in the Mackinnon report. It is clear from the dashboard that committee members receive on a weekly basis that the current approach is not working and will not work. Has the Department and the witnesses as officials considered the proposal from the stakeholders and advised in the Mackinnon report? If so, is it proposed to implement it or leave it to one side? What is the plan in that regard?

Mr. Colm Hayes

There are three parts to the Deputy's question. First, there are approximately 150 staff in the Department who work on forestry at any one time. I am not sure if we have a breakdown of costs because they vary across grades, structures and roles but that will give the Deputy an idea of the number of people working on forestry. I will do my best to get those costs for the Deputy.

We hold up our hands that while there has been substantial progress, it is very uneven and afforestation is not progressing the way we or the stakeholders would like it to be progressing. It is also not progressing in the way that felling or roads are progressing. I do not make any bones about that. We do not try to pretend that it is progressing the way we want it to progress. It needs to be a clear focus this year. Evening out that progress would be a good thing by bringing everybody up to enjoy some of the benefits that we have seen in felling that have not been seen on afforestation.

The Deputy mentioned the Mackinnon report, which I touched on in response to Deputy Carthy. The Minister has commissioned an external consultant to advise on the implementation of Mackinnon. We expect that report to be with the Minister at the end of February. It will also be sent to the Minister's new forestry policy group, which includes the stakeholders.

I cannot say for certain but I would expect that Jo O'Hara's report will touch on that, how it might work and the merits of a planting grant, as it has been called. I reserve judgement on that. We do not have any view for or against. We will wait to see what the report brings at the end of next month.

The dashboard shows that, of all the licences issued by the Department in November, December and January, only 15% were afforestation. I stated at the previous committee meeting in December that this strategy is absolutely killing off the private sector. I come from the private sector and worked there for many years. We will see the loss of more jobs. I stressed the last day that millions of trees will be dumped and destroyed that the private sector have put in place to meet the afforestation targets. Through no fault of that sector, it will have to dump trees if 2021 is in any way similar to 2019 or 2020. The Department says it hopes to meet its targets but, given the importance of deforestation and considering the Government's climate change commitments, why are afforestation licences being sacrificed as the Department fails to deliver enough licences overall? To achieve the 8,000 ha of afforestation, how many licences for planting would the Department need to issue weekly when the existing conversion rates from approval to planting are considered? I am sure the witnesses, as officials, will have that worked out.

Before Mr. Hayes answers, I say in support of Deputy Kehoe that targets for afforestation are part of the programme for Government. We are roughly meeting only 20% of those targets now. It is a serious issue. I welcome the Department's target for 4,500 licences this year and we will monitor that closely. Deputy Kehoe raised afforestation. Will Mr. Hayes give as concise answer as he can because many other members are looking to come in?

Mr. Colm Hayes

I repeat that we fully recognise that progress over recent months has been uneven. I go back to the original point. The conversion rate is a concern and the sector has just under 5,000 ha available to it now, but I appreciate not all landowners may want to go ahead with a licence that has been received. However, it is there and it has gone through the system. It behoves us all to ensure that every licence application that comes in is a viable one. In proportional terms, we received 3,300 applications last year. We get about double the amount in felling that we get in afforestation. We are not going to get a one-for-one output. The Deputy is correct to point out that afforestation has been a bit behind the curve. It is a concern to us because we are well aware of the Government's commitments and afforestation targets. Nobody wants to see a 2021 that is like 2020. That is absolutely sure. We will do everything we can to make sure that is not the case.

"A bit behind the curve" is putting it mildly.

Can I make a brief comment? It is not a question.

Looking at the "Ear to the Ground" programme before Christmas, if I was in the private sector, I would be put off from planting or considering forestry and, unless the Department changes its messaging and does what needs to be done despite the huge problems and issues there, it will not encourage any private sector farmer to plant forestry. It must annoy somebody in the private sector when they see the licences of Coillte going through and it is highlighted in the witnesses' statement. If I was a private guy reading their statement today, I would be disgusted by the couple of lines it contains about Coillte. We depend on the private sector as well as Coillte.

I thank the witnesses. I will ask quick-fire questions. They might give me short, sharp answers because I have a good few questions.

I will start with questions for Mr. Dunne. How long on average does it take to process applications for forestry, planting or road licences?

Mr. Seamus Dunne

I do not have that figure to hand. Perhaps Mr. Hayes does.

Mr. Colm Hayes

We will get the Deputy that figure. There is a range. I can give a definite figure for the licences issued in 2020, when they came in -----

No, I am asking what the average time is since November, whether it is three months, nine months or a year?

If I send in an application to the Department, for planting, felling or a road licence, how long on average is it taking the Department?

Mr. Seamus Dunne

So the question is, on the decisions we have made in the last three months, how long have they been with us?

No, I am asking how long would it take were I to put in an application right now. How long, on average, has it taken over the past three months? If I had put in an application three months ago, would I be through the gate by now? Forget about appeals, I am not talking about that, just the Department. How long has it taken to process an application? It is a simple question.

The second question for Mr. Dunne is whether a forestry inspector is qualified to screen out an application inside a 15 km buffer zone of a designated area. The answer should be "Yes" or "No".

Mr. Seamus Dunne

Yes. That is part of their job. Forestry inspectors do the initial screening. Sometimes they get advice from our ecologists before concluding that. Our standard operating procedure, SOP, is in the public domain and tables around the standard operating procedure, which we issue to the trade that highlight this, are in the public domain. The companies in the sector know our screening procedures. The initial screening is done by the district inspectors.

Lovely, that is grand.

It was brought to my attention and that of the committee that the forestry inspectorate branch of Fórsa sent letters on 17 October 2019, 17 December 2019, 9 January 2020 and 24 July 2020. Mr. Dunne's name was on one letter I have seen. Is Mr. Dunne aware of the concerns expressed in these letters that they were not in a position to be doing this work?

Mr. Seamus Dunne

I am fully aware of the discussions that we had with Fórsa around that time. It is quite normal when -----

Mr. Dunne received the letters, he is aware of them?

Mr. Seamus Dunne

I am fully aware of the letters. We had discussions with Fórsa at the time. Any issues it had were resolved at the time. That issue was closed, I think, in February 2020. I have a letter to that effect.

Lovely, I thank Mr. Dunne.

Is the head ecologist in the Department in charge of all environmental issues? Has he or she the final word?

Mr. Seamus Dunne

That person is not in charge of all environmental issues. There are water issues, landscape issues and lots of other environmental type issues. On ecology issues, however, there is nowhere in the SOPs that would enable a forestry inspector to overrule an ecologist on ecology matters.

Therefore they have the final say on ecology but they have not the final say on anything else, is that correct?

Mr. Seamus Dunne

The way it works is that the district inspector is the licensing inspector for the area. For instance, Roscommon will have a licensing inspector - a district inspector - and such people hold the file. They will consult with the archaeologist if there is an archaeological site or monument present. The Department has in-house archaeologists. The inspector will get advice from them and will get an archaeology report and if that states one must stay 20 m or 30 m back, the inspector will co-operate. The district inspector is the person who integrates the advice, whether it is from an ecologist or archaeologist. If there is concern about the advice, there may be some discussion between the forestry inspector and the ecologist if there are alternatives in terms of mitigation but it is explained in our standard operating procedure that the -----

Must the head of environment in the Department be an ecologist or is that person an ecologist?

