Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 20 October 2020
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Challenges for the Forestry Sector: Discussion
Today is the first on a couple of meetings on the challenges for the forestry sector. We will hear about Ash dieback and licensing. The meeting will be in two parts. In the first, we will hear from a representative of the Limerick Tipperary Woodland Owners Limited to discuss Ash dieback which is a very great issue in that part of the country. Foresters have suffered severe financial losses. Then representatives of the Irish Farmers Association will discuss the broader problems within the industry. The meeting will suspend for five minutes between both parts to allow the desks to be sanitised. I remind members there are sanitation products throughout the room which should be used when taking or vacating seats.
I am delighted to welcome representatives of the Limerick and Tipperary Woodlands Owners Limited, TWO, who travelled today to be before the committee. I welcome Mr. Simon White, vice chair of the TWO, and Mr. John O'Connell, its director. We have received its opening statement which has been circulated to members. To allow as much time for questions and answers, I ask that the opening remarks be brief, and they should not exceed five minutes.
I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a 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 they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity 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 House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Mr. Simon White:
I am on the board of a group that represents farmers affected by Ash dieback but also forestry in general.
With me today is Mr. John O'Connell. He is very representative of the type of people affected because he is an award winner in the growing of forestry. Teagasc has asked him to demonstrate and he has held international demonstrations on his plantation. He is very representative and is the sort of person to whom people in forestry turn for advice. I will hand over to him to make our opening statement.
Mr. John O'Connell:
I will give a brief history of the ash dieback problem. Ash dieback, now known as Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, was discovered in 1992 in eastern Europe and since then has spread throughout Europe. It is a windborne fungal disease, much like potato blight. There is currently no means of treating this disease. The spores can travel 20 km to 30 km in the air and infect ash trees through their leaves, causing the leaves to wilt and ultimately causing the tree to die. It was first reported in Ireland in 2012, has spread throughout the country and is going to wipe out 95% of our native ash. As an island nation more than 30 km from our nearest neighbour, we should have been in a position to prevent the invasion of the disease with proper phytosecurity. Plants were imported from Europe where the disease was prevalent. This importation defies logic as ash is a native tree and should have been propagated in this State. There are 20,000 ha of privately planted ash in the country, all of which will ultimately be infected. Ash trees were planted by farmers because ash is a native broadleaf which is fast growing and has high commercial potential, with hurley making being the primary use as well as other uses such as in furniture, kitchens and boat building. It also has a high biodiversity value.
The current reconstitution and underplanting scheme, RUS, announced on 10 June 2020 has been completely rejected by farmers and foresters and all their representative bodies as it does not adequately address the enormous losses sustained and the extremely restrictive conditions imposed. A clearance grant of €1,000 goes nowhere near the cost of clearing an infected plantation, which can be in excess of €3,000 or €4,000 per acre depending on the size and age of the plantation.
The afforestation pioneers who planted over 25 years ago are relied upon within the sector for advice and experience but are precluded from participation in the RUS. This is leading to a prevailing sense of disillusionment. The value of these plantations has been reduced to the value of firewood. At this point, a 25-year-old plantation should be 15 years away from significant commercial value, not to mention that the environmental benefits from decades of work are being undone. A major incentive in planting ash trees was to provide financial security in retirement, but this potential opportunity has been destroyed. These people have no responsibility for, nor any control over, these losses and are substantially stressed. Other farming sectors have suffered disastrous losses from TB or foot and mouth disease and such losses were addressed immediately. Due to the halting of the initial ash dieback scheme and delay in introducing the RUS on 10 June 2020, the farmer-forester has been left in limbo for at least six years while the disease has been allowed to run riot. We now need to move forward in a positive direction. The inaction to date is having a detrimental effect on farmers considering engaging in forestry. Farmer-foresters are custodians for future generations and should be treated as having the potential to mitigate a lot of the climate problems. That potential needs to be recognised.
The solution to this ash dieback problem should be addressed as follows: First, consultation must involve engagement.
To date there has been a lack of engagement between the forest service and farmers and foresters. It should be borne in mind that the farmer or forester is the primary stakeholder. Any solution must encompass all infected ash plantations. The conditions of the RUS need to be simplified so that the farmer or forester can progress with the process. The programme must be easily understood. It is suggested that, under the scheme, one may have to submit a Natura impact statement, which involves additional cost.
The costs incurred in the removal of stumps and roots should be covered, especially in older plantations where costs are enormous due to the size of stumps and roots. The cost of replacing and replanting the trees should also be covered. This needs to be followed by premiums of at least 15 years and an additional element to cover losses to date, not to mention the stress and trauma of this catastrophe. There should be an option to return land to pasture for those farmers who need it. This may not apply in all cases.
I will now go into the reasons our submission must be taken seriously. Farmers and foresters are climate custodians. There is no more efficient way of mitigating CO2 than planting trees. A myriad of other health, social and ecological benefits are involved. Forests produce oxygen, without which mankind will not survive.
If we want a forest industry in this country, we must address the ash dieback problem which is reducing confidence to zero. We must be taken seriously. Finally, we cordially extend an invitation to each member of the committee to visit infected sites. If any members contact us, we will be happy to facilitate this.
I welcome our witnesses. I mean no offence but I wish to put something on the record. The representatives' group is called Limerick and Tipperary Woodland Owners but I stress that this issue does not affect Limerick and Tipperary only. I am from Westmeath and a farmer based outside Mullingar has contacted me with a serious problem in this regard. While I am not coming at the witnesses, it is important to note that this is a national issue, although the group deals with Tipperary and Limerick.
I have a couple of quick questions based on the submission. It states that there was a lack of engagement with regard to the establishment of the RUS. Was there any engagement at all? I would like to know what engagement there was in respect of the formation of that scheme because one of the complaints I have heard from the individual I mentioned and from others is that the scheme is not effective and not enough but that, even if it was, its implementation has been a disaster. It seems to be on park the whole time. Even if one engages with the Department in respect of the scheme, the can is kicked down the road and no progress is made. Regardless of the inefficiencies of the scheme itself, the Department is not operating it correctly. Perhaps the representatives will elaborate on their experiences in this regard.
I will ask a few more questions on the disease in order to inform myself as much as anything else. I will call it ash dieback rather than attempting to give it its full technical name. One first notices that an ash tree is affected because of obvious signs on the leaves. If immediate action is taken, is the timber still 100% useful or does it deteriorate or rot as the disease progresses? If I grow ash trees and see from the leaves that the trees are affected, and if I get the go-ahead from the Department to harvest the timber, would it be salvageable? I ask the witnesses to answer those questions as I believe they covered everything else in their submission.
Mr. John O'Connell:
I was recently at a site where hurley butts were being taken out. The stems were going for firewood. One can see the ash dieback. It is obvious in the prong. The spores come in through the leaves and affect the tree from the top down. The top of the tree looks like antlers. One can see the prong and the bare stems protruding from the top of the tree. That is ash dieback.
The timber can be recovered if it is cut down in time, but there is no means of processing it, other than for firewood, which is the only value it has. There will be a glut of firewood on the market because of it. People are concerned about how they can deal with the problem of ash dieback. There are trees that are nearly 18 m tall, and taking them down is a fairly big undertaking. Again, there is-----
Mr. John O'Connell:
It is. That has been the case for the past five years. In Tipperary, there reservoirs of the spores in plantations that have been left in limbo. We are all in that situation, and it is too late to address it. It is like the potato blight, without the bluestone, or whatever antifungal treatment there is. It is going to spread throughout the country; one can see the ash trees on any road way that are dying and dead. I look at my plantation, 50% of which is ash. I have done my best to manage it for the past 25 years, and I am approaching an age, now, where I am considering retiring. I was looking forward to enjoying the proceeds of this going towards my retirement, and it is devastating to see trees, even in June, without leaves. These trees are dead. We are managing a dead crop. How do we proceed from here?
