Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 4 October 2023
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Ireland's Forestry Programme and Strategy: Discussion
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The purpose of today's meeting is to receive an update on Ireland's forestry programme and strategy. The committee will hear from the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Charlie McConalogue, and the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Senator Pippa Hackett. They are welcome to today's meeting. The opening statements have been circulated to members. I now ask them to read their opening statements, after which we will proceed to a question-and-answer session.
I thank the Cathaoirleach and committee members for the invitation to the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and me to come before it to discuss forestry. We are joined by Mr. Paul Savage, assistant secretary at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and Mr. Fergus Moore, Mr. Barry Delany and Mr. Seamus Dunne from the Department's forestry management service. It is good to have the opportunity to meet the committee.
I am pleased to say that after a long and protracted process, we published the forestry strategy and launched the forestry programme on 6 September. It is timely that we now discuss what is a significant milestone. The forestry strategy reflects what people want from their forests. This has changed and broadened over time. It now includes a full range of values and benefits that people expect from forests. Jobs, recreational areas, diverse forests, wood, climate and environmental considerations and support for our rural communities are now all part of the mix. These objectives are set out clearly in the new forestry strategy to 2030.
How we are going to deliver on these collective goals is our key mission. It is a big ask and in response, we have published a comprehensive and detailed forest action plan, known as the forest strategy implementation plan. The majority of the actions in the plan relate to the new forestry programme, which we are discussing today. There are also non-programme actions that will contribute to the development of the forestry sector.
The new programme is all about expanding, protecting and developing Ireland’s forests and the forestry sector in an environmentally sustainable way. If we wish to have a successful programme, we need farmers to plant trees and we need to reverse the declining interest in forestry that we have seen. It is not always an easy decision to get involved in forestry and I know that farmer engagement in planting has been in decline in recent years. Forestry is, after all, a significant land use change and I am well aware of the many competing demands on land use at the moment.
The new programme is designed to address this resistance and to present forestry as an attractive proposition. It has 12 diverse forest types, with options to suit every farm. Farmers can now avail of 20-year premiums in addition to getting paid their basic income support payment on land that they afforest. There has been some commentary about the farmer definition for the afforestation scheme. The purpose of this definition is to ensure that the extra five years of premiums are received by farmers. We have also made provision for new and young farmers in our definition. It is our intention that active farmers who own and-or manage land will benefit from these extra payments.
It bears repeating that under this programme, forestry premiums have also been increased by between 46% and 66% on an annual basis, and premium payments now range from between €746 to €1,142 per hectare annually. This should prove an attractive package for farmers who wish to have an additional source of farm income to complement their main farming activity. Given the range of planting options now available, there is something to suit all farming types. The farmer who wishes to produce wood for our bioeconomy may choose to plant mainly spruce. Agroforestry, which we have revised significantly since the previous programme, will find favour with those farmers who wish to combine forestry and pasture, including grazing and growing fodder.
I am pleased to say that the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, today opened a new native tree area scheme, which could suit many farmers who have never planted before and wish to try out planting on a small scale. This allows tree planting without the need for an afforestation licence, while of course observing environmental law. Farmers will be able to create small native forests or native forests for water protection, of up to 2 ha per holding. I look forward to significant interest in this scheme in the coming months. We could have new native forests planted before the end of the year under the scheme.
While farmers are key to increasing planting levels, public bodies will also have the opportunity to play their part. We will also support communities that wish to create and enhance local forests for the benefit of all.
Our ambition now is to expand our forests beyond the current 11.6% of land cover. I know that this will present challenges but with the type and range of planting on offer in the new programme, and the incentives provided, I believe we will see renewed interest and a new impetus behind afforestation.
I thank the Cathaoirleach and members for their attention, and I will now hand over to the Minister of State.
I thank the Minister and I thank the members of the committee for this invitation today. I am very keen to discuss the strategy and, most importantly, and of immediate significance, is the new forestry programme.
As the Minister mentioned, it has been a very long process to arrive at a new vision, strategy and forestry programme for Ireland. It involved extensive public and stakeholder consultation, and intensive engagement with the Commission, to secure state aid approval for the €1.3 billion commitment to forestry.
What we now have is very much in line with the spirit of the shared national vision that we will plant the right trees in the right places for the right reasons and with the right management. True, we now exclude some areas, which might have been planted historically, but this is necessary to meet our environmental obligations and to avoid the mistakes of the past. We can no longer plant on special protection areas, SPAs, on the top eight freshwater pearl mussel areas or within 1.5 km of curlew breeding sites.
An analysis has been carried out on the afforestation files on hand that may be affected by these new restrictions. Of the 437 applications, approximately 3% are in areas that will not now be eligible under the conditions of the scheme, as they are within 1.5 km of a curlew site. Approximately 24% of the applications are entirely unaffected by the changes, and the remainder will require further analysis and assessment regarding their eligibility as they are in areas where new restrictions may apply, which may affect their eligibility. These applications are either on peat soils, in high nature value areas, in breeding wader areas or a combination of these.
