Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 28 January 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Forestry Bill 2013: Discussion (Resumed)
I welcome the delegates and thank them for coming before the committee to discuss the Forestry Bill 2013. They are from the Irish Farmers Association, Mr. Michael Fleming, IFA farm forestry chairman and Mr. Enda Monaghan, IFA farm forestry committee; the Irish Timber Growers Association, Mr. Brendan Lacey, chairman, and Mr. Donal Whelan, technical director; the environmental pillar, Ms Anja Murray, member, and Mr. Andrew St. Ledger, convenor, Treecover Working Group.
Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to 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 asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person or an entity, either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
We will hear all three presentations first, beginning with Mr. Fleming.
Mr. Michael Fleming:
I present apologies on behalf of our president who was due to be here today, but, unfortunately, he had to attend a meeting in Brussels.
I thank the joint committee for giving us this opportunity to outline the IFA’s concerns about the proposed Forestry Bill 2013 which, if passed in its current format, will be extremely detrimental to the expansion of the sector, greatly reduce farmer involvement in the afforestation programme and deter mobilisation of the private timber resource. I am accompanied by Mr. Enda Monaghan and Ms Deirdre O’Shea, our forestry secretary.
The IFA supports the need to update the Forestry Act 1946 to reflect the scale of private sector involvement and support the development of a modern forestry sector. The expansion of the sector is dependent on farmer involvement and the Bill should create a legislative framework that will support farm level timber production, as well as satisfying the multifunctional aspects of forests. It would be useful to provide a brief summary of the forest resource.
The total forest area in Ireland in 2012 was 730,000 ha or 10.5% of the land area. This compares with a European average of 43%. A total of 47% of the forest area is in private ownership. Counties with the highest proportion of forest area are primarily distributed along the western and south-western seaboards. Nearly 17,000 farmers have invested in forestry. The farm forest resource is fragmented, with an average plantation size of 8 ha. The age distribution of these forests is young; most of them were established in the past two decades, with approximately 20% entering production stage.
The socio-economic importance of the forest resource is significant but often underestimated. The forestry and forest products sector contribute €2.2 billion to the economy. Forests contribute to rural development and the sector provides 16,000 jobs. Ireland possesses the climate and soils to grow forests at a faster rate than most other European countries, yet we fail to exploit our natural advantage, with afforestation rates falling in recent years to the lowest in over 25 years, despite our national strategic plan of 17% forest cover by 2035. In 2013 only 6,200 ha of new forest were established, well below the sustainable level of 15,000 ha per annum required to achieve the strategic plan. In the past three years we have consistently failed to plant the 7,000 ha budgetary allocation for the afforestation programme. A combination of policy and funding measures has undermined farmer confidence in the forestry programme in recent years and contributed to the decline. Production from the national forest estate is forecast to more than double to 7 million m3 by 2028, with almost all of the increase in supply to come from the private forest estate. The mobilisation of the private forest resource at the scale required to achieve these targets represents a major challenge for private forest owners and the forestry sector.
The IFA is concerned that the Bill, if enacted without significant amendments, will create a restrictive legislative framework that will be extremely detrimental to the expansion of the sector. The primary reason farmers plant trees is to produce and sell a timber crop to realise the best potential from their land. There are certain sections within the Bill that will act as a barrier to farmer involvement, increase management costs, impede timber production and reduce the financial return on investment. Private forest owners must have the right to manage their forests in accordance with their own management objectives, as long as the management is consistent with the principles of sustainable forest management. The requirement to submit a management plan which may be approved, rejected, revoked or revised at any stage is an unnecessary barrier to afforestation and the mobilisation of the timber resource. It will increase the administrative burden, management costs associated with an operation and create huge uncertainty for private forest owners.
The Bill proposes to confer wide-ranging powers that will permit the Minister to attach unspecified conditions to, or vary the conditions of, a felling licence, including the power to dictate the type of trees to be replanted or to refuse a felling licence outright without any consideration of the potential financial loss to the forest owner. Forest owners must be compensated for any financial loss incurred if the conditions attached to management plans or felling licences reduce the economic return on investment. To confer such broad functions on the Minister, without regard for the management objectives of the forest owner, creates uncertainty and is a major disincentive to farmers considering forestry as a land use option. In several reports commissioned by the Department the replanting obligation has been cited as a deterrent to the expansion of the forestry sector. The Bill fails adequately to address this issue and the mandatory replanting requirement should be removed. In fact, the Bill goes further and proposes that a felling licence or the replanting order may be registered as a burden on forest land. This is counterproductive to the expansion of the sector and a major deterrent to farmers considering forestry.
Another major concern for farmers is the penalties and extremely draconian powers given to authorised officers for the purposes of enforcement. The penalties and powers being conferred are disproportionate to the possible offences and a serious intrusion on the property and basic rights of landowners. As a farmer who has invested part of my family farm in forestry, I have serious concerns that the Bill will not support me to realise the full potential of my forest. The level of bureaucracy will significantly increase my management costs, from the proposed introduction of fees to the requirement to have a management plan. The power to place unspecified conditions or restrictions on, or to review my management plan at any stage, without any regard for my objectives, is not warranted.
The power to attach conditions or refuse my felling licence without consultation or recompense is unacceptable. I am entitled to be paid compensation if conditions attached to my felling licence reduce my income from timber production. To register the felling licence or replanting order as a burden on my land is an infringement of my property rights and would discourage me from converting any more of my family farm to forestry in the future. The lack of respect for my property or contract rights is unacceptable, from the scope of the power being conferred on authorised officers to the power to seek recoupment of moneys within 20 years of date of breach.