Mr. Simon White:
I might add to that. There is no doubt that trees that are affected are going to die. Some 95% of ash trees in the country are going to die. We are in a salvage operation. The trees that are affected are not going to grow anymore, so they are not going to get to saw-log stage, and they will not end up as hurleys, if they are small trees which are at that stage. There is a very limited period in which they will remain sound timber. All they are at the moment is firewood, and the value of firewood will rocket downwards with oversupply because there will be so much ash being cut down. What I am trying to say is that once it comes in, the disease cannot be stopped. The disease is moving right across the countryside. There may be some areas that have not yet been affected, but they are going to get it. Until this year, we did not have much of it in our area, but now it is rampant throughout the forests. It has stopped the growth and the trees are dying.
The Senator also asked about engagement. We were invited, at various times, to meet with the forest service when it was designing this scheme. We said at that stage, from our experience as growers on the ground, that these measures were not going to help the situation. It took seven years for the measures to be rolled out from when the original scheme ended. There is no compensation involved; the only chance that anybody has out of this scheme is that they will get a chance to replant. They will be going back to square one. I planted 20 years ago and Mr. O'Connell planted 25 years ago. We are not deemed to be eligible for the scheme. Our trees are too big and too old, and we represent many people who are in the same boat. The best that anyone with a plantation can get is to go back and plant from square one again. When we did it 20 years ago, we got premiums for it. We do not get premiums now and are not eligible for them. We have been asked to do it again at this late stage in our lives. We planted a generation ago and we have been asked to go back to square one again. It is very unfair.
I thank Mr. White and Mr. O'Connell for coming in, making their presentation and supplying the committee with a script in advance. I want to touch on some of the points raised the presentation. The witnesses have spoken about a lack of consultation. They might elaborate on that.
I am interested in hearing about their consultation and engagement with State agencies that the committee would expect to support their organisation and, certainly, to listen to it.
Mr. O'Connell referred to the reconstitution and underplanting scheme, RUS, and stated that its conditions need to be simplified. He acknowledged the system is in place. I know there are difficulties with it. He referred to it being simplified. In what way should that be done?
He referred to the costs incurred in removing stumps, etc. I know that is not a runner for the witnesses, as they made that clear. It is a generational thing. Teagasc has done much work on disease-resistant varieties of ash. It is not the case that ash will no longer grow in this country. Of course, it will. It is a fast-growing tree that is suitable for conditions here for many reasons, so long as it is disease resistant. What knowledge do the witnesses have in that regard?
A more important option to which many people have referred is that of returning the land to pasture. That is an attractive proposition for some people, particularly if there are no restrictions, that is, not having to replant the land, etc. That is important. What are the witnesses' views in that regard?
I refer to a new premium scheme. What type of scheme would the witnesses like to be put in place? What do they see as the way forward in terms of addressing this issue? It affects people differently having regard to their investment or, for many people, in terms of timeframe. Mr. O'Connell suggested he may be getting out of the business. There is a long lead-in time, encompassing a minimum period of 20 years. Do the witnesses have a view on the 15-year premiums paid on replanting? What would they like to be put in place in that regard?
Mr. Simon White:
The first issue raised by the Senator is that of engagement. The engagement we have had to date is that we have been brought into a room and allowed to express our views, but we have not been heard or listened to. Our views have not been taken into consideration in the designing of schemes that we have stated will not work or address the problem. I refer to our engagement with individual foresters and inspectors coming into farms. It is a nightmare for anybody currently involved with forestry in general and not just those affected by ash dieback.
The Senator asked about the RUS. There are many things that are not addressed within the scheme. He referred to the option of going back to grassland. For many people, that it is the most viable option open to them. It is not currently allowed. It should be considered and introduced. In terms of the management of the scheme, people are categorised according to the growth of their plantation. That is incredibly unfair because it means that those who have the youngest plantations, with some years of premium still to be paid on them, have lost the least because they have lost the least amount of growth of their plantation. They are being helped to replant. However, those whose trees and plantations are older and who have invested a great deal of time, effort and money into them are experiencing significant losses. A capital value should be placed on such plantations at this stage. Many such plantations have been totally wiped out and many of those affected, such as Mr. O'Connell and me, are not eligible for any supports except under the woodland improvement scheme, which was not designed to deal with this issue.
A point that must be put across is that we did not bring in this disease. It never should have got into the country. It was rampant in Europe from the late 1990s. The forest service knew that was the case. Ash trees should have been propagated in this country and planted, but trees were imported and that brought the disease in. We are an island nation and should have applied tighter security in order to keep it out. So doing is the responsibility of the forest service but the threat is not being taken seriously. There is a risk of other invasive species being brought in because we cannot cut down the timber that is currently needed for timber processing. The whole system is such a mess that the only option is to import timber. However, the dangers of so doing are right in front of us and we do not have a system to protect us.
I thank the witnesses for their presentation. There was reference to 20 years of growth, and it was stated that this disease is probably going to affect all the ash trees around the country. There are many along the sides of the roads as well, which many people might not notice, and those trees might break in a storm because of this disease. Given the situation that the members of the witnesses' organisation are in, and the witnesses having said that the timber has value as firewood, how can it be got out?
Turning to the scenario of compensation, where do the witnesses stand in that regard? What would solve that issue? Would it be possible to put a price on whatever value might be achievable for felling, splitting and selling the timber for firewood? What would be sown in place of the felled trees? Would it be broadleaf trees or something else? What, then, is the best solution to this problem? Would it be to give a grant for 15 years on a new plantation, and to include the initial grant for planting as well? Will the witnesses give us some ideas in that regard? Was reference made to there being 20,000 ha or 20,000 acres being planted in Ireland?
Can we get some idea of the cost? If every plant is going to get this disease, do we have any idea how many have it now? I understand that the witnesses may not know the situation around the country, but what percentage of trees have the disease now? Is there anything to prevent the disease from spreading, or is it just inevitable that it will? What would be the cost to cut to the chase and cut the timber down as firewood? Some money would be made out of doing that, and there is no point in saying otherwise because people do not sell timber for nothing.
In respect of the re-establishment of plantations and whatever is chosen instead of ash for plantations, and the provision of grant aid, can the witnesses contextualise what will be required? I note that there was reference in the opening statement to the importation of trees. The reality is that I got information that there are county councils in this country bringing in Christmas trees. We have seen the problem in Germany with spruce trees, so we need to be very careful of importation.
It is very sad especially for the people from hurling counties that one of the things for which we are recognised will be affected. I refer to the many people who buy ash trees to make hurls in different parts of the country. It is sad that that is in jeopardy as well.
Mr. Simon White:
That is the point I want to make. I am a research scientist, so I have some experience in research. The amount of research that is going on into propagating disease-resistant trees is tiny. Nothing has been found. It is like finding a vaccine for Covid-19. Everybody is talking about how lovely that would be, but it is not there yet. It has not been found, no effort under way and no nurseries are growing disease-resistant trees now. Such disease-resistant trees have not been found, so to rely on that is a little bit premature. The trees that we grow, therefore, must be different trees from ash trees.
Regarding the form of compensation, no form of compensation has been put forward to anybody affected by ash dieback. We need-----
What is the ideal scenario that will resolve this issue? Is it that people get their saws, cut down what trees are there, get the timber out, and then get a re-establishment grant and a grant for 15 years?
What solves this? I know there is nothing to solve it at the moment but I am asking about Mr. White's opinion.
