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.