The private forestry sector offers enormous untapped potential. Creating the right legislative framework is key to instilling confidence in farmers and realising the potential of the sector.
Mr. Brendan Lacey:
The Irish Timber Growers Association, ITGA, welcomes the opportunity to make this presentation on the potential impact of the Forestry Bill 2013. I will ask my colleague, Mr. Whelan, to outline some of the background which will highlight why there are issues of concern to timber growers. I will then address a number of specific items which are of particular concern and generate specific problems and potential costs for forest owners.
Mr. Donal Whelan:
The ITGA was established in 1977 to provide information and representation services for timber growers throughout the country. The membership of the association mirrors the wide range of timber growers and the current membership includes farm forest owners, forestry co-operative members, private woodland estates, forestry investors and forestry pension funds. The 2014 forest industry yearbook, as circulated to the committee, is an example of one of our publications and contains statistics and information on the industry. We encourage committee members to consult it.
In considering the Forestry Bill it is important to look at the forestry and timber sector and its many attributes. While Mr. Fleming has gone through some of them, I will outline the main points again.
We must bear in mind that in the last three decades those involved in the private sector were strongly encouraged by the Government to plant their lands which they were giving up from other agricultural activities. This happened to such an extent that, effectively, all afforestation in the past decade has been undertaken by private sector growers with their own land. When one considers that 42% to 43% of the European Union's land area is under forest, the most recent forest inventory for Ireland which was launched just last month by the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, showed that only 10.5% of Ireland's land area was under forest. This is despite the fact that in Ireland trees grow considerably faster than in most other European countries.
The forestry industry is very important to the economy and an emerging industry. Total annual output is approximately €2.2 billion, with 90% of output from the panel board industry being exported, with some 60% of Irish sawmill output. In addition, in terms of the environment, the contribution to tackling climate change by Irish forests absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is approximately 4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, or about 6% of our total greenhouse gas emissions. The Council for Forest Research and Development has stated maintaining the climate change benefits of Irish forests will require continuation of the national afforestation programme at a rate exceeding 15,000 ha per annum in the next two decades. In six of the last seven years, however, we planted under 7,000 ha per annum, which it is important to note.
Forestry is a significant employer in rural areas and, if the Bill is put in place and amended as we believe it is important to do, it can be a catalyst for further employment in the sector. After wind energy, wood fuel is the largest contributor to renewable energy generation in Ireland. Again, there are implications for this if the level of afforestation falls below 15,000 ha. Annual visitor numbers to Irish forests have been estimated at in excess of 18 million, another very important attribute of the sector. Moreover, forest plantations provide suitable habitat for a wide range of native flora and fauna and make a positive contribution to biodiversity conservation. Much good research demonstrating this has been undertaken and funded by the Council for Forest Research and Development. Unfortunately, the Bill, as drafted, is likely to have a negative effect on afforestation rates and employment in the sector, with wider consequences for climate change, renewable energy generation, recreation and biodiversity. Confidence in the future of the forestry sector is critical and the Bill must play a central role in building this confidence.
While we have circulated our formal submission, I would like to raise some specific points in this regard. The first concerns potential financial losses for growers. Under the Bill, the Minister effectively will have the right to refuse a felling licence to somebody in the private sector who has been growing his or her plantation for many years. However, the legislation does not provide for appropriate reimbursement for the grower's financial loss. Therefore, the Minister is being empowered to refuse a felling licence for the area where the grower has been trying to make a financial return for his or her family and, possibly, his or her pension fund, but there is no requirement for the State to reimburse the grower for his or her loss. This is a critical issue. As we have seen, all planting is now effectively undertaken by the private sector. If we want to encourage the private sector to plant more, with all of the benefits that come from that, it is important that this issue be tackled.
Reimbursement for financial loss must also be provided for where legislation or regulations involve, direct or authorise the destruction of a grower’s trees. The Bill states the Minister can effectively require the destruction of a grower's tress without reimbursement for loss. The risk that a grower may not receive a felling licence for a forest crop owing to environmental or other reasons is a source of real concern. We have no issue with the environmental reasons or the Minister not giving a felling licence as long as the woodland owner is reimbursed for his or her loss. That is the important point. The potential risk of this occurring is increasing. As I said, the national forest inventory, NFI, was launched last month by the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes. It showed that over half, or 51%, of the national forest area had one or more environmental designation in the reference year of 2012, compared to 43% in the 2006 NFI results. Therefore, the area of forest with one or more environmental designations increased by 8% of the forest area in the intervening six years. While that is not the issue, I draw the attention of the committee to the point that if there are such environmental designations, there is a risk the Minister may, for whatever reason, decide a felling licence may not be granted for a particular area, which would represent a very significant loss for the timber grower.
Mr. Brendan Lacey:
It has been widely accepted that forestry has great potential in providing jobs and contributing to the environment, recreational amenities and the economy.
Therefore, a Bill that promotes that industry would be very welcome. The title of the proposed Bill states that it is to provide for the development and promotion of forestry in a manner that maximises the economic, environmental and social value of forests within the principles of sustainable forest management. It also goes on to say in the explanatory memorandum that it is envisaged that the Bill will incur no significant additional cost for the Exchequer or forest owners.