Mr. Simon White:
I understand. There are measures that could be introduced. Most are encompassed in this type of scheme but the way that they have been put forward means that, for instance, the lack of premium would make a significant difference. The scheme introduces underplanting, which means, for example, leaving 40% of the trees and underplanting. That is a technique that has not been tried and, from our point of view as foresters, we know that if one underplants trees, those trees that are going to die will fall of their own accord, or we will fell them, and they will damage the trees that have been underplanted. The documentation states that this measure has been introduced to stop the spread of the disease and the rate of spread. It will do no such thing and it cannot because one is leaving trees from an infected plantation in situto carry on. Many of the claims made in the scheme are wrong. They cannot work. We know that, working on the ground, dealing with forestry.
Afforestation has become incredibly dangerous to workers. It is a dangerous environment. One needs trained people working with chainsaws. There is an idea that is easy to take out trees. It is incredibly complicated and expensive to get people trained. Members talk about the value of the timber that comes out of it. It is extremely expensive to extract timber from forestry. The cost of firewood is going down and people cannot get €35 per cu. m for it. That is infinitesimal money compared with what a forest is worth. Something has to be brought into the scheme to compensate for people's losses, to recognise the cost of measures to address the situation and the timing.
Everything has been kicked down the road. Nobody who has applied for the scheme has been granted permission to do it yet and many people are wondering whether it is worth their while going into the scheme. Everybody is waiting for the forest service to come up with something feasible, because it is not feasible for the people on the ground. There is significant anger and frustration among people on the ground and a feeling of being let down. There is also a feeling of despondency for anybody going into forestry in the future. Who would go into forestry to be treated like this? It is at a time when forestry and trees have so much to offer. We should be going down that road. The forest service brought in the Mackinnon report.
Cut me off if I am going on for too long.
I welcome the witnesses. It is sad to see that 95% of our ash trees are dying around the country. We see it ourselves, especially in Tipperary. I guarantee Deputy Fitzmaurice that we still have enough to win another couple of all-Irelands with what we have left.
It is crazy that the pioneers that did it 25 years ago are not being allowed to participate in the new scheme. They are the kind of people who have the expertise and knowledge needed to solve this.
Will the witnesses describe the process of clearing a failed plantation, the impact it would have on the land and how much work is involved in clearing it properly, to get rid of the roots and everything? What happens when a plantation is clearly failing and it is not felled on time? What is the impact on the surrounding areas? The witnesses have called for the option, as Senator Boyhan raised here, to return the land to pasture.
I think it was Mr. White who said it was not allowed. Why not? I will leave it at those three questions.
I have a final question in terms of context. Mr. O'Connell referred to the forestry services as being culpable for the importation. Who imported ash? Who thought that it was a good idea to import a hardwood that was native to this country?
I thank Mr. White and Mr. O'Connell for coming in today and for their excellent opening statement outlining the issue and the importance of forestry in tackling many of the problems that lie ahead of us. They find themselves in a very challenging situation.
My question is similar to the line of questioning taken by Deputy Carthy on the origins of the disease. Was the importation of ash due to a price difference between the imported seedlings and the native seedlings and is that ultimately what led to the disease coming into this country?
My second question has been somewhat answered already but the witnesses can feel free to elaborate. It relates to the categories of support available under the scheme and the three options there. I think Mr. White said that he did not see any likely uptake for the scheme. Is it the case that he does not see potential for the scheme at all?
Similar questions were asked by Deputies Carthy, Leddin and others. Significant financial losses have been suffered by forestry growers. That has been clearly established. Deputies Carthy and Leddin inquired about the importation of the ash trees. When, why and under whose authority were they imported and were they inspected on arrival?
Deputy Fitzmaurice asked a question on what would be a cost-effective scheme. You will never get back the financial loss you have suffered as a result of this valuable crop being lost, but what would allow you to clear the site in question whereby people would be tempted to replant? I believe that is a synopsis of what Deputy Fitzmaurice was saying. We will have officials from the Department before the committee in the next couple of weeks. You are the growers, and you say this ash was imported 20 or 25 years ago. What biosecurity was involved and what questions have been asked of the officials up to now as regards what precautions were taken with the importation of the ash?
Mr. Simon White:
To follow up on what Mr. O'Connell said, as far as I understand it, a great deal of the planting was done by private companies, which one employed. They got the grant for the plantations. The trees were not available in this country. Nurseries were not growing them, and they were not encouraged to grow them. Therefore, the private companies, through the forest service, had to get a licence to import those plants from other countries which planted a large amount of ash, such as France and the like. However, it was known that the disease was prevalent in Europe at the time. I contend that there was a responsibility on them for phyto security and to have checked out those plants. Most of the plants came in under licence, which should never have been granted. It was a disease that could have been kept out of the country. It has now invaded our native ash, which has destroyed a huge asset of this country. We and everybody else are the ones paying the price.
Deputy Martin Browne was concerned about the cost of taking plantations out. It costs approximately €3,000 or €4,000 per acre - that is €10,000 per ha - to take the roots out of an ash plantation. That is to clear the ground and get the roots out of a 20-year plantation. That is a great deal of money for an individual to pay to get back to square one. Then one must replant and start from scratch again. One is replanting with a different species, if one wishes to do so. Most of the people who planted broadleafs do not wish to put in Sitka or the like. They do not want to have no option.
One of the members asked about the uptake.
I wish to follow up on the proposition that the ash tree is going to be extinct, for want of a better term, in Ireland. This disease has been prevalent in parts of Europe since 1992, when it was first noticed. However, the ash has not disappeared from the entire Continent of Europe.
Mr. Simon White:
For anybody who cannot grasp that, when I started farming in 1974 there were elm trees everywhere. There are no elm trees except in a little area in Kerry.
Elm trees are extinct. They were taken out by the Dutch elm disease. This is ash dieback and ash will be extinct unless we find a solution. The idea that we will be able to plant immune ash is a little bit far-fetched. If it does happen, it will be 20 or 30 years from now and not tomorrow.
I was coming to that. It is important because part of our discussions about forestry over the next number of meetings will have to take in how we can encourage new entrants into forestry, have a sustainable forestry policy and move away from the proliferation of Sitka spruce plantations to encourage broadleaf planting across the country. The experience with ash over the past 20 years is going to make that difficult, unless we get to a point where people can be assured that in the event of an invasive contamination taking place, the supports will be in place to help landowners and planters to get over that.
The witnesses outlined in their opening submission several measures that need to happen and some of these are quite extensive. Has Mr. White sought a cost? Has the Department or the forest service indicated a cost to implement his proposals across the board?
Mr. Simon White:
As we are a small group of people, it is difficult for us to actually make up the costs. The forestry committee of the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, which will address the committee, would have much more information, facts and figures. An individual is going to find it difficult to do the big costings. I hope the committee will do that.
Mr. Simon White:
The forestry companies were given, in general, the planting grant, namely the money paid to individuals to plant. One applied to plant and grow trees and then one employed a company to plant those trees. It had to get permission from the forest service to import those trees and plant them. It then got paid for doing that. We were given no control over from where the plants came. In many cases, where we might have desired to plant different species, we were told no and this is what would be planted.
The forest service, in the contract, set out for us and dictated how it was done. The forestry companies got paid. They were the ones which imported them but had to do so under licence from the forest service. Accordingly, responsibility lands with the forest service and its phytosanitary security. We believe it let us down completely.
I would like the witnesses to clarify something to ensure I picked it up right. Generally, when a person plants trees, they decide to go for ash, oak or whatever. The person employs a forestry operator who will do up the paperwork, look after them for a certain number of years and submit the proposal to the Department for the farmer. The witnesses said the Department decided what trees would be planted. Did it say the witnesses had to plant ash or were they looking to plant ash?
Mr. Simon White:
The original application was put in based on how the individual wanted to plant, probably in consultation with their forestry company, which specified: "You can't do this. You can't do that." That was then put forward to the Department. A departmental inspector would dictate what areas were planted and what species could be used, and the departmental inspector signed off on it. Again, the responsibility goes back to the Department and its inspectors. Our trouble is that many mistakes were made at that stage.
