I accept that delays in issuing tree felling licences, whether for thinning or clear fell, is impacting forestry companies in terms of harvesting operations and sawmills in terms of a supply of raw material. I acknowledge that changes made to internal Appropriate Assessment Procedures (AAP) has resulted in delays to many files, which is beyond my Department’s control.
Officials are obliged to implement changes to AAP that were required following important Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) decisions and their subsequent interpretation by the Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC) and others. These changes have been implemented, but it will take time to work through the backlog created, while new procedures were developed.
All forestry licences issued by the Department undergo a legal consent process. Since 2017, all forestry licence applications received have been subject to a statutory public notification system and are subject to a statutory appeal system operated by the FAC.
Most appeals have been in connection with our Appropriate Assessment (AA) procedures. The Habitats Directive (Article 6.3) requires that where a plan or project is likely to have a significant effect on a Natura site, either individually or in-combination with other plans or projects, it must undergo an appropriate assessment of its implications for that Natura site.
AA procedures have been amended to introduce a robust and workable system which will address the issues now faced. Introducing this system involved the recruitment of additional ecological expertise and changes in procedures for the forestry inspectorate. Interviews are taking place for additional ecologists under a recently advertised competition and I expect the successful candidates will be deployed early in the new year. Forestry district inspectors have undergone training and are continuing to receive support in delivering the new procedures. A categorisation of files affected by these requirements is underway in order to best assess further action needed and by whom. Officials of my Department have met bilaterally with forestry companies, to examine the applications on hand and to assess their backlogs with a view to moving applications forward.
The Deputy should be aware that, notwithstanding the above, my Department has issued over 3,900 tree felling licences so far this year.