I know that this will require additional work at application stage in cases affected. We are addressing this by means of virtual training sessions already held and by in-person training of all registered foresters across the country starting next week. We have also produced guidance documents to assist foresters and a frequently asked questions document to clarify any matters arising. We will continue to engage frequently and openly in order to facilitate the submission of the maximum number of applications. Furthermore, we have an environmental report grant to support applicants in submitting required documents.
In tandem with this training we have a targeted communication campaign under way. As the Minister mentioned, farmers are key to the delivery of the programme. To this end, we had a forestry focused presence at the National Ploughing Championships. We have also produced a farm forestry booklet that explains in clear terms the different forest types, and the grants and premiums available. We will sending a copy of the booklet to every farmer in the country.
Print advertisements have been placed in newspapers and members may have heard some of our radio advertisements that advise "it pays to plant a forest." This promotion is also happening on social media and starting next week Teagasc will host a series of 20 information sessions throughout the country.
Of course we would like all interested in forestry to promote the new programme. We will fund such initiatives under our call for proposals, which is currently open for applications. I know there is concern that the legacy issue of delays in issuing licences will affect interest in planting. Our Department has undertaken a great deal of work to address previous licensing issues, by improving processes and increasing resources. We are now in a position to give certainty to applicants as to when they will receive a licence. We are working on a licensing plan that will cover the remainder of 2023 and will also provide indicative plans for 2024. We were not in a position to do so without having an indication of the number of applicants with an existing licence or with an application in the system who would opt into the new programme. I am pleased to say that we have received 377 opt-ins for 3,412 ha to date and that afforestation licences began to issue last week.
I am acutely aware of another issue that arises all of the time at this committee and other forums. I refer to the need to address is the ash dieback situation. I am aware of the distress that this disease has caused to many farmers and have been on many sites. I have commissioned an independent review of how the Department has dealt with the ash dieback issue. Yesterday, I published the report of the independent review group which examined existing and previous supports available to landowners with affected ash plantations.
We are looking closely at the 13 recommendations in this report. Many of the recommendations are in hand and three recommendations require further assessment, in particular in the context of state aid rules. We are actively looking at that now. I will publish a full implementation plan in due course. In the meantime, I encourage affected landowners to apply for the newly launched reconstitution scheme, which will: cover the costs of clearing and replanting affected sites; and offers top-up payments to new higher rates for forest owners who are still eligible for premiums. It is my clear intention that any forest owner who applies to this scheme, or who availed of the 2020 reconstitution scheme, will not be disadvantaged by any changes made as a result of the independent review process. It is important that these trees get cleared. That is why I encourage farmers and landowners to engage in the scheme as soon as possible.
I wish to make clear that I fully support all types of planting under this new programme, from native trees to agroforestry to forests planted primarily for timber production. The forest strategy implementation plan has non-programme actions focused on increasing the amount of timber in construction, and we need landowners to plant productive mixed forests to support this aim. In support of this goal, this morning I announced Professor Owen Lewis as chair of the timber in construction steering group. The members of this group will shortly be announced. They will seek to promote the use of timber in the Irish construction sector so that we can displace emissions-intensive steel and concrete, where possible. There are many other aspects of the programme that support the sustainable management of our forests, which will be rolled out in the coming months. We also already have the knowledge transfer scheme up and running.
We have an enormous potential to make optimal use of our forests and establish new ones for the benefit of future generations under this programme. I really hope that this opportunity is grasped by all.
I thank the Minister and Minister of State. Before I hand over to the members, I wish to make three short points and I will comment later as I have a good bit to say about this new forestry strategy. We all earnestly hope the new strategy will be successful and increase afforestation. We have a very significant figure as part of the programme for Government. In the lifetime of this Government, we will not meet the annual figure that we have set when we agreed the national Government programme.
I wish to first refer to the third point made by the Minister of State on the amount of land that will now be excluded from afforestation. She said that "this is necessary to meet our environmental obligations and to avoid the mistakes of the past. We can no longer plant on special protection areas, SPAs", which are special protection areas of birds, "on the top eight freshwater pearl mussel areas or within 1.5 km of curlew breeding sites." A lot of environmental experts would say that the policy is not the correct one because different stages of afforestation in those areas actually enhance the habitats but I will leave that point aside for the moment. The reality is that the change in land eligibility will take away about 80% of the capital value of that land, and that has been historically with hen harriers, etc. Where there is a blanket ban on afforestation, the land is now only worth 20% of what it was worth previously. What plans will be put in place to compensate landowners for a massive depreciation in the capital value of their land?
The next figure that worries hugely is that 76% of applications which are currently in the system have question marks over their eligibility for afforestation. Over three quarters of the applications are in the system. Unfortunately, given our experience over the last number of years of delays in the system with licensing, for the Minister of State to say that there are question marks about eligibility will send a shiver up the spines of the applicants and 76% is a huge figure.
The Minister of State said that "farmers are key to the delivery of the programme."
In previous programmes, where non-farmers were entitled to premiums as was the case in times gone by, the difference was that farmers were always entitled to a longer term than investors. However, farmers under those programmes were entitled to a significantly higher premium than the investor. This time around, the premium payment is the same for farmers and non-farmers. That does not send a signal that farmers are key to the delivery of the programme.