We were basically dictated to as to how we would do it. From our experience 20 or 30 years later, we would do things quite differently. The way the trees were planted - whether it was ploughed or done with ditching and mounding - was dictated to us. For instance, ditching and mounding is not good for ash plantations. I was told that every ash tree I had needed to be mounded. For hurley butts that is not the best way of doing it; it is better to do it on flat ground. I did not know that at the time, and we found out later. That was dictated to us by the inspector from the forestry service.
I thank the witnesses for their presentation. Obviously, there has been a serious financial loss for all the growers of ash and as far as the growers are concerned, these issues have not been addressed. This is the first of a series of meetings we are having on forestry and ash dieback. We will put questions on ash dieback to departmental officials when they appear before us and ask them to outline their proposals to address the serious financial issues.
Mr. Simon White:
I thank the Chairman and committee members for allowing us to present to them today. I thank everybody who has taken part. We have spent years trying to get across our views and the position our members are in. We may be from Tipperary and Limerick, but we are representative of all the ash growers in the country. We are trying to get across that if we are not taken seriously on this issue, tree planting will not happen. As an environmental scientist I can see how important it is. We need to think seriously about forestry. We will face fines for not meeting our commitments. Would it not be much better to spend the money now planting all these trees, using the experience of people like us who know how to do it well and have a decent forestry system in this country because otherwise we will not have an industry and will have all imported trees? Soon one will not need to grow a tree in Ireland.
We shall resume. We are joined in this session by representatives from the Irish Farmers Association: Mr. Tim Cullinan, president; Ms Geraldine O'Sullivan, senior policy executive; and from outside Leinster House via remote connection are Mr. Vincent Nally, chairman of the forestry committee; Mr. Charlie Doherty, vice-chairman, forestry committee; and Mr. Damian McDonald, director general.
Before we begin I will give a formal notice on parliamentary privilege.This is the first occasion during which witnesses will be contributing remotely into our meeting. This is also happening in other committees. For those members who have not done this previously I ask that they pause before asking questions of the witnesses who are contributing remotely because there could be a time lag with the sound. Most important is the evidence of the witnesses and the caveat in relation to that evidence.
Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity or an official by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. If witnesses are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter, they must respect that direction. Participants in a committee meeting from a location outside of the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that the constitutional protections afforded to those participating from within the parliamentary precincts do not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether, or the extent to which, their participation is covered by absolute privilege of a statutory nature.
I invite the IFA president to make his opening statement. In view of time constraints, I ask that this is kept as brief as possible, which would allow us the time to maximise the time for debate and questions and answers.
Mr. Tim Cullinan:
I thank the Chairman and members for inviting the IFA to address the committee here today. I am joined remotely by Mr. Vincent Nally, chairman of the forestry committee, Mr. Charlie Doherty, vice chairman of the forestry committee, Mr. Damian McDonald, IFA director general, and with me in the committee room I am joined by Ms Geraldine O'Sullivan, senior policy executive of environment and forestry.
Before I present the challenges facing the farm forestry sector, it would be useful to give a brief overview of farmers' involvement in the sector.
Before I present the challenges facing the farm forestry sector, it would be useful to give overview of farmers' involvement in the sector.
Farmers started to plant their land in the mid-1980s. Following the introduction of improved grants and premiums in the early 1990s, they became the driving force of the afforestation programme. Farmer planting peeked in 1995 at more than 17,000 ha. This year, farmer planting is expected to be less than 1,500 ha.
To date, almost 20,000 or 15% of farmers have diversified into forestry. They manage nearly 270,000 ha of grant-aided forest land with an average forest size of eight ha. The private forest estate, which is predominantly owned by farmers, accounts for 50% of the national forest estate. Many of these forests have recently entered into the management stage with wood production expected to increase rapidly in the coming years as they reach maturity. Wood production forecasts expect volumes to grow from 3 million cu. m in 2018 to nearly 8 million cu. m by 2035 with almost all of the increased volume to come from farm forests.
The importance of modern forestry and wood production in sequestering carbon and tackling the climate emergency is well known. Wood production sequesters carbon, provides the raw material for green jobs and low-carbon manufacturing and reduces the reliance on imported timber, which may be harvested unsustainably from natural forests. Yet despite the many benefits of our indigenous forest industry, multiple barriers to woodland creation and management exist resulting in missed opportunities to increase forest cover and to develop the potential in the bio-economy. If we are to seize the opportunities offered by forestry, it is necessary to understand the reasons for the decline in farmer planting.
The Mackinnon review highlighted that farmers’ confidence and optimism regarding forestry has waned in recent years due to cumulative policy decisions such as the cut in forestry premiums and the removal of the farmer premium differential; the unwarranted retrospective recoupment of payments from farmers, in some instances, back 20 years on applications that had been approved by the Department; the introduction of arbitrary restrictions on land types suitable for forestry; the indecision and lack of adequate supports for forest owners affected by ash dieback; and excessive bureaucracy that has stifled development and made the cost of establishing or managing forests at farm scale prohibitive. The consequence is that farmers no longer view forestry as a safe investment. They feel increasingly like powerless spectators in the management of their own forests locked into forestry under the replanting obligation without recourse.
I will now discuss the forest licence system. More than a thousand farmers who planted their land in good faith are caught up in the current forestry licence crisis and unable to get a licence to manage their forest. They are facing delays of up to two years and in some instances significantly longer to get the licences required to build a forest road and to thin their forest. The sustainable and timely management of forests is essential to optimise timber production and the economic return but also to maximise the ecosystem services and social benefits of these forests. It is now a prerequisite to submit a Natura impact statement, NIS, with a licence application if one wishes to get a decision within a reasonable timeframe. The majority of farm forests cannot support the cost of a NIS and farmers are being disadvantaged and discouraged with regard to managing their forests. In addition, the Department has introduced a two-tiered system where larger applications are dealt with as a priority. This actively discriminates against farmers with smaller forests on their farms.
These policies are unacceptable to the IFA and disproportionately affect farm forests that cannot justify the costs associated with planting and managing forests. If the system is not made more farmer-friendly, the proposals set out in the programme for Government and the afforestation targets in the climate action plan will not be achieved. Nearly 2,500 forest licences are caught up in the internal Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine forest licence system and the delays are having a greater impact on farmers as they typically apply when they need a licence. The delays are forcing many into a non-thin policy.
The IFA has a number of proposals that it would like to see introduced as a matter of urgency and with the same determination shown by this Government and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, which saw recent forestry legislation enable the forestry appeals committee to function properly. First, the forest licence system must ensure that no farmer has to wait longer than four months for a forestry licence as set out in the Forestry Act 2014 and the farmer's charter. There should be a review of the appropriate assessment, AA, screening process, associated rules and thresholds so that the AA screening is cost free to the farmer whereby the Department screens a proposed project to determine its impact on Natura sites and if an NIS is required. A threshold should be introduced similar to thresholds applied in agriculture where only proposed forestry projects above 15 h would be screened in. The 15 km radius "likely zone of impact" employed by the Department should be re-assessed and the radius employed tailored to the size and nature of the application. A cost-based planning support grant for forest owners to assist with increased costs and requirements associated with applying for a felling and afforestation licence should be introduced. The Forestry Act 2014 should be amended to introduce new exemptions for activities, such as forest road construction and thinning operations, that are considered good management practices.
The timber shortages resulting from the forest licence backlog are threatening the industry, an industry that in normal time exports approximately €1 billion worth of timber each year. These shortages are jeopardising jobs and businesses that have been built up over the last 40 years to support the expansion of the private forest sector. They are also forcing saw millers to import timber when we are actually self-sufficient, which is unnecessarily endangering the health of the national forest estate through the potential introduction of pests and disease. The need for action on these proposals cannot be understated.
