Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Ceisteanna (51)

Thomas P. Broughan


51. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the number of tree felling licences issued in each year since 2014, the number of trees felled in each year, the proposed contribution to the climate action plan 2019 targets from hedgerows and tree cover here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28120/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (8 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Agriculture)

I wish to ask the Minister about the number of tree felling licences issued in each year since 2014 and what role he thinks trees and hedgerows can play in the climate action plan. I know it is governed by the Forestry Act 2014. The question is prompted by the fact that quite a few constituents have contacted me about people moving into a property and immediately cutting down major tree cover. There seems to be no control over that whatsoever. Many agencies do not have to get permission from the Forest Service to do so.

The felling and thinning of trees is an activity that is governed by the Forestry Act 2014 and the accompanying forestry regulations of 2017. My Department is the consent authority for the issuing of felling licences and does so in accordance with detailed procedures that take account of relevant environmental regulations and the principles of sustainable forest management. There are certain exemptions under the Forestry Act, including, for example, felling in urban areas or felling of individual trees in certain circumstances.

The number of felling and thinning licences issued since 2014 is as follows. In 2014, 2,390 licences were issued; in 2015, 2,518 licences were issued; in 2016, 6,514 licences were issued; in 2017, 3,003 licences were issued; in 2018, 3,603 were issued; and to date in 2019, 2,948 licences have been issued. It is not possible to give a precise estimate of the number of trees felled in any one year under licence as this will depend on the area of the forest being felled, the species being managed, the age of the crop and the type and nature or cycle of the silvicultural interventions. This is influenced by whether it is a first, second or later stage thinning or clearfell and-or whether the forest is managed under a continuous cover management system.

The licensing process makes it obligatory to replant a clearfelled site in forests in all but the most exceptional cases. This avoidance of deforestation is essential in terms of meeting our climate change objectives. The climate action plan 2019 recognises the key role afforestation has to play in climate change mitigation particularly through carbon sequestration. Under current rules agreed as part of the EU effort sharing regulation, forestry can contribute some 2.1 million tonnes of CO2 per annum of carbon towards Ireland's emissions targets under the next climate mitigation period 2021 to 2030. The climate action plan now sets a target of an average of 8,000 hectares of new planting per year. While this will mostly yield benefits in the longer term post-2030, it will also contribute to our 2030 target through carbon sequestration.

My Department has approved an average of 9,000 hectares for new planting each year for the last three years. This means that there are almost 10,000 approved and shovel-ready hectares available to the forestry sector that could be planted today. The challenge is to ensure that all of the effort that goes into securing and approving new sites results in those sites being planted if planting levels are to increase and the target of 18% land cover is to be achieved. I am committed to working towards this target through the continued provision of generous grants and premiums, engagement with a range of stakeholders from farmers to public bodies and a dedicated promotion and communication campaign and by examining ways in which farm forestry can be better integrated into the new CAP. Knowledge transfer programmes and other initiatives that raise awareness of the economic and ecosystem benefits of forestry will continue to play an important role in tackling some of the barriers to planting. Hedgerows are an important landscape feature that have been supported by various agri-environment schemes over the years. In fact, my Department has facilitated the planting of around 11,000 km of new hedgerows and the rejuvenation of some 6,000 more under successive agri-environment schemes.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

These hedgerows could possibly represent a significant carbon sink and could potentially be used as a mitigation option. In view of this, the climate action plan commits to ensuring that local authorities extend hedgerow surveys nationwide. Once these are completed by 2020, the Government will commission a study to quantify the climate mitigation and adaptation potential of this resource by 2021.

The Minister mentioned the planting of 10,000 hectares per year - 22,000 hectares in all. How does that fit into the overall targets under the climate action plan because clearly it has a key role? This is a significant issue even when we discuss the Mercosur trade deal on the broader international scale involving climate change involving as it does the fact that Brazilian agriculture is devastating one of the great forestry resources in the world.

Does the Minister think that planning permission should be required for major cutting of trees in urban areas? I also note that the Government's felling and reforestation policy does not cover a range of national agencies such as Bord Gáis, Aer Rianta and CIÉ. There seems to be great scope for organisations to be able to just remove trees. As the Minister is aware, there is considerable controversy over BusConnects in Dublin city because it is feared that around 5,000 trees, including 700 or so in my constituency of Dublin Bay North, could be demolished.

This will result in a loss of carbon sequestration and mitigation.

The Deputy will forgive me if I am not familiar chapter and verse with BusConnects. However, there is an increasing awareness in society generally and in public bodies of the requirement to do the right thing by the environment. Broadly speaking, I have found local authorities to be aware of tree management in urban settings. Sometimes the awareness is not communicated in terms of the rationale behind some of the interventions they make.

On hedgerows, the climate action plan commits to ensuring local authorities extend hedgerow surveys nationwide. When these are completed in 2020, the Government will commission a study to quantify the climate change mitigation and adaptation potential of this resource by 2021. The Deputy is right that we are concerned that we are missing our afforestation targets and anxious to make more progress in that area in the context of the next Common Agricultural Policy because afforestation is a critical element of that.

I grew up in a rural area. It is unbelievable that we do not have even a rough estimation of the extent of our hedgerow cover, although 600,000 km has been suggested. Hedgerows could potentially sequester between one tenth and half of a megatonne of CO2, which could make a very significant contribution towards our overall mitigation figures in respect of agriculture in general. We have not thrown that figure into the equation when discussing the matter in Europe and so forth. Is it not important for us to get the right figures so that we know the extent of the country's hedgerow cover?

Clearly we should have very ambitious targets in forestry and in building up the number of urban trees. I understand London has a target of planting 1 million trees in the next couple of years. All our urban areas, including Dublin, Cork and Waterford, should have similar targets to help the national effort and to mitigate carbon in the general area of agriculture.

Deputy Michael Healy-Rae missed his priority question on beef. He has told me he has a short supplementary question on forestry. It has to be on forestry.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for giving me permission.

This is a debate I have had with the Minister already. Despite the Government's climate action plan, not enough is being done to encourage people to plant forestry. The period has been reduced from 20 years to 15 years. The grant involved does not cover the cost of planting a forest, fencing it and fertilising it in the same way as it did in the past. The Minister has a look on his face as if I am wrong; I am actually factually correct. I have spoken to foresters this morning who would back up what I am saying. Not enough is being done to encourage people. They no longer have incentives that existed in the past. What is the Minister proposing to do about that?

I do not often have the opportunity to engage with Deputy Broughan on agriculture questions. It is useful to exchange information because there is a view that the agricultural sector is indifferent to biodiversity and is facilitated by a Department that also does not have an interest in it. However, nothing could be further from the case. Under the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, we have supported the planting of 11,000 km of hedgerows. In the area of biodiversity, we support 20,000 ha of wild bird cover. All this is about biodiversity and the environment, and things farmers are actively doing in managing the landscape and delivering.

We need to do more on the narrative around forestry. I take the point Deputy Michael Healy-Rae makes. We recently reviewed the existing forestry programme and will be introducing a new one. Regrettably the narrative on forestry in rural areas is not a positive one, as the Deputy and I both know given where we come from. However, we need to get the message across that food production emits greenhouse gases meaning we need to do that as efficiently as we can. We need to sequester as much carbon as we possibly can. That can be done through appropriate soil management and also through afforestation. That means looking at the incentives and also using the next CAP to deliver in that regard.