The reality is that the harvest from private forests is forecast to increase tenfold within 15 years. The retention of a similar general felling licence procedure to that currently in place, as outlined in this Bill, will prove to be costly and an administrative burden on both growers and the Forest Service. This will also act to discourage future afforestation. The ITGA maintains that for forest plantations, a felling licence should be for a considerably longer period than five years, as is proposed in the forestry Bill 2013, and should include all thinnings up to the final felling of a forest. It seems unnecessarily burdensome to have to apply for separate felling licences each time as part of the normal management process, which is possibly a thinning every four years or so, when it is part of the normal day-to-day management of that forest. We believe a felling licence should cover all thinnings in bringing that forest up to its final clear-fell stage. There should also be workable timeframes and timelines included in the Bill so that felling licences would be issued within three months of an application being submitted.
The requirement to supply a management plan and inventory information, which must then be approved, is a further administrative barrier to wood mobility, which will also increase management costs to forest owners. The other aspect of this is that giving the Minister the power to decide what one grows and how it should be grown and to dictate what should be included in a management plan seems to be stepping beyond what the role of the forest authorities should be in that they are taking on the role of the manager as opposed to that of an administrative authority.
In order to encourage wood mobility and the afforestation of more lands, and to ensure that the new forestry Bill will not result in additional costs to the Exchequer or business, the Bill should be subject to an economic impact assessment. There should be a requirement for a regulatory impact assessment before any new regulations that would be enabled by the Bill are enacted.
The requirements for reporting by forest owners as included in the forestry Bill will add cost, be an administrative burden on woodland owners and act as a disincentive to afforestation. For example, the provision of a timeframe of 28 days to a forest owner to provide an inventory of his or her woodland to the Forest Service is in stark contrast to the lack of any timelines that the Forest Service would give in respect of providing a felling licence. The other aspect is that within 28 days, one can imagine an ordinary forest owner having to hire a forestry consultant to carry out that work, which would be an extra cost to the forest owner. If the forest owner does not deliver that within 28 days, he or she faces the threat of imprisonment or fines. That certainly seems very draconian. Another aspect is the position of authorised officers where no competency requirement is specified within the Bill, so anybody can be appointed as an authorised officer, but the powers they have in terms of entering lands to search, seize property and question individuals without any form of warrant seem excessive.
In respect of barriers to wood mobility and new costs to industry, the forestry Bill will result in significant additional costs to the Exchequer, business and future potential timber growers. These costs will act as a barrier to wood mobility and afforestation in the future and, therefore, act as a barrier to getting the most out of the forest industry. Forests are central to our future green economy. They provide employment, biodiversity and recreation and are also a carbon-fixing and renewable energy resource. We need to expand forest cover to maintain and increase these benefits. Creating new forests is a long-term business requiring clear and sustained policies, which will benefit not only us but also future generations. In this context, the ITGA stresses the importance of a facilitating forestry Bill. A forestry Act must play a role in achieving these core aims. The forestry Bill affords great opportunities to do this but, as it is currently drafted, it will act as a barrier to both new planting and getting timber to market. I will conclude by saying that Irish forestry is about jobs, the environment, recreation and the economy, and there is an opportunity to provide us with a lot more in the future.
Ms Anja Murray:
I thank the committee for inviting us here to speak today. We are here from Environmental Pillar, which is an advocacy coalition of 27 national environmental NGOs. We have six working groups and one of these is the Treecover working group, which produced the report before the committee today. I am sure all of the members have read the submission we circulated. Sustainable development is the crux of what we are talking about from an environmental perspective. The classic definition of sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. There has been political agreement on the need to reach this objective, although in many sectors implementation is still very much lacking. This is also true of Irish forestry. Many Irish people care deeply about sustainable development and the benefits it provides to the country but, as a State, we have still not taken serious on-the-ground action. Irish forestry and forest management still lacks many elements that would make the industry truly sustainable, and we look for this Bill to incorporate these elements to ensure the transition to sustainable development in Irish forestry. The Bill is an opportunity to reform forestry practices in line with the principles of sustainable development.
Our first precise request, which is in the document provided, is for sustainable forest management to be defined in the Bill. It is referred to in the Bill although there is no actual definition. There is also a reference to a sustainable yield of forest goods and services in the wording which is not appropriate for or capable of achieving sustainable forest management.
The second main request is compliance with nature conservation legislation. Afforestation has a number of very serious impacts on the natural environment, including the key impacts of planting new forestry on habitats. There are many issues with regard to breeding waders, pollinating insects and a diversity of wild flora, many of whose habitats are native and semi-natural grassland habitats. These are of a protected type and their extent and quality have declined drastically in recent years. Forestry is but one of the pressures on these species-rich grassland habitats. I use this as an example. There are several habitat types that are under threat from poor forestry practices, so what we have been seeking, which echoes a major recommendation in the BioForest report produced by a couple of different academic institutions, is for all afforestation sites to be surveyed for the presence of semi-natural and species-rich grassland before consent is granted for afforestation. This is a legislative issue and not something that should be left to policy makers, who have for years neglected to address this issue satisfactorily. The forestry Bill 2013 must ensure compliance with the birds and habitats directives, particularly in respect of protected habitats. We have recommended a very specific wording in our submission.
Water quality is another issue. There are serious impacts on water quality from afforestation and forest management, particularly in upland areas near areas with thin or otherwise fragile or erodable soils. The impacts include nutrient enrichment, sedimentation and consequent loss of ecosystem services. Water pollution presents a very real cost to society in terms of the loss of valuable ecosystem services, damage to fisheries and increased costs for the treatment of drinking water. The reference to the water framework directive in the Bill is thus welcome but it needs to be strengthened. Again, we have put in very specific recommendations for the wording that needs to be amended.