I will now comment on ash dieback. The risk posed by the increased importation of timber to the health of the national estate is a serious concern for forest owners considering the scale of the infestation in Europe of bark beetle. Farmers have first-hand experience of the devastation caused by ash dieback with regard to the survival, growth and wood quality of ash trees and, therefore, the devastating consequence for the commercial value of their timber crop. The reconstitution and underplanting scheme, RUS, is wholly inadequate to compensate forest owners for the financial loss incurred by the disease. The scheme does not include any market valuation or income support measures. Farmers whose livelihoods have been impacted by disease in other agricultural commodities receive income support. Farmers involved in forestry must to be treated in a similar manner. There is no scientific evidence that thinning infected plantations is beneficial in the long term when ash dieback is present. Where dieback is severe, research suggests that the best approach is to harvest the remaining commercial timber before value depreciation and to replant the area with other tree species. The current scheme is forcing farmers to manage a dying crop and invest money into a crop that will yield a very limited return, if any. It is a ludicrous situation and a clear sign of the disconnect between Government policy and forest owners not to mention the huge health and safety risk to forest owners and operators working in these forests. This has not been fully considered by the Department. The programme for Government is focused on increasing the level of planting on farms, particularly the planting of broadleaves to create wildlife corridors and increase biodiversity within our forest estate. If the Government is committed to these proposals, forest owners whose ash forests are being devastated by the disease must be supported.
The IFA proposes the following measures are introduced to ensure that farmers affected by the disease are appropriately supported to manage infected plantations. All infected plantations - both grant aided and non-grant aided - must be eligible for a 100% reconstitution grant to support forest owners to clearfell and replant with tree species that satisfy their management objectives.
Forest premiums must be paid on replanted land for 15 years according to the grant premium category, GPC, rate established. The option not to replant, without penalties, must also be available in certain circumstances. The farming community is watching to see if the Government redresses the supports offered. It will be instrumental in restoring confidence in forestry as a land use option.
The IFA welcomes the proposal in the programme for Government to reintroduce the farmer premium differential. This will be hugely important to address some of the opposition to forestry, and will ensure that the full economic impact of forestry is local, contributing to employment and sustaining rural communities. A whole-of-government approach is needed to develop a farmer-friendly system that actively supports and encourages farmers to manage their forests. Then, and only then, will we see farmers re-engage with forestry at a level required to meet our climate change targets.
I thank the president of the IFA and his team. I particularly acknowledge the hard work of the IFA forestry chairman, Mr. Vincent Nally, who has done an enormous amount of work and is certainly very lively in the Irish Farmers' Journaland other publications, and in communications with my office and with other members.
When one boils down everything Mr. Cullinan said, he has made three hard asks, one of which is a reconstitution grant for all plantations affected by the ash dieback. I will concentrate my contribution on the ash dieback, on which I will focus specifically today. Mr. Cullinan also asked for a 15 year premium to be paid on replanted land. His third ask is for an option not to replant under certain circumstances, which clearly is a very attractive option for some people, while it is not encouraged or permitted in certain circumstances and in certain cases. I would like Mr. Cullinan to tease out those three asks because they are the three central tenets of his presentation today. For example, with regard to the premium, what would be the extent of the period for replanting those lands? The one I hear most from those people who are directly involved is for the option of not replanting under certain circumstances. I thank Mr. Cullinan for appearing before the committee today and his team, especially Mr. Vincent Nally because he has done much work on this. I thank Mr. Cullinan and the IFA for the ongoing engagement, which is critical for the members of this committee, for the members who are elected to the Seanad on the agricultural panel, and for all Members of the Oireachtas. It is a good, positive and proactive engagement and I want to acknowledge that work. Perhaps Mr. Cullinan will concentrate on those three asks, about which the IFA have talked today.
Mr. Tim Cullinan:
I thank Senator Boyhan. I have seen this first hand. I have been on a number of forestry plantations where there has been serious damage done by the ash dieback. If somebody is going to replant, obviously there is a major cost involved in the clearfell and in getting the wood removed. As I have highlighted, there is also a health risk involved in the sawing of the timber. Point number one is that there is a substantial cost.
Point number two is that we have to look at income forgone. These people thought they would have an income from harvesting the trees at the end of 15 year. That is not going to happen. If they are to reconstitute or replant again, and if they do not get a premium, then this will be another 15 years gone with no income. That is very clear from our point of view.
On the third point, if a person is fed up of this, has gone through the system, has done the work of planting broadleaf trees and then decides "I want out of this and I want to get back into grasslands" then he or she is owed that opportunity. These are people who complied with the obligation of putting in hardwood. In some cases, people went over that obligation and put in more hardwood than required. This is where they are at now and these are reasonable asks. I ask that this committee would take those on board.
I thank the IFA president and the other IFA representatives for appearing before the committee. I have also spoken with IFA forestry committee member Tadhg Healy on this issue.
Mr. Cullinan said that it looks like 1,500 ha will be sown this year. The Government's target is 8,000 ha, so it is massively off its 8,000 ha of forestry to be sown this year. It looks to me as though the objectors out there, or whatever we want to call them, have been causing massive harm to the replanting of forests. They are turning farmers totally and utterly against the idea of going into forestry. It is being said that it is no longer a safe investment. Unfortunately, I presume the person who objects feels it will have the desired effect of protecting, but it is actually causing more damage than good. What was passed by the Dáil a couple of weeks ago is not going to streamline this going forward.
Some 2,500 forestry licences are caught up and there are 12,000 jobs at risk, 500 of which are in Ballineen and Enniskean in west Cork. It is a major concern to my constituents. Nearly 2 million tonnes of timber is being held up in a field.
We listened to a presentation made on ash dieback during the earlier session. Why has no one been held responsible for ash dieback? Has the IFA sought to try to find this out? Has someone put their hand up to say they were responsible for directing people to plant certain types of tree that ended up having this ash dieback? Is forestry a safe investment going forward anymore?
Mr. Tim Cullinan:
That is why we are here. We are here because of the serious problem with this. The Deputy asked if forestry is a safe investment going forward. We are all asking that question. It is absolutely incredible that there is a blockage in the system. When the farmer applies for a licence to plant he or she may have to wait for two years. This is crazy stuff. What are we going to have to do? Ireland is self-sufficient in wood but now there is a threat that we will have to import wood to keep our sawmills going. We have to get a solution to this. That is why we are here this evening. We want to put a very strong case across here. We want a very strong message to go to the Minister that this system has to be freed up. We cannot have a scenario where Ireland is self-sufficient in wood but we have to start importing.
Deputy Michael Collins was absolutely correct when he said there are an awful lot of jobs involved. We know where the economy is at the moment. The employment rate is 8% currently and yet we have an industry that is being allowed to go down the tubes.
Our asks are very clear. We want the system freed up. Consider a farmer who wants to do thinning or put roadways into an infrastructure that is there already. Why should that farmer have to go back to look for a licence to go into a plantation that has already been planted for a long number of years? The farmer is not going to do any damage in the area. It is inside in a forest. The farmer is literally going to take out a few rows of trees to allow space for the remainder of the forest to grow. The thinnings alone would help to keep the industry going in the short term. These asks are very reasonable and cost effective. If they were implemented they would save the Government money. We need to know what is going on here, what the blockage is and why it is taking two years to get any licence through the system. It is totally wrong.
I welcome the IFA president, Mr. Cullinan, and Ms O'Sullivan to the committee. By virtue of the technological problems we are having, and to reiterate what Senator Boyhan said about Mr. Vincent Nally, a fellow county man of mine with whom I have had much contact and who is a mine of information on this whole sector, I propose that the committee accept a written submission from Mr. Nally in answer to issues raised here today. This would be for the members' pursual before we meet the Department. It was unfortunate that the technology did not work.
I thank the Chairman.
With that in mind, I have just a couple of questions for the IFA president.