Yesterday morning I heard the advertisement for the new afforestation programme. The last line of it was that afforestation will be very good for improving water quality, which we would all like to see given the issues we have with the nitrates derogation. However, in reality that is not true and afforestation has the opposite impact. For example, Leitrim is in the red area on the EPA map. Leitrim has the highest level of afforestation in the country and probably the lowest stocking rate, and it is in the EPA red zone. I do not think that afforestation will solve our water quality issues. There was something in that advertisement that I most definitely did not agree with. There seems to be only one fall guy for poor water quality at the moment and nobody else is taking the blame for it. That afforestation advertisement does not tally with what is happening in Leitrim.
Those are the initial four points I want to make on where we are. I earnestly hope this programme attracts land into afforestation as is absolutely essential for our climate change targets and also to keep a vibrant rural industry that we have in place. Members of the committee have visited some of these factories in very rural parts of the country. No replacement industry could provide the amount of employment they generate and the wealth they create. It is absolutely essential to have a source of timber for those plants. We have had a number of years of very little afforestation. If we are to save our timber industry, it is essential that we get our figures for afforestation up and running. Would the Minister of State like to answer those questions or will I open it up to the committee?
I will deal with those first and then we can catch up with the rest later. I thank the Chairman for his welcome of the programme. We all share the hope that the programme will deliver what it needs to deliver.
While more land is now not eligible to plant, there still is a considerable amount of land that is eligible to be planted on. Farmers can engage with foresters and Teagasc advisers who will indicate to them if the land is eligible. Regarding depreciation of the land, that is just the way things go. I do not believe there will be a package to compensate for that. This is just the nature of forestry. It is a fit in certain parts of the country and not in others. That is just the reality of it.
I believe the Chairman spoke about the 437 eligible applications in the system. It is reflective of the type of applications we get in. As I said, 3% are now ruled out because they are within 1.5 km of a curlew site. That is probably reflective overall of those areas; those farmers or foresters do not tend to apply in those areas. In one sense, while it is frustrating for those applicants, it is still only 3% of the total. It is welcome that almost a quarter are entirely unaffected by the changes. These applicants will be aware that they were going to be subject to the new requirements under the new programme to adhere to state aid rules. We will actively engage with them. Some of these analyses can be done as a desktop exercise and some will require someone to visit the sites and examine them in more detail. We now have sufficient boots on the ground to be able to deliver on that in a very tight timeframe. It is essential that we support these applicants to plant if they can.
I would disagree with the Chairman in one sense. He implied that there is no real incentive for farmers or that it was not big enough. Moving from 15 years to 20 years is a 33% increase. While the premium payments per year might be the same, those five years are important to farmers. Farmers and farm organisations called for a longer period. We have gone from periods of 20 years to 15 years and we are now back to 20 years because that was what was requested. The Chairman will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe when we moved to 15 years, it was to front-load it more to incentivise farmers to come in. We have heard the request to have it increased. A tax-free period of 20 years is a generous support for farmers and many of them are interested. I can certainly attest to that from engagements I had at the National Ploughing Championships this year.
The Chairman's fourth point related to the claim in the advertising. He is right that there have been legacy issues with water quality particularly in areas, such as Leitrim and perhaps further west. We absolutely must learn from those issues. However, there is ample evidence that trees planted and managed in the right way can deliver valuable water quality improvements. Work with the EPA and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, would support that view. It comes down to the trees being managed appropriately and being planted in the right manner. We do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past as part of this programme
Unfortunately, there is a vote in the Dáil and we need to suspend the meeting because obviously the senior Minister will need to leave. I do not think it would be fair on any questioner to continue without the Minister. Deputies Flaherty and Michael Collins will be the first two speakers when we come back.
As we have a good number of members indicating, I will give them ten minutes for a first question, and if they want a second round of questions, I will facilitate that for them. We will put everyone on the clock for the first round, with ten minutes each for questions and answers. Then, if we have to have a second round, we will have it. Deputy Flaherty is first, and then I will call Deputy Michael Collins.
I thank the Minister, the Minister of State and the officials for coming back before the committee.
I am somewhat disappointed with the opening statements in that we and the sector were looking for clarity and some optimistic overtone as to where we are going with the sector. I hope I will get more optimism out of the questions I have for the Minister of State. They are five very specific questions.
I was recently at a local secondary school on the students' return for the new academic year. I was in a geography class and the students were talking about forestry. They gave a presentation and I have printed off one of the slides from it. I will paraphrase it for the Minister and the Minister of State. Basically, it states that 1 ha of rewetted bogland will sequester, at a maximum, just under 3 tonnes of CO2 per annum. Maths was never my strong point, but if a scientist told those students and they in turn told me that 1 ha of broadleaf sequesters 6 tonnes of CO2 per annum and that 1 ha of conifer sequesters 18 tonnes of CO2 per annum, then it seems a very obvious choice for us at this time. If Ireland were to do nothing else but plant 18,000 ha per annum of conifers for the next 27 years, we would meet our net-zero target and avoid the possibility of fines in the aftermath of 2050. The people of 2050 would probably look very favourably on the Members of the Thirty-third Dáil if we were to do that.