Mr. Seamus Dunne

We have a head of environment and a head of ecology. The head of environment deals with many policy matters, the water framework directive and liaising with outside institutes. They are a forestry inspector and a trained forester. Our head of ecology is a trained ecologist.

Mr. Dunne mentioned earlier a not planting figure of about 60%. I totted the figures up quickly. For the Department to hit 8,000 ha per year, it would need to be hitting 14,000 ha in terms of applications. Does the Department realistically believe that will happen?

Mr. Colm Hayes

That was my point. Realistically, we are not going to receive 14,000 ha worth of applications in a year. We are not going to be in a position to approve those so the onus is on everybody to get that 60% figure up. In other words, if 8,000 ha is what is needed to be planted, that requires 9,000 ha of approvals, for example, in a year. The days of the speculative application are gone given all of the difficulties involved in approving a licence. We want to increase that 60% figure as high as possible. I am sure the companies want to increase it also because it is an investment on their part. Everybody has skin in this game and I believe we all want to see the same outcome.

I thank Mr. Dunne. I will deal with Mr. Hayes now in terms of my questions. Mr. Dunne stated that he was aware of the Fórsa letters that were sent to the Department and its HR section. Mr. Hayes is assistant Secretary General. He said at the previous meeting that he was not aware of anything like that happening.

Mr. Colm Hayes

No. If I recall correctly, the Deputy asked me if I was aware of any current issues with regard to forestry inspectors doing the screening. I said I was not aware-----

I asked Mr. Hayes-----

Mr. Colm Hayes

-----because there are no current issues.

Hold on now. We can go back on his answer.

Allow Mr. Hayes to give his answer, please.

I asked Mr. Hayes if he was aware that forestry inspectors had issues in that they did not want to carry out the works and that they had made the Department aware of that "in your Department". Those were the exact words I used. Mr. Hayes said he was not aware of it. Is he aware of what Mr. Dunne said he was aware of?

Mr. Colm Hayes

I am and I as absolutely aware all along of the correspondence and the engagement between the Department and Fórsa. It would be completely remiss of me if I was not. I interpreted the Deputy's question on the previous occasion and I answered it in this regard. I was asked if there were any current issues on this and I answered "No" because there were no current issues then. There are no current issues now. As far as we are concerned the matter was resolved back in February of last year.

Mr. Colm Hayes

There is no point of difference here in terms of Mr. Dunne's answer and mine.

When he was before the committee in November, Mr. Hayes referred to 1,900 applications and he looked at me as if I had not added up the figures right. In fact, I was short. There were 4,500 applications. How could Mr. Hayes come before the committee and be that amount short in terms of the figures?

Mr. Colm Hayes

I reviewed the transcript of the discussion on the previous day. The Deputy asked the number of licences that were stuck in the system.

Mr. Colm Hayes

To me, the term "stuck in the system" refers to licences that have been screened in and have to be placed on an ecology work list and in respect of which a backlog had developed over the previous 12 months.

Mr. Hayes is just twisting words.

Mr. Colm Hayes


Mr. Hayes should be allowed finish his answer and Deputy Fitzmaurice can come back in then.

Mr. Colm Hayes

At any one point we always have 4,000 to 5,000 licences on hand. It is probably more now because of the backlog. It is not an agri-environment scheme. There is no set deadline. Applications come in every day and licences are issued every day. It is like the Passport Office or the National Driver Licence Service. It is a continuous service. As I said, Deputy Fitzmaurice asked me on the previous occasion how many are stuck in the system and I indicated that it was approximately 1,900, which was and is the figure. When we presented our project plan to the sector last July, for example, the figure was in the region of 1,750 but it clearly said that this is the cohort of files which are on the ecology backlist. It does not include Coillte. It does not include files which are not screened in for ecology. The Deputy will see that every month in terms of the licences that are issued. If there was a misrepresentation on my part, I put my hands up but there was absolutely no misleading of the committee and we clarified that as quickly as we could afterwards.

My interpretation would be that if I am Joe Farmer, Coillte or a multinational that sends in an application, from the day it goes in to the day it is processed, be it an ecologist or whoever has to look at it, it is in the Department's system from beginning to end until a decision has been made one way or the other. Does Mr. Hayes agree?

Mr. Colm Hayes

I agree, but at our previous meeting with the committee Deputy Fitzmaurice used the phrase "stuck in the system". If we look at the afforestation licences that issued this morning, some of the applications would have come in four or five weeks ago. I do not regard those as being stuck in the system. Absolutely not. These are applications that came in and were processed and the licences were issued as quickly as they possibly could be. One has to wait at least a minimum of 30 days. Of course, there will be some applications that would go back to last year, some going back to 2019, and unfortunately there may even be some dating back to 2018, but the phrase "stuck in the system" does not relate to something that is applied for and issued one or two months later. There are examples of those kinds of licences being issued every month.

How many are in system - not stuck - from beginning to end, including all the different parts of the system, at this time?

Mr. Colm Hayes

This is a figure that changes every day but I ran the figures this morning in preparation for today's meeting. We gave approximate figures in the opening statement, which I can clarify now. There are 4,436 licences on hand in the Department for processing, of which 2,705 are for felling, 691 are for roads and 1,040 are for afforestation.

The witnesses have stated that there are 200 fewer licences. In November and December, 541 licences were issued, of which 116 were afforestation, 58 were roads and 367 were felling. In the same period, 499 came into the Department. That is a difference of 42. Even if we go on the basis of the 200 that the Department has gained from its own interpretation, from reading the submission would I be correct in saying that to get on top of this fiasco we are looking at six years. Would it be fair to say that if the Department gained 200 in three months and if there are that number of licences in the system, as well as those that are still coming in, it would be six years before we get on top of it?

Mr. Colm Hayes

No. It is not as though the 4,000 licences are the same block. It is a continually changing block of new applications coming in and licences going out. We will never reach a point when we are at zero. That would be impossible. It would be like coming into work in the morning at saying that there is no work on the desk for the day. There is always work there that has to be done. If we ever reach a point where we are at zero, I will have a lot of forestry inspectors and ecologists with nothing to do and it will be a real crisis then because it would mean there would be nothing coming in by way of application. The figure was 4,700 back in October. We have issued 1,200 licences since then but these are replaced by some 900 new applications. That is the way it works and the way it will continue.

I know how it works but if the Department has gained 200 from the problem we had, what figure would Mr. Hayes say is acceptable to the public for licence applications so they could be processed in two or three months? What figure would this be down to instead of 4,500 or 4,600?

Mr. Colm Hayes

That really comes down to the complexity of the individual application. I ask the Deputy to look at it this way; if I had applied in October, I would have seen that the Department had 4,700 applications on its books and that 1,200 of those people have got licences from us since then. It depends on what way one looks at the figures. As I said earlier, the 300 licences per month is not a figure to our satisfaction and we have set ourselves a goal of 4,500 licences this year. It is, however, a moveable feast. We are well aware that there are commitments in the Forestry Acts, for example, four months for a felling licence, which is absolutely where we want to get to. We are not there yet; we are probably a long way away from it. Three months for an afforestation licence would be a very good outcome also. That is absolutely where we want to get to. As the Deputy said, however, there was a massive crisis and we are doing our best to eat into what is there, but the progress has to be approved.

Deputy Fitzmaurice can have one more question and then we will have to move on.