We can go back and spend the limited time we have here talking about where ash dieback came from and whose fault it was that it came in. There is no future in history. This thing is about going forward and getting solutions to the problems we have on hand. The witnesses have commented on the inefficiencies of the reconstitution and underplanting scheme, RUS, and the dilemmas that the ash foresters in particular have. We all know about the programme for Government and the climate action targets. People who first went into forestry 25 or 30 years ago did not know what was at the other end other than promises - I will not say false promises - of a big pull of money for their pension or whatever when they reach that age. Now if we are to meet the number of hectares proposed we are asking for many more people to go in at the start. The people we are asking to go in now are going in with the knowledge of the outcome for the people who went in 30 years ago. They are aware of the ash dieback problem. They are aware of the licensing problems. They are aware of many problems the original planters were not aware of. How will we right those wrongs? How will we convince people to go into forestry in the full knowledge they have of the problems their predecessors had coming out at the end?
On licensing, do the witnesses believe the legislation passed recently by the Seanad and the Dáil will help to solve the problem? Will it affect the problem positively in any way? Does it go far enough, or would they like to see more?
I welcome the representatives of the IFA. Its August report referred to poor afforestation rates and farmer dissatisfaction. I ask Mr. Cullinan to highlight some of the specific areas of farmer dissatisfaction. What would he propose as an alternative measure?
A few years ago, the then Minister, Deputy Creed, said that reinstating the farm premium differential was not an option. He also said that an increase in the premium rate for farmers was no guarantee of increased planting levels. Has Mr. Cullinan spoken to the new the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, about this and what is his view?
Is the Government paying lip service to the forestry sector and especially the small farmer in terms of its priorities? In the past the IFA has highlighted the excessively bureaucratic nature of the application system. I ask for an example of how this has impacted on individual farmers. Has the IFA come across duplication in the system because of this? If the appeals system worked adequately and the support the Minister has committed to were introduced, how long would it take to address the backlog and for those who are out of pocket to begin to feel the results? What is the best way forward in that? What is the extent of the debt that has been built up as a result of machines lying idle and foresters being unable to fell and process the trees?
I ask Mr. Cullinan to comment on timber being imported from areas where the bark beetle has been found.
Mr. Tim Cullinan:
I agree with much of what Senator Paul Daly said. We all know of people who invested in forestry 25 or 30 years ago. They saw it as a pension at the end of the period. Will people go in now? We are seeing the effects of this with the numbers grinding to a halt. There are two reasons for that. Obviously, they are looking at the experience of people in the past, but also they cannot get in at the moment. They are locked out because of the delay in the system.
Will the new legislation do enough? That is a very good question. We made two points today. A farmer forester should be allowed to go in and thin his forest. He should not have to go through a process to get that done. He should be allowed to make a roadway to get access to get in there. Those are the two points. We need to wait and see what will happen. I am concerned over whether it will do enough. We cannot really answer that question today. I have grave reservations on this.
If the length of time to complete the process does not improve, we will have failed again. We cannot afford to wait another two years to see if we fail again. There is a responsibility on the Minister to free up the system. As a farmer, I would find it very hard to decide to plant a forest today when I see the history of the past and where we are at the moment.
Deputy Browne asked about the farm premium. We lobbied for it before the recent budget. It was one of the things we did not get. It is important to have a premium differential to encourage farmers in. I have not spoken to the Minister about that yet. He is aware of it because it was in our pre-budget submission. We are disappointed but we will drive forward again.
Duplication in the system is a problem all round. Our proposals today are about simplifying the system and getting the red tape out of it. I do not know what goes on in the forest service, but I know applications are taking two years to complete. We understand there is an objector as well. However, there must be a way to free up the system. I ask Ms O'Sullivan to speak about whether the appeals system works.
Ms Geraldine O'Sullivan:
The legislation on the appeals is one aspect of it. That is after someone has gone through the internal process. Some 400 cases are caught up in the appeals system and 2,500 are caught up in the internal Department system. We really appreciate the urgency with which that legislation was enacted because it will allow dual cases to be heard which will be of benefit. There is a two-year process before an appeal is heard to allow someone to plant or sow. We will see the benefit of that.
For us, the main problem is the internal departmental system where over 1,000 farmers who want to manage their forests are caught up. As Mr. Cullinan rightly said, at this stage they typically want to go in to thin which is considered good forest management practice. Therefore, they are going in to build a forest road to access and to thin by cutting out one line in seven. It is a very minimal disruption and they cannot do that at the moment. We would like to see the Forestry Act 2014 amended immediately to eliminate the need for a licence for a forest road and for thinning operations. Those should be exempted developments that farmers can plan. They should submit a management plan and that should suffice. That is done in other countries. It provides all the environmental protection needed and removes farmers from the quagmire of the licence application process. It is one thing we could do with immediate effect, and it would resolve the backlog of 2,500 licences. The majority of the farmers within those are caught up with thinning and road building. Very few farmers have got to the clear-fell stage.
We need to make it farmer friendly. We need to address the blockages in the legislation, and we need to simplify the process. The average size is 8 ha. In many cases it is smaller. It needs to go through minimum costs of €1,500 just to get the licence at a time when it is not a highly profitable operation.
On attracting farmers into forestry, COFORD has assessed 180,000 ha of available land that has the productive capacity to grow timber, is outside designations and is excluded from the programme at the moment. That area coming in would result in an uplift if the right grants and premiums were introduced. There is land available. We need to review what we are doing. We need to make the system more farmer friendly and understand the scale of forestry - that it is forestry on farms. There is considerable interest among farmers in planting, but we have made the system too difficult for farmers to plant.
I thank the witnesses for their submissions. I had to leave for a few minutes. We need to call a spade a spade here. In farming terms there is a saying that the day one buys is the day one sells. The day someone plants trees, after going through all the hoops, there should be a follow-on process for putting in a road so that he or she has everything the day he or she starts. That could include a licence to drive a lorry, though one could drive a car or whatever right through as well. We need a system like that where people can bring their road and have it earmarked the day they plant their trees, which they will be thinning when they are fit. Farmers are not crazy. They do not go out thinning when the trees are not ready. They go cutting when they are ready. We need some sort of a system like that. We have to get back to the nub of the issue. We can have all the legislation in the world but we need a new system. The legislation was driven through fairly quickly.
In Ireland, the habitats directive has been brought in. That is the simple fact about it. Everything within 15 km of a designated area has to be screened out. No more than with farming, we cannot do today what we did 20 years ago. In the system that was there down through the years, farmers got help from their forestry person, sent in an application and went to the forestry inspector. The inspector then looked at it and said it was a great job and lovely land which would suit the job perfectly and he or she would go out, look at it and go through it and give the go-ahead. Things progressed and we brought in the habitats directive. Now, when an application comes in there are the legal challenges. We might not like objectors but they saw the gate they could go out. It is as simple as that. We left it open for them.
Since 2010 we have never achieved what we said we would on planting. Only 57% of our worst planting has been planted since 2016. That is because it is held up and because we decided the same system would be used. Now, because of legislation, when the people who were perfect for the job look at an application, they are not qualified as ecologists to screen it in or out. That is no disrespect to them. Everything has to be screened in and applications are in a muddle with all the rest of them holding it up. If I had someone working for me for four or ten years who only achieved 50% of a target, he or she would be answering questions. Unfortunately, that will not happen in the Ireland we live in today. It is no wonder farmers will not plant.
We had two tsunamis. First, we had the Coillte contracts, with which Mr. Cullinan and the IFA are dealing. In their own opinion, farmers have been burned by those contracts. Second, there are many farmers at the moment who have been waiting up to two or three years for the go-ahead. They are left in a quagmire. They just get sick of it. We can have the farming organisations, all the politicians and everything else, but the EU legislation is there. If someone is putting in a road, if it is within 15 km there are designations. I am well used to it where we are from. Screening is the first thing and then one has to go through an NIS, an EIA or an AA if it will not screen out. We are in that barrel at the moment and we have to make sure that whoever has all the letters after their name is the person who can look at it first to shoot it out of the way and get it sorted quickly.