At the moment, there exists a set of guidelines for forestry and the environment, which were published around 2000 and 2001. These need to be updated. There has been some discussion for a while and there is no disagreement about the fact that they need updating. We also seeking for the Bill to put these on a statutory footing. They need to be binding rather than being a suite of recommendations that the better foresters go to the trouble of adhering to and others choose to ignore.
Native woodlands are another issue. Ancient native woodland habitats are a relatively rarity in Ireland. They make up only 0.1% of Ireland's land cover. These sites are very ecologically and culturally important. There is a lack of positive conservation management in these ancient native woodland habitats.
We have asked that this matter be referred to in the duties of the Minister and the Forest Service to promote the expansion, restoration and positive management of natural and semi-natural woodland habitats, including the remnants of ancient native woodland, and ensure appropriate conservation and management. This is the specific wording suggested. It is necessary to ensure the protection and long-term viability of a much-neglected aspect of our heritage.
Another issue arises in respect of the cumulative impacts of forestry and other practices. It is quite technical and we have requested a detailed wording to address cases in which there is a certain catchment area. While one or two bits of forestry might not be a problem for water quality or the environment, etc., developments such as wind farm construction or forestry can collectively have a significant impact. There should be a reference to cumulative impacts.
Climate change has been mentioned. Sustainably managed forests can mitigate the impacts of climate change through the sequestration of carbon by growing trees. Forests, especially the ground litter or the layer of litter on the soil, act as significant stores of carbon. Forestry can also assist in adaptation to climate change. It will be needed for us to adapt to climate change.
Many Irish habitats provide valuable ecosystem services in terms of climate change mitigation and adaptation. These include peatlands and bogs. Peat soils are significant storers of carbon. When they are drained, they release large quantities of greenhouse gases, contributing to rather than mitigating against climate change.
Continuous cover approaches to forest management provide for more diverse structures and mixed species. Through various research, especially in the UK, these approaches have been shown to lock up more carbon for a longer time, given the reduced soil disturbance. The ground litter stores up to 90% of forest carbon. When a management system disturbs that soil, it can be detrimental and release many greenhouse gases. Forests managed using continuous cover approaches are also more resilient to drought, which has become a major problem in recent years, as well as fire, pests and diseases. We are seeking specific statutory guidelines to address climate change mitigation and adaptation. We would like to Bill to allow for this.
A further issue arises from the Bill relating to the removal or destruction of vegetation on land. The measure is more or less copied from the 1946 Act and is alarming in that it provides for the removal of vegetation that might be a fire hazard where it is adjacent to a forest. We must ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place. The way in which the vegetation is removed or destroyed - normally, it is burned - can have significant impacts on the environment. When there is a deep burn, it goes right down through the peat and loosens the soil into waterways, causing a great deal of habitat destruction downstream. This can damage salmonid and salmon, trout and other aquatic habitats. The greenhouse gas emissions from deep peat burns can be problematic. We have proposed a specific wording for section 14 on the removal or destruction of vegetation on land.
In terms of forest management, we are seeking provisions on a greater diversity of tree species. Issues arose with regard to exempted trees. Within ten metres of a public road is the distance listed in the Bill. This needs to be reduced to five metres, as the current provision allows for too much removal of trees that are not right beside the road. Another provision refers to 20 cm in diameter at breast height. This needs to be reduced to 10 cm for hedgerow trees, as many mature and valuable hedgerow trees form a part of our cultural heritage and are important landscape features. The current provision sets too high a bar for the removal of hedgerow trees.
Pre-afforestation, ecological surveys should take place on all new afforestation sites before consent and grant aid are granted. This issue must be provided for in the new legislation.
We also have recommendations on Coillte. The Forestry Bill 2013 must cater for an expected review of the 1988 Act, thereby improving the consistency of Coillte's objectives and operations in line with sustainable forest management and the Rio forest principles.
I will not go through the rest of the recommendations, although there are three or four more specific ones. For example, hedgerows are important. The Bill provides for them as part of tree cover. We want it to acknowledge how important the species-rich hedgerows are from a culture and heritage point of view. An appraisal system was recently developed with Woodlands of Ireland and a number of the NGOs that set limits on the removal of ancient townland boundary and species-rich hedges, which differ significantly from smaller or less diverse hedges.
Mr. Andrew St. Ledger:
I thank the Chairman for the opportunity. The authentic landscape of Ireland is western Atlantic temperate rain forest. The Irish are a woodland people who have lost their forests. A figure of 16,000 people employed in the sector was mentioned, but my understanding is that it is actually 11,500. The larger figure has been used quite a bit for years, but the IMPACT and Bacon reports on the sale of Coillte used the lower figure. In Switzerland, a country with half of Ireland's land area but twice its forest cover at approximately one third, approximately 90,000 people are employed in the sector. Switzerland's emphasis is on mixed native hardwoods and natural regeneration. It has an unbroken tradition of forest management and its people are woodland people.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. The onus is on us as legislators to get the Bill right and to listen attentively to all sides of the argument. I am conscious of the importance of forestry to the west, particularly the south west, where there is a great deal of marginal land with no prospect of an income other than from forestry. It is of benefit to local communities and the farmers themselves. The figure of 16,000 people employed in the sector has been disputed, but that is a side argument and does not matter. The sector creates employment and is of significant benefit to rural, marginal land communities.