There are licences that issued out of the 169 in the past two months that date back three and four years. I am a farmer. I presume the Department will accept that if farmers are waiting two or three years for decisions, they would move on to something else.

I presume the witnesses accept that. In the past year, were they instructed by a Minister to prioritise Coillte applications?

Mr. Colm Hayes

No. There is no prioritisation of Coillte licences. There was prioritisation around volume to try to drive out the biggest licences in order to stabilise the sector. Many jobs depended on us getting out a lot of volume. The number of licences does not equate to volume. Rightly or wrongly, that was the strategy we adopted in the various project plans. For certain, it is not a long-term sustainable strategy but we are not leaving anybody behind.

I have two short questions.

Hopefully, the Deputy can come back in again later. There are other members waiting to get in.

In regard to the response to the last question, currently the ratio is 7:1 in favour of Coillte over the private sector. I agree that that is not sustainable. The private sector is definitely being negatively discriminated against and that ratio needs to be rebalanced. I call Senator Paul Daly.

Mr. Colm Hayes

Can I come back in?

I have called Senator Daly.

I will be brief. In terms of issues raised the majority of the responses given have been-----

I apologise for interrupting Senator Daly but the secretariat would like members to confirm that they are within the parliamentary precincts. To participate in the meeting they have to be within the parliamentary precincts. Any member not within the parliamentary precinct cannot participate in the meeting.

I confirm that I am in LH2000. I would like to revisit some of the responses given to Deputy Fitzmaurice, which I do not accept. We are going nowhere if that is the quality of responses we are going to be given. It was stated that the number has been reduced from 4,700 to 4,500 since October. Like Deputy Fitzmaurice, while Deputy Kehoe was speaking I did the sums. Giving the Department the benefit of the doubt at every corner by rounding off to its advantage, it is going to take 5.35 years before we reach parity. If we are to reach anywhere near 8,000 ha, the volume of afforestation applications which are due to come in to meet that target will have to increase. I do not accept the answer given.

There is a further question posed by Deputy Fitzmaurice in respect of which I do not accept the answer, that is, how long it takes for a licence to get through the system. With the permission of Deputy Fitzmaurice, I will rephrase that question. What is the target set by the Department for the length of time it should take for a licence to go through the system? I ask the witnesses to please not respond to the effect that the Department does not set targets. Without targets, nothing can be achieved. I would like those questions to be answered more definitively.

I would also like to comment on the statement that the Department is now prioritising by volume. In my opinion, that discriminates against small individual holdings because by virtue of the size of volume the large international operators and Coillte will have the largest volumes. If that is now our philosophy, we are heading for a major car crash. If we are cherry-picking large volume to keep the industry supplied with timber, then when we run out of large applications and have to return to the small ones we will be faced with a major shortfall in the supply of timber to businesses down the line. It will be on record that the Department was the cause of that, if that is the approach it is taking.

I have a final question in regard to ash dieback, in respect of which I would welcome a brief comment from the witnesses. The opening statement states that over 250 applications have been submitted and that the Department has communicated directly with the majority of the applicants and the remainder will receive notification this week. I would like clarification on whether that communication is just an acknowledge of receipt or if any action is being taken. I have been contacted by a number of people who have applied for the reconstitution and underplanting scheme, RUS, and have received only an acknowledgement of that application. There has been no action and there does not appear to be any plan of action for them going forward.

On ash dieback, are there any fresh proposals coming from the Department? On the basis of what I am hearing from the people affected by it, what is on the table is not satisfactory.

Who wants to answer the questions posed by Senator Daly?

Mr. Colm Hayes

In October, we had 4,700 licences on hand and we have since issued 1,200 licences in four months approximately so that would mean 3,600 licences in a year. Working off those figures, that means 3,600 of the 4,700 licences will be gone by this October so 12 months on and not five years. Those licences will be replaced by new ones and we will deal with those when they come in. We are not satisfied with an output of 3,600 licences for the year. We have upped the figure to 4,500 licences which will mean that more or less see everything that was in with us last October will be gone.

Senator Daly specifically asked whether targets have been set for each sector. Whether it is felling licences, afforestation licences or thinning licences, has the Department set targets for the length of time it should take to get them out of the system?

Mr. Colm Hayes

The targets have been set for us via the Forestry Act. I think that there is a commitment in the farmers' charter as well of a target of four months for felling licences and three months for afforestation licences. We do not claim to meet those targets and I touched on that already with Deputy Fitzmaurice. The Mackinnon report recommends the drafting of a new customer charter. A charter would be timely, set targets and review them again but we are not meeting them. There will be some people who will get their licences in less than three or four months if it is a straightforward licence but there will be people who will have to wait longer. Obviously it is the question of the people who must wait longer that troubles us the most.

I suggest, Mr. Hayes, that in the next couple of weeks, in addition to the forestry licence dashboard, we get a timeframe for the licences that were issued, exactly how long they were in the system, how many were done within the set targets, and how many were three, six, 12 or whatever months over the target. If that information was on the dashboard then we could see how many of the licences issued were in the system. That would be a good barometer for us to see how efficiently the licence system is operating.

Mr. Colm Hayes

That is no problem.

A lot of my questions have not been answered.

Sorry, Senator, that could be my fault as I interrupted.

Mr. Seamus Dunne

A question was asked about ash dieback. There are no plans to review the grant and the scheme. A clearance grant of €1,000 per hectare is available for both under-planting and reconstitution. In addition, the reconstitution grant rates are equivalent to the afforestation grant rates.

In terms of the scheme, we have received 250 applications. We have acknowledged 190 of the applications. I do not know the number out with inspectors at the moment. We have issued approvals and Ms Kelly might be able to tell us the figure. I know that a handful of approvals have already been issued under the scheme. We are starting to go through those at the moment. We have issued very few approvals but 250 applications have been submitted to the scheme.

I also asked about the prioritisation of licensing by volume.

Mr. Colm Hayes

There is an issue but it should not be turned into a Coillte versus private debate because whatever Coillte gets services the private sector so it is all output. Every licence application that comes in whether it is from Coillte or a private applicant is very much treated in the same way in terms of the environmental assessment and public consultation. Rightly or wrongly, given the imminent threat to jobs in the entire forestry sector last summer, we prioritised volume.

We presented that to the sector. My interpretation was that it was on board with that and saw it as something that should be in place as a short-term solution. We do not view it as anything more than a short-term solution either, but I believe it was needed. When we are trying to knock a mountain, we try to chip off as many big blocks as we can.

There is one figure that surprises people. Of the 5 million cu. m of timber issued last year under felling licences, some 2.7 million cu. m was for Coillte and 2.3 million cu. m was private. It is a 52% to 48% breakdown, not the divide that people assume. That has continued into January and that is the way we want to continue. We certainly do not want to leave anyone behind. That was a strategy at a point in time but it is certainly not a long-term strategy - that is for sure.

The figures at the moment are heavily biased in favour of Coillte. The ratio as between Coillte and the private sector was 7:1 on the dashboard in the second week of January.