Can the Minister of State reassure the forestry sector that the Department supports conifer planting and will actively promote it under the new programme? It is very clear that only conifers will deliver carbon sequestration and climate goals, yet the Minister of State's office seems to be vehemently opposed to planting them.
I am disappointed that the Deputy is disappointed. It is a time for a lot of optimism in forestry. We have dealt with all the issues of the past. We cleared the appeals backlog. We cleared the backlog in forestry licences. We increased resources and the functionality of the Department. We have a new programme that is ready to roll. We have a system ready to deliver and we have many enthusiastic farmers out there who want to engage in forestry. I am committed to forestry in all its guises. The reality of the situation is that we have to try to rebalance the forestry we have out there. That is why there is in the Deputy's view too much of a push for broadleaves and native trees, but that is the reality of the situation. We have to rebalance what we have. I am fully supportive of all types of planting. I have come today from the Build with Wood conference in Avondale. It was all about how we can use more wood in our buildings, our schools and our homes of the future. We need to use Irish wood there. We are particularly bad at that. I have had much engagement with the forestry industry itself and the sector beyond that about how we can work towards that. We formed the new working group on timber in construction today. I think that will do great work in this regard. All trees sequester carbon, some at different times and stages of their development and growth. We need all types of trees and cannot just do 100% conifer. That just will not happen, and to suggest it will is a little disingenuous because we are-----
I do not think I suggested 100% conifers. I appreciate the Minister of State's acknowledgment of the construction sector and our need to get more timber, but the reality is that, year to date, we have planted just 2,000 ha. That is the background as to why there is-----
-----a lack of confidence in the sector at the minute.
Would the Minister of State agree that the 50% broadleaf target and the dilution of forest type 12 to 65% Sitka spruce are contrary to what was agreed in the original forestry strategy document and against the advice of the forestry sector?
The original draft document came from working group 2 of Project Woodland. That was part of a process. There was a lot of engagement at that stage. The next stage of that process was engagement with further stakeholders and it ended up with engagement with the Commission. We had a very long and protracted engagement with the Commission to approve our forestry programme. The 65% the Deputy speaks of was always there. It was not a dilution. That was originally in the submission to the Commission, as far as I recall, so that did not change. The shift towards the 50-50 balance in our future afforestation plans simply came because of the necessity to rebalance what we have in Ireland.
At present we have 70% conifer and 30% broadleaf trees. The Commission impressed very strongly upon us that we need to try to get a little more balance. Hence, the requirement for more broadleaf planting. Farmers are keen to plant both types of forestry and that is welcome.
That is not what farmers or the sector are telling us. They do not see the economic value in broadleaf trees. They appreciate that there has to be an element of it but not at the level it is pitched. It is not commercially viable for them.
I did not intend to speak about ash dieback but I heard the radio campaign earlier this week and a piece on "Morning Ireland". It is very difficult to make people confident about the sector at present. We need to send a very strong message. I fear we are not delivering that as a Government. Does the Minister of State accept that the new rules on the 30 cm maximum peat depth remove large areas of potential forestry land and will have a major impact on the afforestation rate? What is the scientific benefit, if any, of moving from 45 cm of peat to 30 cm?
My understanding is that the science is quite clear on this. Planting on depths of greater than 30 cm ends up with a net leakage of carbon. This limit tips the balance in favour of a healthy growing stand of trees with carbon sequestration greater than emissions. There is a lot of literature to support this.
Mr. Fergus Moore:
We did a quick analysis of our afforestation established between 2017 and 2022. Approximately 77% of the sites that were afforested were on mineral soils. There has been a transition to plant on mineral soils in the most recent forestry programmes. Certainly there will be an impact. If people have peat on their farm, they will be impacted. Generally speaking, most of the lands targeted in the afforestation programme in recent years have been mineral soils. Some soils do have 30 cm or less of peat. This amounts to approximately 11% or 12% of the afforestation plots that we sampled in the most recent programme.
Does the Minister of State agree with studies which show that commercially managed conifer forests heavily outperform broadleaf conservation forests in terms of carbon capture and climate migration?
I am sure that is the case. If, when they are felled, those trees are stored in long-term products such as buildings, that is where we will get the greatest benefit. It is important to point out that the purpose and direction of travel are not only about carbon capture. They are also about biodiversity, water and the amenity value of trees for communities. There is a much broader demand of what our forestry has to deliver. Carbon is one part of it.
It is but it is a major part. There is a large financial implication for us not meeting our carbon targets. We have a big opportunity if we get afforestation right. Unfortunately, it does not appear that we are doing so. We need to refocus and recalibrate. We need to put the emphasis very much on conifers in tandem with broadleaf trees. I fully accept that we need broadleaf trees but they are not commercially viable. The sector has been telling us this for the lifetime of the Government. We earnestly and wholeheartedly have to deliver this message to the Minister of State and the Minister. The confidence certainly is not there despite their best efforts. I know they are very enthusiastic and delivered a very strong message at the ploughing championships but confidence is not sinking in with the farmers or with the forestry sector that supports 12,000 jobs.