Without going through the Bill in great detail, I have a number of concerns. The witnesses have articulated their positions and broken them down well in their presentations. For someone from that background, it is difficult seeing challenges being created for people who are trying to marry environmental concerns with generating an economy. It is a question of a happy medium. No one involved in the industry is deliberately trying to damage the environment, but something must be in place to help people when making decisions. When they go out of their way to protect the environment, it should not be at a loss to their incomes. This is a major problem for those in the private forestry sector.
I also have concerns about the powers that the Bill gives the as-yet-unspecified people who will police it. Those persons will enter people's property and land without warrants. They can walk in off the road and make a determination that will have considerable financial implications for people in the industry.
Ms Murray made reference to burning and other forms of vegetation removal. I grew up in an area where we do it every year. It is necessary, but it is controlled. I would assume Ms Murray would have no problem when it is controlled.
That is good to know. Has any of the witnesses spoken to the Department or the Minister about felling licences and the lack of a compensation procedure put in place? If people are denied a felling licence or if, for whatever reason, their forestry has no future value, has the issue of compensation been raised? What has the response been?
I thank everybody for their submissions. I have a few questions. What would the IFA witnesses define as sustainable forest management? The felling licences generate a large administrative cost for all parties involved. Would the IFA witnesses or the timber growers have a breakdown of how much felling licences currently cost? What is involved that would be different under this legislation in terms of the administrative burden involved in applying for felling licences? I agree totally in terms of the timelines for the processing of licences within the Department. The Department officials are working to amend the proposed legislation in respect of that. They are also looking at amending the 28 day period for the forest inventory. There is a difference in the legislation as there is one part where an illegal act may be carried out, and I think the officials are looking for a quicker response in the turnaround for information. That might be firmed up with amendments from the Department.
I think the Rio declaration on sustainable forestry is not legally binding on the State at this stage. Has Ireland signed up to the convention on biological diversity?
I thank the witnesses for their interesting presentations. We are coming from a background years ago where we were very much opposed to forestry in Leitrim. That has softened a bit now, and we see the benefits of it. It does not matter if the figure is 11,500 or 16,000; there are quite a lot jobs involved. We know that many logs are being imported at the moment and the sawed timber is exported again, so that has to be positive for the economy. It is very important that we continue to grow more trees. The freedom should be left with the farmer - the point was made by Mr. Fleming - to plant and to manage the trees, and if he feels that an area of land should be taken out after it is felled, it is important that the decision is left to him and that he is not penalised. Coillte often allows land to go back to nature, leaving it fallow and not replanting it. I am aware of a few cases where that is happening. The most important point is that the farmer should have the freedom to manage it himself.
I thank all the representatives for coming in today to give very detailed presentations. There is much food for thought for us. No doubt we will be going through this line by line as the Bill comes before the Houses. Mr. Fleming made a point that the requirement to submit a management plan is an unnecessary barrier to afforestation. I presume that if we had officials from the Department here today, they would defend it and say that there is a need for it. I ask the following question in ignorance. Does Mr. Fleming feel that there is a need for a management plan on the basis that things could have been done better in the past, or does he feel it is totally unwarranted? Or is it just the fact that the management seeks to be all-encompassing and that it could approve, reject or revoke? Is it too far reaching, or does Mr. Fleming see any merit in the provision of a management plan?
I can see the difficulty with the replanting obligation, and we do not want deterrents that will stop people from planting in the first place, but at the same time I can see the need for it. Perhaps a bit of tweaking is needed. We will take the other detail on board and work through it.
Before I go to the witnesses, Deputy Ó Cuív asked me to pass on his apologies. Due to the untimely death of the brother of one of his colleagues, he has to go to a funeral in Cork. Deputy Boyd Barrett may be back, depending on whether he gets the time.
The questions were in no particular order, but I will go back as the witnesses started. I called on Mr. Fleming.
Mr. Michael Fleming:
Deputy Ferris raised a question about the licence and sought clarification on compensation. We spoke with the Minister of State, Deputy Hayes and his departmental officials on this. We got no clarification or assurance that there would be any compensation. If we look north of the Border and the Bill up there, a refusal for a licence or a refusal to take out some forestry, there is an element for compensation. We agree that there is certainly a need for a timeframe for the felling licence. That is part of our submission. We have requested a 12 week turnaround, where a person gets an answer for that. There is a cost and I will deal with that in a moment.
The other issue with the felling licence is species selection. The farmer takes on this role in a commercial entity, at the discretion of a forest inspector or the Minister, but he may not have a commercial entity in the second rotation. That creates a huge problem. It is not within our control. A farmer can have a commercial crop in the first rotation but there is no guarantee of a commercial crop in the second rotation, or the farmer may not realise the full amount of the area which has been planted.
In answer to Deputy Pringle's questions, we see sustainable forest management as managing forestry in an environmental way in which we can realise the potential of our crop and continue to rotate that crop in the same fashion. There is a cost to a felling licence because a farmer must employ a qualified person to make the application for it. Senator Comiskey asked about the importation of wood. We currently are importing approximately 30% of our gross saw log. We have the capacity, with one of the fastest growth rates in Europe, to produce timber.
We have the land base to produce timber, but we are being prevented from doing so. This is a major issue because the sector is in a position to create employment. We should bear in mind that up to 60,000 young people have been leaving the country every year for the past three or four years, yet we have the capacity to produce the product. The sawmill industry deserves credit for maintaining and increasing production by engaging with foreign markets when the recession struck. I hope we are seeing an economic turnaround. There is no doubt we will have a shortage of product.