My thanks to the members and the witnesses. Unfortunately, the pace of licensing and decisions from the forestry appeals committee is nowhere near where it needs to be. This is the key to addressing the short-term supply issue that continues to decimate the industry, especially sawmills such as Grainger sawmills in west Cork, which employs up to 500 people. Some 2,700 licences were issued by the Department in 2020. The figure needs to be closer to 5,000 this year to meet industry requirements. The numbers need to increase further in the long term. As noted, some 2,700 licences were issued by the Department last year but the industry requirement is for 5,000 every year as well as dealing with the backlog. Some 400 of the licences issued by the Department were appealed and there are still 400 in the forestry appeals committee.

I have several questions. We have a full-scale emergency impacting the entire forestry and timber industries. It poses an ongoing threat to the future of 12,000 jobs throughout Ireland, including 500 jobs in Grainger sawmills. This is a priority for me and my constituents as well as the many farmers who are without licences and cannot cut down trees or get the raw materials that sawmills need to operate. This is the question I need answered. As I outlined, the industry requirement is for 5,000 or more licences per year. How many licences will the Department issue in 2021? It issued 2,000 licences last year.

There is a backlog of files in the Department and it is going nowhere. There seems to be no plan for getting through it. Will the Department write to each applicant in respect of each file and give the applicant a clear statement of where the file is, what will happen with it and when? Does the Department accept that its current system is simply not able to cope with demands placed on it by the sector? Should the Department not realise that it needs to change its system and processes if it is to meet the needs of the sector and allow it to function formally? Will the Department admit that ordinary people - farmers, forest owners and wood processors - have heavily invested throughout the country and are being let down by the system? These people cannot fell their crops or plant trees. Can the Department give these people any reassurance around their needs?

There is a related issue in respect of the horticulture of peat. Can limited extraction licences for peat be granted immediately? Can Bord na Móna and others be directed to work with the forestry industry to use international experience on the preparation of bark and nursery stock production use? Can supports and education be provided to the nursery industry immediately to allow transition to alternative growing as a matter of priority? We are looking at importing peat from Scotland, Norway and further afield as well as other materials like core from south-east Asia, with terrible environmental consequences. There are several questions there but I would appreciate if we could get answers to them.

Mr. Colm Hayes

My thanks to Deputy Collins. I will address the final question first. Horticulture and peat are not my areas but I will take a note of the question and ask someone to respond to the Deputy directly.

We have set out our stall on the main question. For this year, we see ourselves increasing by 80% the number of licences issued compared with last year, which was not a good year.

I have set a figure of 4,500 licences for the year as our output. It really depends on the volume that those licences hold but in previous years the number of licences issued by the Department is usually between 4,000 and 5,000. It was a bit higher in 2019 but that figure was skewed by a large number of Coillte thinning licences. Our target is an 80% increase on last year. I could not possibly underestimate the challenge in getting that out. However, the improvement since October has given us hope that we can get there and certainly there is no effort being spared in investment in resources. We went back to the market last week for more ecologists. Every new person means more output and we want to continue that.

We started the year as we mean to go on, with 350 licences in January. That is 830,000 tonnes of timber which I think will be the end of month figure. If it is, that is a very solid start to the year and one we would like to drive on. That is our target and strategy for the year. I would think that Grainger's and the people the Deputy referenced would be pleased if, by December, I was reporting figures of that order.

On the backlog of files in the Department that are going nowhere, there seems to be no plan for getting through these. Will the Department write to each applicant in relation to these files giving them a clear statement as to where the file is, what will happen to it and when?

Mr. Colm Hayes

That is something we can review. It would be a huge task for people that might otherwise be processing licences. Licences do move. I could write to people today but their licence could be in very different position next week. However, good communication is something that we value. We set up a direct project management unit last year where people can make direct contact if they are looking for progress on their licence. I certainly encourage them to avail of that. I will certainly review the Deputy's question and see what is possible.

I thank the officials for coming before the committee to discuss this very important issue. I have been hearing from the industry that we are dealing with a scenario in which Coillte has gone from having anything up to ten auctions per year to only two last year. The first one so far this year will be in the first quarter. The lack of timber going through the system is a huge issue for confidence in the industry. One of the biggest issues the Department has is to try to get confidence back into the sawmills, the growers and the hauliers because there is a huge issue of confidence there unfortunately.

I wish to look at issues regarding licences not relating to Coillte but involving ecology. I have looked at figures over the last week. The Department set out a quota plan last June that could have put a licensing stream in place for what it considered to be a crisis. On that stream, which was to be licences excluding Coillte but involving ecology, the Department proposed: 75 licences in August, of which 56 were delivered; 120 in September, of which 60 were delivered; 140 in October, of which 79 were delivered; 200 in November, of which 84 were delivered; and 200 in December, of which 60 were delivered. This meant that only 60% of the Department's targets were hit in that category. That is a huge issue because it leaves approximately 1,900 or 2,000 licences in that backlog. It is a huge issue as to how to clear that backlog.

I take it that the Department is saying that the entire backlog is going to be cleared in the next 12 months and that the 1,900 licences in that category are going to be cleared by 1 December 2021. That is a really significant step because form has shown, unfortunately, that the Department has delivered approximately 50% of what it previously said it had delivered. Can I get an assurance from the Department that it is guaranteeing that the entire backlog will be cleared by the end of this year?

Mr. Colm Hayes

The Senator can be absolutely assured of our commitment to clean that out this year. They are the most complex files for a reason. It is because they are screened in. They require far more in-depth analysis than any other type of licence but we are well aware there are files on that list that have been there for too long. As part of the 4,500 licences we hope to issue this year, cleaning out that list is certainly one of our priorities.

In June last year, the Department presented its plan for processing forestry licences, laying out the key performance indicators that it would achieve from June 2020 into early 2021. A major focus of that was the extra staff it would hire. We are now seven months into the plan. Why are we only hitting 46% of the targets for private licences when it keeps telling us about its additional resources? Meanwhile, 60% of felling licences were issued to Coillte. While it maintains it wants to enable the delivery of higher output, should it not rethink its approach and bring more equality to the situation of the private operators?

When we talk about felling licences, is it not the case that there was a lower number of felling applications in 2020 than in previous years? In 2017, there were 3,300; 2018, 5,900; 2019, 3,300; and 2020, 1,700. There is poor performance even with the lower application numbers and the increased staff. Can the Department account for that? Who has overall responsibility for the targets it has set?

On the presentation of data we keep getting, the volume system is completely misleading as the Department is also double-counting the volume. Following the commencement of the Forestry Act 2014, forestry owners are able to apply for multiple harvest events on the same forest plot in a felling licence application. However, when this information is being reported in the tables provided, any area that has been applied for thinning and clearfell has been included in each column. For example, if a 10 ha block is applied for thinning in 2020 and clearfell in 2025, those 10 ha will be registered as 10 ha in the thinning column, 10 ha in the clearfell column and 20 ha in the total column. A 10 ha licence application is presented by the Department as a 20 ha official license area.

When a farmer is forced into an unthin management system due to delays getting either a forest road or a felling licence from the Department, it means that farmer has no income for their forest until clearfell. The earnings from the timber crop will be reduced by 10,000 per hectare. Is the Department going to compensate farmers for the loss of earnings incurred?

Why, when the committee asked for a total number of licences backlog, was the Department selective in the figures it produced and referenced only those in ecology?