I want to speak on the wider point on confidence. There is no doubt that in recent years there have been real challenges. The Minister of State, the team and I have worked hard with regard to the licensing backlog. We have made massive progress on it. Undoubtedly it has affected confidence and we acknowledge that. It is why we put so many resources into working through it.
It is also important to acknowledge that in recent months we have launched the new forest strategy. This, and many of the measures in it, are a massive step forward with regard to the benefits for farmers compared with what was there before. Particularly for farm families, the premiums are now available tax-free for 20 years. There is a mix of interest from farmers in conifers and broadleaf trees. There is a role for both and there is good interest in both. If we take the rate in play for broadleaf trees, at approximately €1,134 per year for 20 years, it amounts to almost €23,000 per hectare tax-free over 20 years. That is a significant premium. The financial reward for forestry is very strong. As the Minister of State said, with the programme going from 15 years to 20 years, there will be an extra five years of premiums for farmers as well as the significant increase in payment rates.
Something else that will make a difference is another significant measure the Minister of State launched today, namely, that farmers will be able to plant broadleaf trees on 1 ha of their farm without needing a licence. There is the potential to plant up to 2 ha where there is a riparian zone and watercourses. The premiums are available over ten years at twice the rate. Farmers planting 1 ha of their land with broadleaf will not need a licence in approximately two thirds of the country. Over ten years, these farmers will receive almost €23,000 in premiums tax-free. They would also get the basic payment on it. Over ten years, that is just over €8,000 an acre tax-free. In most farms throughout the country we would find an acre or hectare that would be suitable for this. People will not need a licence to do it. It can make an impact and be integrated. If farmers do this, it would mean €2,200 a year for ten years.
That is the range of options. It will take time and we need rebuild confidence. The licensing backlog has been dealt with. It is open for business now. It is about promoting these opportunities.
I thank the Minister, the Minister of State and their officials for coming before the committee. To clarify, I do not have forestry and I do not derive any income from forestry. I have great respect for those who are in forestry. They are going through a very difficult time, which is acknowledged by the Minister, the Minister of State and the Department. We have public meetings because of this. I meet quite a lot of people who are in great difficulty due to ash dieback and other issues. We find ourselves in a new month in the last quarter of the year. Perhaps we should reflect on September and the work of the forestry section in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The results cannot help but remind us that we still do not have a licence plan for the remainder of 2023 or 2024. There is no plan and no idea where the Government or the industry are going. There is no sign of improving timelines. There are no commitments.
If an afforestation application is submitted today, what is the expected timeframe for a decision? The system is still dysfunctional despite being in crisis for more than six years. What changes have been made? Has the Government designed an afforestation programme capable of stimulating farmers to engage and meet the 8,000 ha target? Even if it has, is there capacity in the Department to issue enough licences to meet the 8,000 ha target? It definitely does not if we consider that only 2,620 ha worth of licences were issued up to September by a Department with 179 permanent staff in its forestry division.
I have a few questions. What is the afforestation required annually to achieve carbon net zero in agriculture by 2050? Is it the 8,000 ha or the 18,000 ha, as detailed in The Economics of Afforestation and Management in Irelandby Professor Cathal O'Donoghue, published in 2022? If it is the 8,000 ha, how was that figure calculated? The Department's own research body, the National Council for Forest Research and Development, COFORD, previously advised that 16,000 ha were required.
I thank Deputy Michael Collins. As the Deputy will be aware, the climate action plan includes 8,000 ha per year. As the Deputy says, there is other evidence out there and different sectors have come up with other figures. It may well be the case that we might have to hit higher targets in years to come but at the moment we are focused on hitting the 8,000 ha per year. My Department is well able to issue the licences required to deliver on that 8,000 ha. If we need more in the future, we will be able to match that as well.
I am aware of the publication. I am not saying it is incorrect. I am saying there are different calculations. Currently, based on our climate action plan, we are at 8,000 ha. As I say, it may well have to go up to meet the targets, especially if we have a slow start to this decade.
I am not aware of any upfront costs. We have provided for environmental grant payments. Usually the planting grants cover the cost of planting for the forestry companies to plant. That is covered by grants. I am not aware of any upfront costs until they get approved.
There may be some associated costs that they may have to carry until the grant is approved but that would be not dissimilar to other schemes; for example, one has to buy one's targeted agriculture modernisation schemes, TAMS, item and claim back the money.
With the target set at 50% broadleaf afforestation and given that replanting conditions are ingrained in felling licences, what annual rate of afforestation is now required to maintain our existing stock area involving of commercial spruce plantations in the country?
There is a replanting obligation. One has to replant anything that is felled. There will be a continuity of supply in that sense. I suppose there is a certain area of land - I do not have the figure on me - under Coillte management that might not be replanted because it has been on the wrong type of land, it is too close to certain areas, there is too deep peat, etc., but the replanting obligation would secure the current state. If we meet our targets, we will have more timber. The forecast over the next 20 years to 2040 is a doubling of the amount of volume that will become available and that will feed into a sector in the next couple of decades that we need to support. I believe we need to develop the markets here in Ireland for that timber.