We can talk about forestry. Some 12,000 jobs will be at stake. Timber is being brought into this country at the moment. There is moss peat coming into Dundalk and timber coming into Cork and Limerick. One would wonder what we are doing. What we are at in this country at the moment is like bringing oil to the Arabs. We need to change the system. The system now, because of the legislation, means the people who know more about timber than anyone, and have probably forgotten more about it than most people know, can no longer legally look at applications when they go to a European court because they do not have the qualifications or the letters after their names. Unless we change that system we will be here again next year and the year after.
Three and a half years ago, I met with the Department about this problem and flagged what was going on, because farmers come to me and tell me what is going on. If everything is going grand, I will never see them and there is no bother. They were told the Department was going to do the devil and all, but it was not done and we are where we are now. The legislation might speed up appeals a bit, but if we keep giving the same piece of paperwork to the same drummer instead of a guitar player, we will have the same problem.
I thank Mr. Cullinan and Ms O'Sullivan for their opening statement and their contributions so far. I welcome Mr. Cullinan's opening statement. It highlights very clearly the Government's ambition, but equally, the disconnect between ambition and policy. As practitioners on the ground, farmers and foresters are best placed to outline where those gaps are and how we might streamline the systems we have. I thank him for that and look forward to engaging with him in the future on this issue.
I will pick up on Deputy Fitzmaurice's point on the habitats directive. That has been in place since 1992 and dictates how we roll out forestry in Ireland. We have to abide by it and there is no change in the habitats directive. I would like to think we can have a flourishing forestry sector and meet the Government's ambition while remaining within the bounds of the habitats directive. With that point in mind, I refer to the Natura impact statements that are required. Mr. Cullinan mentioned that the cost of these is quite prohibitive for many forestry applicants. Will he give me an indication of what that cost might be for a typical site?
The IFA is asking for a cost-based planning support measure to help applicants deal with increased costs associated with felling or afforestation licences. What are the main sources of cost increases? Are they specifically due to requirements in the legislation or are they related to general cost increases in the industry or a lack of qualified personnel?
Mr. Tim Cullinan:
I will address Deputy Fitzmaurice's points first. He said that once one plants, the plan should follow through. That is exactly what we are saying. If forestry is planted, obviously the next process is that a road needs to go in for the wood to be taken out. What follows on from that is the thinning process. We are all on the same page here. Why a licence has to be acquired for that, particularly in a farmer's situation, is beyond me. One of the key asks we have today is for that to be freed up, which would help get timber flowing again and slow down or do away with the current requirement to import timber, which I highlighted already. It is an absolute scandal that we have all this timber and that sawmills have to import it. As Deputy Martin Browne rightly raised earlier, the risk of disease coming in would create another problem. We have one problem with the ash dieback and we do not want another.
The gate probably was left open for objectors and that is a concern in many sectors in the country. That process has created mayhem in the system and there are many things there that could be put right. How are serial objectors allowed to happen in the first place? By not needing a licence for thinning and road building, we would get around part of that, so while that process is being washed through the system, at least some of the work could be going ahead.
The Deputy is right.
The Coillte contracts in the past did not work out for farmers. I accept that. Many farmers did not come out of that process very well. We have been talking about the two years waiting, but we are all saying the same thing here in that regard, and also on the issue of jobs. Mention was made of the forestry guy coming out in the past and that was the system. I was not responsible, however, for whoever put all this regulation and red tape in place. We have seen it across all sectors, and the more red tape that exists, the more that will slow down the process. Turning to the comments made by Deputy Leddin welcoming our statement, we need support in that regard. I ask Ms O'Sullivan to address the habitats directive.
Ms Geraldine O'Sullivan:
Regarding the Natura impact statement, there is a minimum associated cost with that of €1,000, which increases depending on the scale of the forest. We have heard figures of up to €20,000 from farmers, depending on the interaction with Natura sites. The minimum, however, is €1,000 and I think that would cover it. The issue is that even if a forest does not require an NIS, an NIS is required just to get into the system now. It seems to be a major waste of resources that it is necessary to submit an NIS even if a forest has been screened by the Department as not requiring an NIS. I am dealing, therefore, with farmers who are paying that €1,000 and they might have a site of 2 ha. That is absolutely undermining any kind of reality.
In addition, to try to solve the objections initially, the harvesting plan with increased environmental technicality was introduced by the Department. There is a minimum cost of applying for that of €500. What this time two years ago, therefore, was a zero-cost application for a farmer now costs a minimum of €1,500. That is because the forestry companies can no longer take the cost, which they did in the past because they had turnover, they knew they would have got the timber out and they could have entered into an arrangement with a farmer in that regard. Now, however, there is a minimum cost to get an application into the system of €1,500, and that is being done even when an NIS is not required.
That is the basis upon which we want the grant to be introduced. I refer to legislative costs having increased and not any costs by forestry companies or commercial costs. We would like to see some supports in respect of the increased harvesting plan requirements. I also refer to it now being obligatory to have an NIS, whether it is required or not. There should be some supports in that regard as well. The reality is that screening under the habitats directive was instituted to determine if the forestry operation on its own, or in combination, would have a significant impact.
It is our view that small-scale farm forestry will not have a significant impact and that is why we have proposed that we look at the thresholds in this context. It is standard practice, and we do it in planning all the time where thresholds are introduced where that is not required. In the context of the ambitions of this Government, in particular, we think this is essential. If we want to have more trees and farms, that situation must be reviewed.
I apologise for having had to step out of the meeting to speak in the Chamber. I thank the witnesses for their presentations, and I agree it is a pity we could not get full input from the other IFA representatives regarding the problems that exist. The engagement today in both sessions has been useful and important.
Forestry strategy has been a failure in this State. In fact, to call it a strategy at all would be overly generous. I have often cited the three things that I believe a good forestry strategy should deliver. Such a strategy should deliver for the environment, for local economies and for the local communities located close to forests. I have often stated that we have managed to develop a policy that does none of those things. I think we can add a fourth aspect today. Good forestry policy should also deliver for the farming community, and the evidence we have heard shows very clearly that it has not done so.
In the first session today, we learned that a failure of policy, and I think that is the kindest way to put it, means that we have potentially wiped out an entire indigenous broadleaf species. I refer to the ash tree, the wood synonymous with our national sport and that should be one of the most protected parts of our natural heritage. That is being wiped out because somebody thought it was a good idea to import ash, a native species, at a time when the ash dieback disease was prevalent in countries from which those imports were coming.
What we have also learned today, and this is the starkest figure of all, is that an estimated 1,500 ha of forestry will be planted this year. If that does not signal that we are at a crisis point, then I do not know what will. We must get over those failures. We are told by Government that there will be a new forestry strategy. We need to learn, therefore, from the mistakes and ensure we put in place the provisions required to address all those previous mistakes.
Turning to my questions for the witnesses, and regarding the presentation we had earlier from farmers and landowners affected by the ash dieback disease, several solutions were mentioned by those farmers. I think the witnesses broadly agree with those solutions. Has a cost been associated with those potential solutions?
Regarding broader forestry issues, which are crucially important, does the Department have proposals or suggestions - assuming we can get all the issues already raised correct - to achieve a greater spread of planting? I mean that geographically, across farms, because I think there is a broad acceptance that rather than having an entire county planted with Sitka spruce, for example, it would be better if every county and most farmers within every county planted some of their land. That would be the preference, without forcing people down that route, and that is what we should be encouraging. Do the representatives of the Department have any propositions to put to the committee that we could suggest would facilitate such an approach and help to ensure that is the case? Are there also any proposals to encourage people to move from planting Sitka spruce to planting more native broadleaf trees, considering the financial implications in the short and medium term?