I have a couple of quick observations on ash dieback. Under the reconstitution and underplanting scheme, RUS, applicants must now get planning permission from the county council where a landowner wishes to replace their diseased ash crop. Under the previous scheme, any replacement conifers up to 10 ha did not require planning permission. Under SI 45 of 2020, the replacement of any area of broadleaf forests with conifer species requires an application to the local authority and its approval before works can commence. Could the Department not be the single consenting authority? There needs to be an urgent amendment to the legislation to rectify that issue and to speed it up. From talking to different organisations and stakeholders, the RUS in its current form is drafted in a way that ignores the fact all ash trees will eventually succumb to the disease. This is apparent in the aid given under the scheme. For example, if a forest has 10% infection, then 10% of the aid is all the owner can avail of. These are suggestions coming from the stakeholders.

Could it be that the answer is reform of the reconstitution and underplanting scheme by: grant aid for 100% clearfell of all ash plantations; grand aid for the replanting of a new crop; doubling the premium period from 15 to 30 years on all replanted sites; offering compensation to the value of the crop at the time of the clearfell; and offering the option not to replant? The Department officials may wish to give us a written reply on the dieback questions but I will take a reply on the other matters now.

We will go over to the Department.

Mr. Seamus Dunne

I will address some of those issues with a written reply. Reference was made to the replacement of broadleaf high forest with conifer species and planning permission. In general, forestry activities are exempt from planning permission. There is an exception where there is replacement of broadleaf high forest with conifer species over 10 ha. The over 10 ha caveat is in the Schedules to the Planning Acts. In particular Schedule 2 to Part 3 of the regulations deals with replacement of broadleaf high forest with conifer species and states, "The area involved shall be less than 10 hectares". There is nothing we can do about it if the area is over 10 ha as it is in the Planning Acts. If the area is under 10 ha and it is screened in for appropriate assessment, it will also require planning permission.

I have taken a note of the other questions and we can include written responses to those. I can give more details on the planning permission situation as well.

Mr. Colm Hayes

I wish to clarify the question around the methodology, because Deputy Martin Browne stated that there is double counting within the methodology. I can assure the Deputy that there absolutely is not. The volume figure is calculated. The sector will be well aware of it because it is a transparent methodology. Coillte operates all clearfell and it provides the volume figure for its own sites, because it is in a position to do so. For private sites we assume a figure of 330 cu. m per hectare where the site is clearfelled and 70 cu. m per hectare where it is thinned. However, if it is a thinning-only licence, it gets 70 cu. m. If it is a felling-only licence, it gets 330 cu. m. If it is a felling and thinning licence, we only include the clearfell figure. If anything, we are on the conservative side because the site will yield more timber over the lifetime of its licence. If anything, we are underestimating the figure. We are absolutely and definitely not overstating it. If it is helpful, I can put this methodology in writing to the committee afterwards.

The other question that Deputy Browne raised was around felling applications in the past year and why the figures were different to previous years. He is absolutely correct to pick up on that. That largely comes down to Coillte. Coillte will generally apply for felling licences in a batch application. Coillte did not do much of that last year but we expect such an application to come in soon, most probably for the Coillte 2022 programme. It is not like the private licences, where there is a steady input of licence applications every week. The inputs and outputs from Coillte applications and licences can skew the figures in any one year. It is important to bear that in mind when studying the figures. I hope that answers the Deputy's question on why the figures in 2020 were a little different to other years.

I accept that but I have a question on the first point. Seven months into the plan we are still only at 46% coming near the end of the year and there was a similar percentage in June last year. What is the delay? Given the presence of all the extra staff and with fewer licences being applied for, why are we only at 46% at this stage?

Mr. Colm Hayes

I touched on this earlier. This is one subset of our overall licensing output. We are clear that it has not met our targets and it has certainly not met the targets of the stakeholders. It is our first priority to redouble the efforts for 2021.

I will point out that this is not the only source of licences for the private sector. In fact, over the same period the sector got more licenses that never went near ecology than those that went on to ecology. The figure the committee members are seeing is only half of what the private sector gets. Clearly, with this particular cohort of private licences with ecology input, the project planner is not where we want it to be and it absolutely has to be a focus of priority for 2021.

I have one last point. Who has the overall responsibility for not reaching targets? This applies to any business, whether a small corner shop, a steelworks or a carpentry or joinery business.

If someone does not take responsibility for not reaching targets, nothing gets done. We are getting reports continuously and they show that we are not reaching targets. Who has overall responsibility for setting the targets and when those targets are not met? Who has that responsibility for the targets the Department is setting and presenting to us every month or week?

Mr. Colm Hayes

I am the most senior official in the Department that deals with responsibility for forestry so I am happy for the buck to stop with me. I am equally upfront that we are not meeting that particular project plan of the private licences. However, in terms of overall targets for felling we have issued licences for 2.8 million cu. m since last October. People have to view the disappointing output on the project plan relative to the overall substantial improvement since last October. We have had an excellent January or what is looking to be a good January across most categories - afforestation could be better for sure. Now, we need a good February followed by a good March, because we have had a good October followed by a good November followed by a good December. We hold our hands up on the private category. As I said, no effort is being spared to get it right.

What are the views of the Department officials on manufacturing companies having to import timber to the country, especially when we have very good timber on the island of Ireland? How do they explain to manufacturers that we cannot cut timber because of felling licences?

The second question is to the Department. How does the Department explain to forestry nurseries that we are behind on our targets and that the Department and the Government are not reaching their targets? We are in a situation now where they will have to dump millions of trees. The nurseries were told the Department would meet its targets. How can we explain to these people that we have to get rid of these trees now? They were ready for selling or producing but they now have to be dumped.

I have been frustrated with the Department for the past two years. I do not blame people. I have listened to all the speakers. I do not blame farmers and people who do not plant in this country because they are so frustrated with what is going on. I know an elderly couple who want to get their affairs in order. They regret the day they ever got involved in forestry. They have been waiting three years - since 2019. I have been in contact with the Department on this case, including in writing, and I have tabled questions in the Dáil. I will not call out the reference number now but I will email it after this meeting. I am asking Mr. Hayes to personally investigate this matter to see what is going on. This is not acceptable. The reference number is from 2019 and it is now 2021. These people are so frustrated that they would love to get out of forestry. They are caught in a contract with a private company and cannot get out, but they want to get out. We want a decision on this particular case. I would like the official to answer these questions for me.

Mr. Colm Hayes

I would be happy to look at any individual file and see what happened. Deputy Ring may wish to send on the reference code. The Deputy has my details.

The answer to the overall question is more or less the same as before. There is no question but that 2020 was a very bad year for licensing. We did 2,400 licences, which is 80% below what it should be relative to previous years. The target now has to be to ensure that 2020 becomes a stand-alone bad year and one not to be repeated. That is the position. In quarter 4 of 2020, we saw a significant improvement on the previous three quarters and that progress has continued into January. We now need it to continue into February and March.

We do not want to see logs being imported. There is plenty of timber in the country to be harvested. I appreciate that in giving our figure of 2.8 million cu. m of timber licensed from October to January, there is a timeline between licensing and when that timber arrives at the sawmill door. However, all we can do is license it and get the licences out there. The dashboard shows that there has been a noticeable pick-up since October. We need to drive that on. There is no question about that. We were in a particular bind in 2020 and we were hit hard with several court judgments that were hanging over us in 2019.