Has the Minister of State any idea of the cost in terms of future timber supply, rural employment and economic output of the policy now being enforced of both the 50% broadleaf requirement and the conditionality on replanting in felling licences?
I am asking if the Minister of State has any idea of the cost in relation to rural employment. The issue with forestry at present is it is costing the rural economy hugely. There have been massive issues going on over the past number of years in forestry and that is a huge cost to rural communities. The economic output of the policy now being enforced of both the 50% broadleaf requirement and the conditionality on replanting in felling licences is all a cost on rural communities. Issues such as this have been rolling on. We have been talking about this here for the past three or four years.
There have been challenges in recent years because of issues with licensing. In fact, it has slowed down the wheels of motion in the rural economy from a forestry perspective, but we have cleared up the vast majority of issues in relation to licensing. We have a free-running machine now. If we start to see a ramping up of our afforestation and a delivering on our targets, we will see significant benefits for rural economies on the back of this.
I thank the Minister of State. I have just one other question. There is a new body out there this past two years, Social Economic Environmental Forestry Association of Ireland, SEEFA. They are very interested in sitting around the table and trying to iron out some difficulties that are out there. Will both of the Minister and the Minister of State meet with them? Are they intending to meet with SEEFA?
We are aware of SEEFA. In fact, many of its members were part of my Project Woodland and we would have engaged over the past couple of years on an individual basis. They were there to represent other parts of the sectors. We have spoken about this previously. On reflection, they have been active in this sector for maybe a year and a half or two years. I had a look at their webpage earlier on this week and they have five main items they want to see addressed. We have almost addressed most of their asks, which is good. As I say, on reflection, they have been a constant there. It is something I can look into and maybe have a meeting with them at some stage soon.
I thank the Chairman and welcome the Minister and the Minister of State and their officials.
The Minister of State spoke about confidence within the farming community who are considering planting. Like other members of the committee, I would have a different feel that farmers have no confidence in the Department at this time. I am not sure how the Minister of State can rebuild that confidence. I acknowledge the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, has had his challenges over the past number of years but now is about rebuilding confidence, encouraging farmers, etc.
Speaking to farmers, they would give me of their experience in speaking to the Department officials over the past while that the Department is still struggling with guidance around the new programme. Department officials have had a long lead-up time. There was a long number of months before the EU Commission agreed the new programme. I would encourage the Minister and his officials to get to grips with any outstanding issues that are there.
One of the members spoke about commercial timber. I am looking for the Minister of State to give a clear commitment to the growing of commercial timber. Any people I speak to say that the new programme is unlikely to succeed in the growing of conifer trees and if farmers do not grow conifer trees, we are in serious trouble. What steps will the Minister of State take? If, in six months' or 12 months' time the farmers have not grown conifer trees, what can the Minister of State do to make sure that this is to happen?
Deputy Michael Collins asked would the Minister of State meet SEEFA. I am glad the Minister of State has recognised some of their key asks and issues. I would encourage either the Minister of State or the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, to meet SEEFA. SEEFA has done fantastic work. They are an integral part of rebuilding forestry confidence among farmers and I would ask the Minister of State or the Minister of State to meet them.
The Minister of State might answer those questions. I will ask more afterwards.
Regarding the new programme, we have pre-application discussions for applicants to help clarify issues and what it means for them. These discussions get them over much of the hump. We are also rolling out training for departmental officials and foresters. It can be online. I believe it will be in person with the foresters from next week. We are cognisant of bringing people up to speed so that they are fully aware of the implications of the new programme and the changes from previous programmes.
We will need to plant all types of tree. Conifers will play a significant role. We need to support this sector, particularly with a view to the construction sector. I attended an event today that was enlightening as regards the value that timber can offer in building. We have established the timber working group to examine what we need to do as a State to embrace timber. We export the majority of our timber. While that is great, it would be better to see more of it being used in our own country. That is what we aspire to, so we will need lots of conifer trees.
I welcome yesterday’s publication of the long-awaited ash dieback report. A large number of farmers are waiting to see what the Department’s next steps will be. Will the new ash dieback scheme restrict what species can be chosen by farmers looking to replace their dead trees? Will it be operational for the coming planting season, which will commence in November? Last year, nurseries were left with millions of trees because the new programme was not in place. Will state aid rules cause issues for ash dieback compensation? We need to get this sorted, not for the Department to use state aid rules as an excuse to restrict a compensation package. Farmers need to know where they are and what they will get, and the package on the table needs to put them in a better place than they have been in recent years.
Ash dieback has been a significant issue for more than a decade. We have had two schemes, neither of which really had restrictions on tree types. Even now, some of the former ash dieback plantations have been changed to broadleaves or conifers. That choice lies with the landowner.
Unfortunately, state aid rules will come into play. This is not the Department using them as an excuse not to act. Rather, it is the reality of us when considering any package of measures that we can use to support farmers affected by ash dieback. I intend to support them and, if the Deputy gets a chance to read the report, he will see that there are 13 recommendations. The majority of those are in hand and we can work on those straightaway, but there are three relating to supports, including financial supports, in respect of which we have to explore the state aid rules to see if we can find a mechanism within their parameters to support farmers. The rules are clear. If we could have provided supports to date, we would have. We must re-examine the rules and see whether there are possibilities within them. Even if we had the money, we would not be allowed to just pay it out. Unfortunately, it is a requirement of being a member state of the EU that we have to align with state aid rules. However, my officials are working hard on the matter and, as soon as possible, I hope to introduce an implementation plan to deal with all of the report’s recommendations, including financial ones.