Deputy Martin Heydon asked about management plans. We support the use of management plans, which are good practice. However, a requirement to have a management plan should not be enshrined in the Bill. Incentives should be provided by the forest service, rather than inserting a requirement in legislation. Management plans provide a good road map for delivering forestry and taking a hands-on approach to forestry.
Mr. Brendan Lacey:
Deputy Martin Ferris asked whether we had raised the issue of compensation. We have raised the matter several times with the Minister and the Department, but there has not been a positive response. The argument made to us is that this issue could have implications for Exchequer resources. If someone has made a commitment to grow forest crop, it would be seriously wrong to prevent that person from felling it at the end of a period of 30 or 40 years.
On that issue, the delegation has informed us that in the past three years 7,000 ha were not planted because sufficient funding was not provided in the budgetary allocation for the afforestation programme. Did the budget provide for the planting of 7,000 ha?
Mr. Brendan Lacey:
The budget was for 7,000 ha. The issue that arises is one of confidence among those who are embarking on the job of planting. There have been inconsistencies during the years with regard to policy and uncertainty as to what resources would be available in the future. The problem is that when one is making a lifetime decision to plant, one must be confident about what will happen in the 40 year lifespan of the trees one plants. If one examines the framework of the Bill, it has many areas of administrative burden that could impact on what a person who has committed resources to planting a forest and leaving it in place for the long term will receive. There are many question marks against where one could be hit and what losses one could face in the future.
The allocation for afforestation last year was €116 million, of which approximately €11 million was carried over in the Revised Estimates we dealt with last week. We were informed that last year's figure would be maintained. These figures relate exclusively to the non-Coillte estate.
The issue with planting licences is that an application process is involved.
Mr. Brendan Lacey:
To respond to Deputy Martin Heydon's question on management plans, forest owners should be free to make decisions. Drawing up a management plan would be a significant imposition on owners of smaller areas of forest as they would have to bring in outside expertise. If one is running a forestry business or any type of farm business, it clearly makes sense to plan. However, it is not the role of the forest service to tell owners how they should manage their forests. If they manage their forests badly, they will be exposed to losses, which is their responsibility, as owners.
Senator Michael Comiskey pointed out that there were jobs and log inputs. This clearly demonstrates that there is significant demand for timber in this country and that we have the resources and potential to meet it. This is the reason we are addressing the joint committee. We want to be as positive as possible on the framing of a new Bill to ensure it assists the development of the industry and forestry sector in general.
Deputy Thomas Pringle asked about the burdens associated with felling licences. I ask Mr. Whelan to respond.
Mr. Donal Whelan:
The Bill proposes that the Department be able to charge fees in respect of applications made under the legislation, including felling licences. Under the current arrangement, as provided for in the Forestry Act 1946, fees are not imposed on applications for felling licences. As well as my role as technical director of the Irish Timber Growers Association, I am also a working forester and manage a number of plantations for farmers and forest owners. One of the big issues facing them is the time it takes to obtain a felling licence through the system. The Bill proposes that greater detail will be required in respect of management plans and potential inventory information to receive one's felling licence through the system. In addition, it proposes that a felling licence will only last for five years, notwithstanding that it is standard management procedure to thin conifer plantations every five years. The forest service and the Department have limited resources, as do all Departments. We are concerned that the Bill will impose so many requirements on the sector to obtain a standard felling licence - this is in addition to the other points we have made - that it will cause a logjam in the system. This is already happening.
The National Council for Forest Research and Development has produced forecasts for the private sector and found that timber output from the sector will increase tenfold in the next 14 years. The current system is not fit for purpose. The Bill proposes a much more detailed application process. There are approximately 19,000 forest owners in the private sector, all of whom will require a felling licence. There is no way the system will be able to cope with this level of applications. This is the issue we have. It is not the case that we are being negative about the Department. The critical issue is that, based on our experience, the proposals are not workable.
Mr. Lacey responded to the point made by Deputy Martin Ferris on compensation. One of the major issues giving rise to the loss of confidence in the forestry sector is that it takes between 40 and 50 years before a woodland owner obtains a return, although it is an important one. In the past three or four years forestry has come within the tax net, having previously been tax exempt. The reason it was tax exempt was that it was such a long-term investment. Revenue from forestry is not taxable as income tax but comes within the ambit of the high earners' income restrictions. The issue with this is that it takes 40 or 50 years to obtain the main return from a crop, yet it is effectively taxed as one year's income. If one wants the private sector to thrive, such barriers must be removed or ameliorated in some way.
It is a critical issue for us. On the last occasion we appeared before the committee there was a great deal of commentary about Coillte. In the context of the private sector, planting figures have fallen and we are going to have the same problem getting the timber to market. As stated by stated by Senator Comiskey, the sawmill industry is doing really well. It is importing raw material which is very bulky and costly, sawing it here and exporting it. Those involved are making a living out of doing that. That is a difficult thing to do, the reason being we are not producing enough timber in our own country.
Ms Anja Murray:
Deputy Ferris spoke about the problems in the south west. I am aware of the concerns in regard to unenclosed land in the south west. Nationally, if we are to achieve sustainable development of the sector we need to balance interests. Ideally, forestry should be a positive for the environment. Pragmatically what we should be aiming for in the meantime is, at least, that it is not damaging to the natural environment and water quality.
In terms of burning, there can be enormous issues with burning in terms of the release of greenhouse gases from peat and soil erosion. However, there is good and bad burning. It is a complex issue. Problems can arise in this area but we are not quite at the stage where the control of burning is balanced. It is a huge issue for the forestry industry also.