A large number of forestry appeals had to be serviced, which obviously meant that what was licensed could not make it to market. We have a much more efficient and functioning appeals system. We have cranked up the licensing system, but it still has some way to go. The message I would impart to the sector is to stick with us and to keep looking at the figures because they are improving. I would not like to see any farmer completely dissuaded from working in forestry because if one looks at the challenges facing farming, afforestation offers everything in terms of farm diversification and an alternative, steady income. That continues to be the case. We need to get farmers re-engaged. A fair bit has been done but there is a lot more to do. That is the strategy for 2021.

I thank Mr. Hayes.

I have a few short questions. Has the Department employed an outside company as well as the ecologists? My understanding is that the Department has an outside company looking over this as well. Is that correct?

Mr. Colm Hayes

That is correct. Yes.

How much does it cost in a year?

Mr. Colm Hayes

I do not have the exact figure to hand. The company, Fehily Timoney, provides us with five ecologists at the moment. The five ecologists provided are part of the group of 16 ecologists. There are 21 ecologists in total but 16 full-time equivalents. The company provides us with five of those. I will get the figure. It was an open tender.

We brought up an issue at our previous committee meeting in January. Mr. Hayes said there was 830,000 cu. m or tonnes of fell. Can we get the information on the dashboard? If I am building a house, I have to send a commencement notice to the council to say I am starting to build. Can we get an accurate figure of the amount of clear-fell timber? The Department gives a licence to include the thinning and everything else, but can we get an accurate amount? I refer to a scenario whereby the Department gives me a licence and I am at the 20-year stage. Mr. Hayes is correct that the Department adds it all up. I understand that but it could be ten more years before I would be cutting that, so the timber will not be fit for cutting this year. Can we get an accurate figure on the dashboard for committee members or the public of the amount of clear-fell timber every month? Is that possible?

Mr. Colm Hayes

That is not a figure we have. We issue licences with a duration of up to ten years. There are any number of reasons a landowner may decide to fell now or in two years' time, for example, income or the price of timber. Landowners do not have to inform us when they plan to act on that but I believe they have to inform us when it is planned to plant. Under afforestation we give technical and financial approval. The system is designed to give landowners maximum flexibility and to minimise interaction and regulation, so it is up to landowners to decide when they want to bring the licence to market. I tried to emphasise this point at the previous committee meeting in response to a question from Deputy Fitzmaurice. We make no prediction around when the timber comes to market. What we do is report on the volume of licences that we issue.

Yes, but we are reporting on nothing. We do not know. If I have a forest, I am going to thin it at the 20-year stage, and I might thin it again at year 24 or 25. In fairness, 70% or 80% of the volume of clear-fell will not be ready until 2030. We are not dealing with accurate figures and unless the Department brings in a system whereby a landowner sends a little note to say when clear-felling commences and the Department has a record, then we are dealing with figures from 20 or 30 years ago that we do not have a clue about.

Mr. Colm Hayes

To be honest, I have never heard of a demand from the sector to add another layer of engagement with the Department on this. I am not sure the sector wants to do that.

Mr. Hayes is giving figures in respect of the amount of timber that is available for cutting, but it might not be available to cut for ten years. I understand where he is coming from. First, there could be thinning and then in five or ten years' time, it could be clear-felled. I accept that it is a clear-fell licence and that thinning will also happen, but that timber is not available. How does the industry know what is available today? What we are doing is like going around in circles.

Mr. Colm Hayes

When we publish licences three times a week on the Department's website, we make very clear what type of licence is involved. It is specified whether it is a thinning licence, a clear-fell licence or a combined thinning and clear-fell licence. That goes right down to townland level. We have a new portal via which any member of the public can view an individual licence and see whether it was for thinning, clear-fell or a combination of the two. The lack of information that is there at the moment, as Deputy Fitzmaurice sees it, has not been an issue in the past because there has been a steady supply of licences and timber. That steady supply was clearly interrupted last year because of a failure to issue as many licences as we would have liked. Ultimately, by getting the system back on track and continuing with felling in the past four months and in January and continuing that through 2021, we will get the steady supply back again. I do not envisage this being a continuous issue. All we can report on in terms of a headline figure for the dashboard is the volume that we have licensed. Each individual licence, which can provide more detail, is available from the Department.

This is my final question. There is no denying that the public and the industry have lost faith in the Department. Every public representative hears it every day. All of the industry has lost faith in the Department. The national targets do not bother me, but that is what is set out under all these agreements. The Department has reached approximately 53% or 54% of the targets in the past four years. Mr. Hayes says the buck stops with him. Is there not a serious problem in the Department that must be rectified, particularly when it has lost the confidence of the sector it is supposed to be working with and of farmers? When one talks to farmers and one mentions planting, they throw their hands up in the air. They say they would be better at anything other than that. Do the officials not have a lot to answer for and is the Department not in serious bother?

Mr. Colm Hayes

The licensing system that we manage and administer was knocked back on its hind legs in 2019 by a series of court judgments. I struggle to see how any planning system, no matter how well designed or resourced, could have recovered in the intervening period. As to whether we could have done it faster or put in more resources, these are all arguable questions. I am not saying that it is not the case, what I am saying is that the system has, unquestionably, improved, particularly since last October. The new resources are coming on stream. We are a forward looking organisation when it comes to this. This year is about framing a new national forestry strategy. Senator Lombard mentioned the key word, namely, "confidence". We want to put confidence back into the sector. We would like to think that the last few months have started to put a bit of that confidence back in. We know that we have a long way to go, but nobody is more committed than this Department, right down through the forestry system, including the Ministers, who are engaging intensively with stakeholders, as are we. It is all shoulders to the wheel to get this right. I would like to think that the past few months have shown what is possible and what we can drive it on to achieve on the next level.

The one thing I ask Mr. Hayes is not to use court cases. I was not a Deputy in 2011 or 2012 but I knew about the habitats directive and the 15-km zone. I knew that the gate was left wide open if environmental impact assessment, screening and appropriate assessment were not implemented. I do not agree with such measures. I detest this stuff. However, the Department stated on its website that those measures had to be implemented. Mr. Hayes then says it was because of a court case. To put it very simply, the court case happened because the gate was not closed by the Department. If I was building a house in Galway right now - or ten or 11 years ago - I would have to carry out a screening exercise because of a river that is 40 miles away.

The Department has a ferocious amount of work to do to get the industry back. I have spoken to people from all parts of the industry and they throw their hands up in the air about this Department. It is sad, but it is true.

I have two questions for the officials. Deputy Kehoe asked a question at the last committee meeting the witnesses attended about the policy regarding unenclosed land and from where that policy was formulated. The committee has not yet received an answer to that question. It is a very important question about policy on forestry. The question about unenclosed land was asked last November and I would like to get an answer to it as quickly as possible.

My second question relates to ash dieback. There are three bullet points here regarding ash dieback. Unfortunately, in my constituency there is a great deal of ash dieback and many people are affected by it. Has the Department any plans for any other financial assistance aside from what we see in these three bullet points? This is clearly not a satisfactory response to the great financial loss the people concerned have incurred through no fault of theirs. I will not start a big debate now about whose fault it was and how the disease got into the country, but the owners of the ash plantations were definitely not at fault for this disease inflicting major financial losses on them.

I am very unhappy today. There is very intensive questioning taking place here and all I can tell the officials is that the reason we are applying such scrutiny is that, as public representatives, we are under great pressure from the forestry sector. The sector is extremely worried about its future. That ranges from nursery owners to timber contractors - everyone involved in the industry. It is our job as public representatives to highlight that and to try to get resolutions to the issues. We all want to see a forestry industry doing well and prospering. It has a big role to play in respect of the climate change challenges we face. At present, however, as was said by other speakers, there is a major lack of confidence there and all the committee is trying to do is highlight the issues that have been presented to members and try to come up with solutions to the issues on the ground.