I am actively encouraging farmers to apply for the current ash dieback scheme, as doing so will not prejudice them from any future scheme. They will have to get a licence anyway and clear what is there. We are supporting that. For example, we have doubled the payments for clearance and so forth. Farmers should be clearing automatically.
Regarding announcements about a new scheme, we will have to see how we get on with the state aid rules, but I want to address this issue. As soon as humanly possible, we will-----
Will the Minister of State take into account nurseries' concerns? They have stock and want to get planting. An announcement should not be dragged out over the next number of months. Will she make one as soon as possible?
With the applications at hand, I hope that we will be issuing afforestation licences. We started last week and will continue to issue licences. No trees can really be planted until 1 November or thereabouts. I hope that there will be work and that there will be a demand for nursery stock.
We are going to train them all. All foresters have been invited and they are eager to learn. There are approximately 200 foresters in the all-island forestry. I am informed that the meetings are all-island and there are approximately 200 foresters.
I thank the Minister, the Minister of State and their officials for attending. When it comes to forestry, much of the conversation is around the lack of confidence in the sector and the need to rebuild same if we are to have a sector that functions at all. Interestingly, the Minister stated: “If we wish to have a successful programme, we need ... to reverse the declining interest in forestry”. There is certainly no lack of interest. The main issue I see is ash dieback. Were I even half-interested in planting and I saw how farmers and foresters who, through no fault of their own, had been affected by ash dieback were not being supported – the evidence is all there and the independent report published yesterday was damning of the Government’s lack of support for these farmers and foresters – I would not be looking to plant. I would be afraid to, and rightly so.
The independent report spoke about any progress in forestry being “put in jeopardy” by the handling of the ash dieback scheme. It reads: "we cannot over-state how important the handling of this situation is for the wider delivery of the Forest Strategy". We have to get the ash dieback issue resolved once and for all. It has been in play for more than a decade. As the report stated, it is a national emergency. It is dangerous and a risk to health and safety, and I am unsure about what the Government is waiting for to act. There has been no urgency. In fairness to those who compiled the report, for which I commend them, it contained nothing new. The stakeholders have been saying all of this time and again. It would have been a much better use of time had the Government sat down with foresters, farmers and the wider sector. They would have told the Government what the issues were and what solutions were needed. Job done. Now, though, we will have a review, an implementation plan for the review and a review of the review before we know what is happening. We need money for those affected and we need to get this done.
Regarding the €2,000 clearance grant, is the Minister of State willing to allow for exceptional circumstances where €2,000 does not cover the cost of clearance? The report is clear that the State should bear the cost in the first instance. Is the Minister of State willing to go beyond €2,000 in exceptional circumstances on a case-by-case basis?
There have been several schemes. One scheme ceased in 2018 and there was a two-year gap before another began in 2020.
Again, there has been no urgency at all in relation to this. It is a really dangerous situation and a health and safety risk to people. I am very concerned about what is going to happen. People's lives may be at risk in relation to this matter. It has been allowed to go on and on and it is not being resolved, and that is massively hampering confidence in the sector.
In her opening statement, the Minister of State said the implementation plan will be published in due course. How much longer are we going to have to wait for action on this? She mentioned encouraging affected landowners to apply for the newly-launched scheme. I presume that is the existing scheme. The independent review does not speak very positively about the existing scheme. The feedback from the stakeholders is negative. They have said the existing scheme is flawed. Is the Minister of State, as the Minister with responsibility for this, actually encouraging landowners to apply for a scheme that the independent review has said is flawed and is not going to work? Even when the review goes on to talk about the new forestry programme, it still states that there are issues with that scheme. I could not, in good faith, encourage people affected by ash dieback to sign up to this new scheme when they do not know what they are going to get from it. The ash dieback issue needs to be dealt with as quickly as possible. We have not seen the urgency that is needed, and that is very concerning. We will not have a forestry programme, as the independent review states, if this issue is not dealt with once and for all. The independent review also discusses bark beetle and the implications of that, should it come into the country again. That is another issue. After ten years, we still cannot get anything right on ash dieback. That is a concern as well.
In relation to the new forestry programme, I ask the Minister of State to speak about the long and protracted process that she mentioned in her opening statement. We, or at least I, understood that it was only a matter of the EU rubber-stamping the forestry programme in relation to state aid. It then became apparent that questions were being asked way beyond state aid rules, particularly in relation to environmental aspects of the scheme. Can the Minister of State tell us about that process? I expect she did not intend the process to last as long as it did. That was certainly the impression that I got.
On the replanting obligation that is part of this programme, we have been told by the sector that some of the terms and conditions in the new programme will act as a barrier to farmers and will not help with getting the buy-in required. Was the replanting obligation a condition that came from Europe or was it inserted on this side? If we are confident that we have a good forestry programme, I do not see why we need to tie farmers into an obligation that ties up their land for generations possibly.