Deputy Pringle asked about the convention on biological diversity. Ireland has signed up to that convention. It is implemented in each signatory state by way of its national biodiversity plan. Ireland's national biodiversity plan was published in 2011. It contains four or five recommendations in relation to forestry, which were developed in conjunction with the forest industry. That, effectively, is how the convention on biological diversity will be introduced in Ireland.
On management plans, which I know we were not asked about directly, money from the national Exchequer is financing forestry. Different interests need to be balanced in forestry. From our perspective a management plan is a good way to incorporate all of those interests. For example, as eight hectares is the average size of a forest, this can be an issue for small farmers. We have seen in other areas how collective development of management plans that can apply to a number of different landowners might be another way around this. A management plan is a really excellent way of ensuring all of those considerations are balanced. This should be required where the forester or land owner is in receipt of Exchequer funding over a 20 year period to develop a forest. My colleague, Mr. St. Ledger, may have more to say on those issues.
Mr. Andrew St. Ledger:
A management plan should include support and incentives for farmers and help in achieving the returns being sought from sustainable forest management while balancing the responsibilities to the environment.
Deputy Pringle also asked about the Rio convention. There is a set of forest principles attached to the Rio convention, which Ireland signed up to. The concept of sustainable forest management derives from those forest principles, the aim of which is to balance the social, economic and environmental aspects of forestry for the long-term benefits of all. An SFC certification process is used to verify sustainable forest management in Ireland. Those principles come from the Rio convention.
On the employment figures, while I mentioned the figure of 11,500 earlier, there is room for much more employment. In mentioning that figure I was not trying to challenge the IFA. I believe there is potential for much more employment, as there was in the 1950s in the west of Ireland under the Sean McBride-Bulmer Hobson 10,000 hectare afforestation programme, which preserved the economic life of the west of Ireland.
Senator Comiskey referred to the recreation aspect of forestry. This is also forms part of the Rio forest principles. In other words, there must be benefits to the public. In Switzerland all forests, public and private, are accessible to the public. The Rio convention is enshrined in the Swiss constitution. Its forest strategy and management is dedicated to achieving the forest principles. It is one of the countries in the world that is seriously considering sustainable forest management for economic, social and environmental returns. We could do with studying where it is coming from.
Going back a little in history to 1904, the first recommendation of the committee which considered the reafforestation of Ireland at a time when it had less than 1% coverage was that a shelter belt be implemented along the whole west coast of Ireland, with the benefits that were known for farming, agriculture and communities coming inland. However, that never happened. Only some of the recommendations of that committee, particularly those relating to timber production, were picked up on. It would perhaps be worth revisiting that committee's full report in terms of the different multiple industries that committee believed could help Ireland regenerate its economy, using forestry as a backbone.
On jobs and funding for forestry, there is provision in the rural development programme, by way of EU funding, for forestry. It appears at this stage that Ireland will not avail of this under the next rural development programme. That is an issue. Funding will then have to come from the Exchequer, as has been the case since 2007. As such, there will be less funding available for more narrow policies, namely, timber production and primacy of profit. We will miss out on the opportunity to achieve the other objectives of sustainable forest management. One of the better forest service elements of the native woodlands scheme, namely, conservation, has been dropped. This relates to the management of semi-natural existing woodlands, in which area additional employment could be created. An opportunity is being missed to tick boxes regarding the environmental, social and cultural aspects of forestry.
In regard to the management plans and the administrative burden in terms of costs and so on, the witnesses did not clarify the current cost of a felling licence and what new costs are anticipated as a result of this legislation. I would welcome if they could elaborate further on those issues. Also, one of the witnesses said that the provision of management plans should be voluntary rather than mandatory. Given the State is investing heavily in subsidising forestry I believe it is reasonable there should be a management plan in place. Do the witnesses anticipate the need for a tiered level of management plan, depending on acreage or size of forestry to which a plan is applicable, in order to ease the financial burden on smaller growers? It is reasonable in my view that management plans should be put in place given the State's investment in this area into the future. I do not believe it is sufficient to say that this would result in financial loss to a grower who does not manage a forest properly. It is also a financial loss to the State in terms of its subsidisation of forestry into the future.
Mr. Brendan Lacey:
Mr. Whelan will respond to the Deputy's question on the felling licence. On the management plan, management plans make sense. There is no doubt about that. Anyone wanting to run a business properly would have a management plan. The only issue we have with the provision of a management plan is that it is a compulsory requirement on every owner. Not every plantation has been funded by the State. That is one distinction.
I realise many have been, and perhaps there might be an issue where, in applying for a planting grant, for example, a grower might be required to outline certain proposals relating to what he might wish to do in future. However, that is in respect of new applications. Not every forest has been State-aided.
The other point about the provisions of the Bill is that the Minister can accept, reject or modify a grower's management plan. We do not see where that is coming from. At issue is the forest service as an administrative authority deciding on the management and functions of management. The service would be stepping into the shoes of the forest owner in deciding what he should grow and what his policy is in terms of what he wants to achieve from his forest. We have a problem with this dictation of the management plan by the forest service, quite apart from the burden.
The reality is that any larger growers will have management plans, more than likely. For example, they must have a management plan if they are applying for certification. Most of the larger growers would be certified to environmental standards. It sounds like we are making something out of nothing but the issue of the dictation of those management plans by the Minister is where we have the greatest concern. There is also the burden. The likelihood is that the larger growers will have management policies anyway, but to put a burden on the smaller growers to bear the cost of producing the plan is one problem. The dictation of what they should grow and how they should grow it is another problem.