Perhaps the officials will answer the two questions on ash dieback and the enclosed land policy first. A few other members then wish to put questions.

Mr. Colm Hayes

On your last point, Chairman, we welcome the opportunity to make a presentation to the committee. We believe in full transparency. That is why we developed dashboards and it is publicly available information. We welcome that and welcome the opportunity to make a presentation to the committee at any time, or direct contact from any member of the committee at any time on any issue of relevance.

On ash dieback, we would be straying into areas of policy if we were to comment on the merits of the scheme or whether future policy is to be amended or considered. It is a scheme that was introduced under the last Government. It is what it is at present and, as officials, we are not in a position to comment on whether the scheme is good, bad or otherwise. It is in place and there are some 250 applicants. Our focus is very much on engaging with them and making sure they get their approvals as quickly as possible.

I will ask Mr. Seamus Dunne to comment on the unenclosed land question and if there are outstanding elements to that, we can submit them in writing as well.

Mr. Seamus Dunne

You mentioned unenclosed land, Chairman. Land is defined by us in three categories - enclosed improved land, unenclosed land and lands not eligible for grant aid. By and large, unenclosed lands are located in wetlands, mostly peatlands. They are mainly too impoverished to be drained or fertilised by man or used for intensive farming. In the past, a large number of plantations were located on unenclosed land. They were used in the 1990s when up to 40% of lands were unenclosed lands.

With respect, the question that was asked was about where the policy to stop plantation on unenclosed land was formulated, where it came from or where the direction came from. There was an indication that it was EU policy and there was a clear assertion that this was not the case. We would like to see written confirmation of how exactly this policy that unenclosed land cannot be planted was formulated.

It has completely devalued the land of people who own unenclosed land. I would say it has devalued those people's property by up to 80%. That was the question that was asked. It is an important and serious question and we would like to have a detailed written answer to it as quickly as possible.

Mr. Seamus Dunne

Certainly. Very briefly, it was a departmental decision made in about 2010, but I will refer back with a detailed written response to the question on unenclosed land.

It was a departmental decision.

Mr. Seamus Dunne


That is a long way along the road, and a great help.

Four members wish to contribute and we must stick tightly to the time limits. There are approximately 20 minutes left so I will ask two members to ask their questions together, followed by the next two. It is everybody's second opportunity to contribute. I will call Senator Paul Daly, followed by Deputy Michael Collins. They will be followed by Deputies Kehoe and Martin Browne.

To return to the section of the submission I referred to earlier, applications are now being cherry-picked due to volume. I have a serious concern about this and I can only imagine that if I was a farmer, a private individual who had a small application in at present, how he or she would be feeling on hearing this revelation today. Based on the problems I foresee in using this system into the future, and it has now been made public today, I plead with the officials to approach the Minister to introduce an amnesty for applications that are in the system. The Department can put a fixed period on it. I refer to applications that do not require an ecological input and applications that are of a small volume. We should implement an amnesty, clear the desk and start on a level playing field. Then there will be no favouritism or cherry-picking into the future and we will be able to keep up to speed with the applications. I plead with the officials to bring that forward to the Minister today, because we have opened a can of worms here by identifying the fact that licence applications are being cherry-picked based on volume.

With regard to forest roads, almost 120 km of new roads were licensed in 2020, but the requirement is 300 road licences every year. In addition, the backlog is approximately 300 at present. We are told by Coillte that this is the biggest issue it is facing to liberate timber that will have licences in 2021. Since putting additional resources in place, the FAC has held 61 hearings and 42 hearings were scheduled for December, but the requirement is 40-plus appeals to be dealt with each week, not the 20 or so being done at present. Will this increase in future?

Will the departmental officials admit there are ordinary people - farmers, forest owners and wood processors - who have heavily invested all over the country and who are being let down by the system? These people cannot fell their crop and cannot plant trees. Can they give them any reassurance about their needs and does it concur with Senator Paul Daly's suggestion of an amnesty, which is very important?

Mr. Colm Hayes

I will ask my colleague, Ms Patricia Kelly, to give an update on the FAC because there was a direct question about that. We are in a position to give an update on the figures.

Ms Patricia Kelly

First, it is necessary to point out that the forestry appeals committee is independent of the Department. To put it into context, the committee received appeals regarding approximately 1,000 licences since it was established in 2018. Of those, some 700 are closed and we now have 339 licences to be dealt with. It is true that the committee was only hearing about 24 licences per month, but since the forestry Act was implemented in October there have been several changes, as members may be aware, to the running of the committee. We now have four committees and they are averaging approximately 60 licence hearings every month. This has had a very positive effect on the number of hearings held, and 191 cases have been heard since November. The extra committees were established on 9 November.

It obviously took some time after the legislation was enacted to get the expertise and the appropriate people in place to set up new committees. The number of licence applications now on hand, which is what concerns both appellants and applicants who are waiting for decisions, is 339. Of those, 164 are already scheduled, including what is scheduled for January. That leaves 175 licences to be scheduled. The current rate of output by the committees is around 60, although they have advised us that this may improve, so we would expect that what is on hand at the moment will all be dealt with by June.

It is also worth pointing out that the new legislation introduced several changes and one of the more positive ones was that the committee can now remit cases back to the Department. This means that cases that might have been cancelled previously are now sent back to us to review and to issue a new decision on. Since the enactment of the new legislation there have been 147 decisions, 82 of which were affirmed and 65 of which were set aside and remitted back to us.

Mr. Colm Hayes

I will respond to Deputy Michael Collin's other questions. The target set for roads is 125 km licensed per year. I am glad to say that we exceeded that target last year, with 130 km licensed. That was down on the previous year but we have had a good start this year, with 20 km licensed in January compared to 5 km in the same month last year. We are determined to drive on in that area.

To return to the question of prioritisation by volume, while there is such prioritisation, it is not exclusive. I will point out that every day of the week, the inspectors in the Department are working on licences of all shapes and sizes. It is open to any applicant, no matter what the size of the site, to submit an Natura impact statement, NIS, which, as we have made very clear, will bump him or her up the list. Prioritisation based on volume is what comes next but we do deal with sites of all shapes and sizes every day of the week. Last summer it was made clear to, and agreed with, the sector that this would be the approach. As I said, it was a short-term solution to a very immediate problem. It is a strategy that has worked in terms of driving more output, particularly on the roads and the felling but it is not a long-term, sustainable solution in our view. I respectfully disagree with Senator Paul Daly; it is not the revelation that is being portrayed here today. The prioritisation is known but is not exclusive in terms of individual sites and it is not an approach that we intend to continue with in the long term.

Could I have a brief comment on the possibility of an amnesty to try to wipe out the backlog?

Mr. Colm Hayes

Again we are straying into policy here but I can reiterate what the Minister has said, which is that it looks like that would not be legally possible under EU environmental regulations in particular. We cannot just set aside environmental regulations because there is a backlog. I am really only repeating what the Minister has said on the issue. It does not look to be legally feasible in the Department's view and the Minister has conveyed that to some stakeholders already.