We are all on the one hymn sheet this evening. I am disappointed that no Minister is here to listen to us nor anyone from the Department. I state that because this is an important topic.
When we talk to farmers about forestry, they only shake their heads now. For too long and under successive Governments, we have been asking for some kind of grant assistance or to be allowed to plant on marginal ground. We are not allowed to do that, however, and there is no talk about the grant. It is necessary to plant 80% green ground and 20% marginal ground. We have been trying to address that situation for several years now. My father before me and now I and my brother, Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, have been raising this issue for so long because south Kerry, especially, has much ground that is marginal for any type of farming, but it would be grand to grow Sitka spruce.
I heard Deputy Carthy suggesting we should have native trees instead of Sitka spruce. The thing about this situation is that native trees will not grow in the type of ground which I am talking about, while Sitka spruce will. We would have a saleable product if we were allowed to do what we were allowed to do before.
In 1950, my father starting working in the forestry with his spade and he learned to drive a bulldozer which opened up a lot of opportunities for him after that. I, too, have worked in forestry and I know that Coillte had difficulty getting felling licences for the last two or three years for ground where trees had already been felled twice. There was no problem getting the two first rounds of felling licences but felling came to a standstill for the third crop. The blackguards who lodged appeals and blocked the work are only one side of the story because the other side is the Department as it did not process the applications in the way it should have. The whole thing has been let go out of control. We went through all this the night of the debate about the new legislation that was brought in about appeals and I do not see the timeline having much of an effect. There is no timeline for how long it will take for an appeal to be processed. When a person gets permission to plant a forestry and gets a grant for the work then, God Almighty, sure there has to be presumption that one will be allowed to cut down the trees and make a road into the location. I gave my life making roads and there was no question in the world up until a couple of years ago and one was tutored on how to mind the environment. For example, one had to put in silt traps and the pearl water mussel had to protected. We did all of those things without the help of interfering people and now they get too much hearing.
So much of what we had has been dismantled such as the ridiculous move to shut down the sugar industry and the closing down of Bord na Móna. All recent Governments, including the current one, have dismantled what previous good Governments put in place and with all the technology and things that we have now it is backwards we are going. With the Natura impact statement and all these things Coillte and all of the forestry companies were able to deal with the environment. No one protects the environment more than the landowners, and without interruptors and interferers from between 200 and 300 miles away lodging applications to stop someone like the man who is a wheelchair user and contacted me over the last year and half. He planted his forestry 28 years ago and applied for a felling licence but people objected to him making a road into his plantation. The man wanted to use the money earned from selling his trees to adapt his house and ensure his family, wife and whatever youngster was with him had a bit of an income. The objectors are blackguarding, which is wrong and when it is wrong it is never right. These people who are getting a hearing put in several objections. One man lodged 144 objections in February 2019 so he should be carried to court and locked up.
I am very grateful for the chance to talk to the witnesses. One can forget about forestry in Kerry, especially south Kerry now, because young fellas will not consider such work because they have seen all the complications. They will get no bit of a grant to plant marginal land. Such land is absolutely good for nothing. Deputy Eamon Ryan used to talk about planting trees and now that his Green Party is in government there will be no change and places with marginal land will not be planted. I do not know what the blockage is or the mindset but one must plant 80% good ground to be allowed to plant 20% marginal ground.
Where is the logic in that? Does the Government want to blow us out of existence altogether by keeping things at a standstill? If Deputy Carthy looks at all of the farms, and some time I will take him around south Kerry, he will see that most of them have the reverse situation with only 20% of green ground and 80% of marginal ground. However, one will only get a grant to plant the marginal ground if one has 80% green ground and 20% of marginal ground. I have raised this matter several times before of which Deputies Jack Cahill and Charlie McConalogue would be aware when they were members of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. A case needs to be made for this set-up, otherwise talking about forestry is total baloney and codology.
I wish to say, as Mr. Cullinan is here, that there is a very important issue following the announcement of the move to level 5 because farmers will be unable to go into marts.
Mr. Tim Cullinan:
Deputy Carthy said that the forestry strategy "has been a failure". He made a couple of good points and is right that it needs to deliver for the environment. The way I look at it is that farmers are the first responders to deliver on the environment, we have done so and we need to be acknowledged for what we have done to date. The Deputy is right that the strategy must be good for the economy and for where people live. In response I would say that one needs to strike a balance and planting needs to be shared in the different regions. We have parts of the country where farmers are willing to plant but they have hen harrier designated land. It is a separate issue but it could be looked at as well to bring balance. In terms of the 1,500 acres, we all agree that where we are is in crisis.
A question was asked about the cost of Ash dieback. It is very hard to give an exact figure but we estimate that between 22,000 and 25,000 hectares of Ash trees have been planted around the country. A lot of that is affected and it will cost to take the wood out. People can harvest what is good but the remainder would have to be taken out. One would have to replant and a farmer would have to be compensated for income foregone in the 15 years while the trees grow again. We estimate that it would cost somewhere in the region of €15 million per year to reconstitute and reach the point of harvest which, in my view, would be money very well spent.
Like Deputy Healy-Rae said about the mix, we have people here whose hardwood planting failed. It is, therefore, critical and essential that compensation is put in place for those people to reconstitute the Ash one.
The people in the county that I come from like Ash trees, and play a bit of ground hurling now and again. I agree 100% with what a member said about our national heritage.
In terms of planting spruce and native broadleaf trees, we all know that there is pressure coming there. Many farmers have an acre or two of areas on their land on which broadleaf trees could be planted. We could also consider planting along hedgerows. Perhaps people, when cutting hedgerows, could leave a number of trees to grow. We all want to play our part in climate change and we have an excellent opportunity here now. I know climate change is a different debate but carbon sequestration is linked to trees.
Farmers are doing and have been doing a public good. That needs to be acknowledged also. We have no problem in stepping up to the plate and doing more on that. We can have integration. Forestry will absolutely help in the climate change debate, and we are willing to do that.
In response to Deputy Healy-Rae's comments, I know Kerry quite well. I spent a good bit of time down there last year. I get what he is saying. This is the legislation we are dealing with. What he said is probably something we could examine. Does Ms O'Sullivan want to comment on that point?
Ms Geraldine O'Sullivan:
If I may briefly respond, this deals with the regional spread. As I said, we developed a lands type classification document a few years ago for marginal land that has not been introduced by the Department. We believe it is a much better system where one takes grids out on the land and determines what flora is there and that allows one to determine the yield class and productivity. We believe it would open up a lot of land. It is a much better system than is currently used. We would like to see that system being adopted in full and proper grants and premiums being paid on that land to allow that planting. It has been shown that typically farmers will dip their toe into forestry on their more marginal ground. If they get to know it and understand it, they will plant elsewhere on their farm but without that opportunity to plant suitable land they will not go on and plant other lands. It is hugely important to the success of the afforestation programme.
I will wind up the discussion. I thank the witnesses for attending today. We have had two excellent presentations. Clearly, the issue of ash dieback presents a serious financial problem for people with ash plantations. It is something that must be addressed. I am delighted we had presentations from the Limerick and Tipperary growers and from the IFA. The forestry industry is in trouble and we are aware of the level of plantation that will happen in 2020. That shows this industry has serious issues that need to be addressed immediately if it is to have a future. As Deputy Collins said, 12,500 people are employed in this industry. It has major benefits for rural Ireland. It has been in decline for a number of years. It has not happened over night. There are serious issues in the sector. We decided to bring in different stakeholders to discuss it and when we conclude our discussions we will make representations to the Minister. I again thank Mr. Cullinan and Ms O'Sullivan for attending. The committee is adjourned until 4 p.m. on Tuesday, 3 November.