I note the contents of the correspondence from a group of young people from 'The Children's Tree Campaign'. I very much welcome their active engagement on the important issue of forestry and the environment and it is always encouraging when our young people show deep interest in these issues.
In the first instance, it should be noted that the national forest estate now covers some 11% of the national land area of Ireland and is at its highest level in over 350 years. The many benefits which forests provide are widely known and appreciated, including clean air and biodiversity as mentioned in the correspondence. The recent Climate Action Plan also highlights the role of forestry in terms of carbon sequestration and climate change mitigation. The Government has consistently encouraged the planting of new forests through the provision of generous grants and premiums under successive Forestry Programmes.
I wish to reassure the correspondents that forestry in Ireland operates within a strict legal and regulatory framework to protect forests and also to ensure that forestry operations and activities are carried out in compliance with the principles of sustainable forest management. There is an obligation under the Forestry Act, 2014 to obtain a felling licence from my Department when removing trees from forests and to replant felled trees.
There are certain instances where the felling of a tree is exempt from the need to obtain a tree felling licence, for example, trees near buildings or in an urban area. Certain bodies, such as local authorities and Waterways Ireland, are also exempt from the requirement to have a felling licence for reasons such as the removal of trees in the performance of statutory functions. If a person or organisation has concerns regarding incidents of tree felling by these bodies then they may consider contacting them directly.
As regards the removal of hedgerows by farmers, all beneficiaries under the Basic Payment Scheme and other area based schemes, operated by my Department, must comply with the Statutory Management Requirements and Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC) standards set out in the relevant EU regulations. There is a stipulation that hedgerows and trees in a line are designated as landscape features, and under GAEC 7, beneficiaries are obliged to retain and maintain such designated landscape features. Hedgerows must be maintained and not allowed to become invasive. Where, in exceptional circumstances, it is necessary to remove a hedgerow, remove a line of trees or fill in a drain for good reasons such as farmyard expansion, the farmers may do so provided the hedgerow, the line of trees or drain is replaced on a like-for-like basis.