I have three very brief questions for the officials. What is the total number of licences required to serve the industry's demand? I include here road licences, private felling licences, Coillte felling licences and afforestation licences.

According to the opening statements, Coillte is the largest supplier of material to Irish sawmills. What percentage of timber comes from Coillte and what percentage comes from the private sector? Given that the witnesses said that Coillte is the largest provider, I presume they have information on the percentages involved. The Chairman said that Ms Kelly is the head of the forestry section in the Department. What is her view on the current situation in terms of the challenges faced by the Department and where does she think we will we be on 29 January 2022?

Deputy Browne is next.

I want to come back in on the question I posed earlier on planning permission. I ask the witnesses to confirm that SI No. 45 of 2020 has no area threshold. In his previous response, the witness was talking about older legislation that contained a 10 ha allowance. I have the new legislation in front of me here.

That is a very specific question to which we will try to get an answer. Deputy Carthy is next.

I wish to ask about the current backlog of applications. According to the opening statement there are 1,090 afforestation applications, 730 road applications and 2,700 felling applications on hand. Can the officials tell us the oldest application in each category? When was the earliest application submitted in respect of those three categories? Can they give us figures in hectares in respect of the afforestation and felling applications? Those figures suggest to me that a very big alarm bell should be ringing because we have 2,700 felling applications but only a little over 1,000 afforestation applications on hand. If we are proposing to move to a point where there are 8,000 ha planted per annum, then we should expect and hope that afforestation applications are ahead of the felling applications. I ask the witnesses to explain the reason for that differential.

I want to add one question to the list. What tonnage of timber have we imported in the past six months? I will now-----

I am sorry to interrupt, Chairman, but I meant to ask a question about imported timber earlier. Given the fact that much of it is coming from the UK, has Brexit caused any problems?

There was one question directed specifically to Ms Kelly that we will deal with first.

Ms Patricia Kelly

We are all working together on this particular issue. Mr. Dunne deals with inspectors and approving applications. My remit includes making payments and providing support to the inspectorate in issuing licences. I also deal with promotion, which is a difficulty at the moment, given the situation in which we find ourselves. I have been in this position for the past two years and, as has been well articulated by Mr. Henry, the Department is dealing with an unprecedented challenge on foot of an unprecedented change to the way in which we do things. I worked previously on the rural development side and know that we must always comply with the habitats directive. I have seen first hand the effort involved on the inspectorate side in terms of training, guidance, recruiting ecologists and bringing in a robust system that will stand up to appeal. The things we have tried to do in the last year in recruiting more ecologists and overhauling the appeals system, which was a great source of frustration for people who wanted to realise their licences, are bearing fruit now.

We have had only 50 appeals since the new legislation has come in, so we are well on the way to having a well-functioning appeals system. I have confidence in my colleagues that we will deal with the backlogs. It is a difficult and complex issue and all efforts are being made to address it.

The other questions were to Mr. Hayes or Mr. Dunne.

Mr. Colm Hayes

The ratio of the volume of Coillte logs to privately sourced logs in terms of supply to the mills is about 3:1, so three quarters of the logs that go into the mills are sourced from Coillte and about a quarter are sourced from the private sector. I am not sure if we have a figure for the tonnage imported. We can explore that. I will let Mr. Dunne respond directly to the Brexit question.

As for the number of licences needed to achieve the targets, it is a stated goal of successive forestry programmes to try to increase the average size of a plantation applied for when it comes to afforestation. People often draw comparisons with Scotland, but in Scotland it is not unusual to have sites that are a couple of hundred hectares when it comes to afforestation. Our average is 6 ha. I think we had a goal in the previous mid-term review to get that up to around 8 ha. Working off that figure, and the annual figure being 8,000, we are looking at 1,000 to 1,500 applications.

Deputy Carthy asked a question which I think I have answered, but I wish to inform him that there were 4,436 licences on hand as of this morning. We ran these figures again this morning. They were 2,700 for felling, 1,691 for roads and 1,040 for afforestation. That is a slight update on the statement before the committee because we ran the figures just before coming in this morning.

May I make just one further comment? It touches on Ms Kelly's issue and the-----

Can we get those figures in hectares in respect of the applications?

Mr. Colm Hayes

I certainly have the figures for 2020 but I will review them for the other years as well. To respond to the Deputy's question about the oldest licence application, I am working this off a page here, but it looks to me that about 40% of the licences issued last year were also applied for last year. Some were applied for in 2019, some in 2018. Looking, for example, at the 2,700 felling licences we have on hand at the moment, 123 are from 2018, so the other 2,600 have come in at some point since 1 January 2019, and the majority of those came in in 2020. That will give the Deputy an idea. I am sure there is an outlier of a licence application going back five years. It is inevitable. Sometimes licences sit on our system as well and may be moribund but, in broad terms, we are looking at 98% of all felling licences on hand right now having come in at some point in the past two years and I would say 60% of those having come in in 2020. That might give the Deputy an indication.

I asked a question about the planning permission.

Mr. Seamus Dunne

My understanding of the schedules in the planning regulations that outline the provision on the replacement of broadleaf high forest is that there was no change to date and that the area threshold remained. I am well aware of SI 45/2020, but that statutory instrument did not repeal the schedules in SI 600. I can certainly clarify that with our colleagues in housing and get back to Deputy Browne on that, but that is our interpretation of it.

I am looking at something here that says that SI 600 has been replaced by SI 45 and that under that legislation the replacement of any area of broadleaf forest with a conifer species now requires an application to the local authority and its approval before works can commence.

Mr. Seamus Dunne

Our understanding is that the schedules were not changed, so the broadleaf high forest by conifer species-----

Mr. Dunne might get back to Deputy Browne with written clarification on that.

Mr. Seamus Dunne

We will come back with written clarification on that.

Senator Paul Daly mentioned Brexit and asked whether there were any issues about importing logs. Obviously, everything changed on 1 January. As a result of that, it may be difficult to get figures on importation of logs before then because before 1 January logs could move into Ireland without border controls. Since 1 January there have been border control posts.

Two issues arise in that regard. First, log imports must be accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate. The Department has been engaging with all sawmills that import logs and they are well aware of that. Second, these imports must come in through border control posts. The Department has created two additional border control posts for the importation of logs, at Rushbrooke and Passage West in County Cork.

What tonnage has come in from the UK in the past six months?

Mr. Seamus Dunne

I do not know. I will have to revert to the committee in writing with those figures. It may be difficult to get numbers for the period before Brexit but we will have numbers for the period since 1 January. I will see what figures we can get and come back to the Chairman.

We must conclude as we have reached the two-hour mark. I sincerely thank Mr. Colm Hayes, Mr. Seamus Dunne and Ms Patricia Kelly. The vigorous questioning by the committee stems from members' concern for the forestry sector. We need to start meeting our targets for afforestation, thinning and clear-felling if we are to have a healthy industry.

The committee will prepare a report with recommendations, hopefully in the near future. It is, however, difficult to compile reports during the Covid pandemic. We will have a private meeting in the next week or so to try to progress that.

This committee will not go away. We will continue our serious scrutiny of the performance of the forestry section in the Department. I hope we will see a marked improvement in order that the forestry sector can move forward with confidence.

I thank all participants for what has been an intense exchange of views between members and the officials.

The joint committee adjourned at 3.02 p.m until 3.30 p.m on Tuesday, 2 February 2021.