Mr. Brendan Lacey:
It would be rather small and they would tend to be the older forests in the country. By and large, of the plantations since 1992, up to 99% have been grant aided but nothing was specified in the conditions. Let us suppose someone took a decision at that time based on what he was told he would need to do and set out his management policies accordingly. We have an objection to the grower being instructed to change how he manages the forest now when those crops are perhaps 20 or 21 years old.
My reading of the IFA submission is that it can be approved, rejected, revoked or revised at any stage. Does that suggest that a grower could have an approved management plan in place with the forestry progressing, and the entire thing can be revised at some stage down the road?
Mr. Brendan Lacey:
I wish to add to that point. There is another strange provision. If conditions are applied to a felling licence and that licence is subsequently revoked, those conditions can still be enforced. This means a grower could be in a position whereby if he had not bothered to apply for a licence, he would not have those conditions. If a grower did apply, the licence was revoked and the grower was left with those conditions, the grower would have to bear the cost of that without the benefit of what he was supposed to be doing in the first place, that is, getting revenue from his timber sales.
Mr. Michael Fleming:
Yes. I wish to make it clear to Deputies that farmers make a contribution. They are tying up the land for life, forever. There is an incentive for 20 years and that is important because they have no source of income for the first 20 years when they are taking on the commodity. They are committing their land forever and they have no level of compensation for the second rotation or whatever. It is a once-off payment. The value of that land will be greatly reduced once it enters forestry.
Deputy Ferris raised the fact that we have not reached the target of 7,000 ha of planting. That is quite correct. This year we reached 6,200 ha, last year we reached 6,500 ha and year before that 6,250 ha. As we said in our initial statement, forestry works on confidence. There was an 8% cut on premium in 2009 and that certainly dented confidence.
Another aspect had a major bearing on the matter as well. In 2009, the Department reduced the premium for marginal land from approximately €99 per acre to €65 per acre. In 2010, the Department came back and put an arbitrary 20% figure on the amount of ground it would allow through the system. In other words, a farmer had to plant four acres of a good field to get in one acre of marginal land. This had a major bearing on the figure as well. It is probably not the entire explanation of why we are not achieving our figure, but certainly it had a major bearing in the reduction and why we are not getting our figures.
We must look forward and consider 2020 and whether to grow other products, perhaps dairy, beef and sheep. That will have to come out of the good land. We must give our marginal land consideration. If the land has the productive capacity to grow timber and it is not tripping up any environmental constraint, surely we must consider planting the land.
There is a certain diversity of perspective on the Forestry Bill and afforestation. One thing that is agreed is that Ireland should try to up its percentage of land cover under forestry. By way of context, for anyone in Wicklow who wishes to plant, the matter is asset sensitive. A grower must have four water tests carried out, from February to May, inclusive, on the area he proposes to grow. A 15% biodiversity area is mandatory in all new plantations. This area must be set aside for biodiversity. One of the barriers to native woodland species approvals in Wicklow has been deer. Only one has been granted in the past three years and that is almost in County Dublin. None the less, it is a consistent problem.
Reference was made to vegetation. For the purposes of the new rural development programme, Wicklow Uplands Council, Burren Life and others are putting in upland environment management plans which include burning. There is no point in saying otherwise. However, it is in a managed way and it is traditional. It is done for a variety of reasons, including to improve the vegetation and to allow deer to migrate up to where their more native territory would have been. It is also done to prevent spreading fires, which are a danger to everyone and woodland.
Reference was made to open access. Consideration must be given to young plantations in particular and to not allowing any access until they are well established. I live in the middle of a Coillte forest estate. One of the greatest problems is that there are water tankers on stand-by at all times in Trooperstown, where the public play, in case of fire.
The concern on the other side relates to not having some form of default position with an obligation to replant. The concern I have is that this leaves it wide open to speculators to purchase the land, clean the timber and walk away. Perhaps at the time the felling licence was granted a decision was made but there may be reasons a grower would not plant now where he planted 25 years ago, especially if he is aware of issues relating to the yield class, the environment or whatever. We should be cognisant of the fact that if we simply state that there is no replanting obligation, we are leaving ourselves open to be pillaged. That is a personal opinion. I am concerned there may be no safety measures in place for that. I say that as someone who is a private forest owner and grower, albeit a small one. None the less, it is something we should bear in mind.
It is interesting that the Irish Forestry and Forest Products Association welcomes management plans. The association maintains they should not be mandatory. There is a size above which they should be mandatory, but certainly for smaller plantations they should be incorporated into the conditions of an afforestation grant, which should be sufficient, and the felling licence should take care of the rest.
Reference was made to the 28-day timeframe. That is ridiculous when we consider there is a three month period for planning applications to be processed. Purely from the point of view of efficiency, a five-year felling licence with the amount of licences that will come down the path in the coming years is unworkable given the level of manpower available at the moment. There are pragmatic things which, I hope, we will be able to deal with on Committee Stage.
The Society of Irish Foresters requested today to come before the committee. We have invited the society in on 11 February. Committee Stage of the Bill will take place on 25 February. It will involve the select committee meeting in public session. I hope we will get to tease out all of the issues. Everyone who asked to come before the committee has been afforded the opportunity. That should contribute to a better constructed forestry Bill. As there is no other business, that concludes the meeting for today. I thank all witnesses who attended.