The issue of the percentage of broadleaf sowed for biodiversity has also been raised. Again, that is going to involve a commercial hit for farmers and landowners, who will be getting less economic value. We have been told it is going to impact take-up.
The Minister of State said that a lot of work had been done on licensing. I ask her to detail what that work has involved, what processes have been improved and what resources have been increased. The licensing plan is absolutely integral to this. I also want to ask about the timeline. If I apply for an afforestation licence today, how long will I wait? Can the Minister of State confirm that we will not see the backlogs that we saw last year?
There is a lot to go through there. I accept that we are at a stage where we need to rebuild confidence in the sector and among farmers. Saying that, I have visited many happy forest owners across the country as part of my job. We do not tend to hear from them. They choose not to shout about it or if they do, they get drowned out by so much negativity in the sector, which we absolutely have to counter. It is a very important role. We have 24,000 forest owners in the country and tens of thousands of them are very happy with their lot, their forests and the supports they have had with them.
Ash dieback is a critical issue. That is why the independent review was commissioned in the summer. The Minister and I have sat down many times with different stakeholders. The requests and asks have been broad. That is what necessitated an independent review. We sought to collate all of those requests into a set of recommendations, which we now have. That was an essential part of the process for dealing with ash dieback. The previous scheme was only launched just before the Government was formed back in June 2020. It was compounded by a delay in the licensing process, which did not help. Covid did not help either. It landed at probably the worst possible time, which did not help with engagement with the scheme. Nevertheless, several hundred farmers did engage with it and farmers continue to engage with it. Like me, I think members should encourage farmers to engage with the scheme as it is now because silviculturally, these trees have to be cleared and farmers will have to get a licence to do that. The longer farmers are asked to wait, the longer they will have to wait. If they engage and apply for the ash dieback scheme as it stands, the process will start. They will be in the system and their licence will be issued in due course. Encouraging farmers to delay that process would be very counterproductive as regards what we want to achieve in the area of ash dieback.
As I said to Deputy Kehoe, we simply cannot just hand out money. As a member of the EU, we are obliged to operate within the EU state aid rules. Those rules area quite detailed in relation to forestry and differ from the state aid rules on crops and livestock. Sometimes comparisons are made between ash dieback and TB payments. Different state aid rules apply and we have to be cognisant of that. There is a stand-alone set of rules that relates to forestry payments and how we can support farmers. We will explore every nook and cranny. It is my intention to find the mechanism through which we can support farmers who have been affected by this disease.
As the Deputy said, bark beetle is another issue that we are incredibly conscious of. We take great measures to keep it out of our country. We only bring in barked products from one part of Scotland, which is a pest-free area. Any timber we import from the rest of Europe has be debarked, so the risk is low. It is something we are keeping an eye on. We know it is spreading further and further north up through the UK. We ensure bark is imported from a pest-free area and we check everything that comes in very thoroughly.
On the forestry programme and the state aid process, there was a lot of engagement in advance of making our submission for the forestry programme. Even after we made the submission, there was a lot of over and back with incredibly detailed requests and responses. Letters of 30 and 40 pages were being exchanged, requesting information, asking us for scientific information and sometimes the other way around, to try to come to the agreement that we came to. While there are changes in the programme compared to previous ones, they were absolutely necessary to ensure that this programme does not repeat some of the mistakes of past programmes, particularly in previous decades. That was essential.
Replanting is an obligation under our Forestry Act and under relatively new EU deforestation laws. It is an obligation we have to meet. We are fully supportive of all tree types. Conifers are important in that.
On the licensing system, we have invested massively in personnel, ecologists, inspectors and engineers. We have changed systems in the Department. The backlog is no longer an issue. I want to be clear on that. When we started the whole analysis, there was an all-time high of around 6,000 licences in the backlog, as we defined it. The current number is about 1,000. We work through them and it is not really a backlog anymore. It is a continuous stream of licences.
I welcome the Minister and Minister of State. I am going to ask quickfire questions. I do not want waffle; I just want quick "Yes" or "No" answers. I thank the Minister for the announcement he made on slurry this morning. It will be a great help to people.
On the hectare announcement, if I have a riparian zone that has 40, 50 or 60 cm of peaty soil that was shored growing grass, is it eligible?
Okay. That is what I wanted to know. The Minister of State had a meeting with the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, Forestry Industries Ireland, FII, and the Social, Economic Environmental Forestry Association of Ireland SEEFA. Mr. Delany probably also met them. Did they give the thumbs-up to the new programme? "Yes" or "No".
Okay, that is grand.
An answer to a parliamentary question to the Minister stated that 3% would be left out, 24% are not affected and 73% will need some twisting or turning. Will that create another backlog in the Department?
Mr. Barry Delany:
If I may, briefly, the licences without constraint will move through quickly. We already started issuing afforestation licences last week and that will increase in the coming weeks. That gives time for registered foresters to plant in November. Much of the work on the remaining ones involves a desk exercise by our team. We will not go back out to ask for further information from the applicants. We are dealing with it ourselves and we hope to turn them around as quickly as possible.
Mr. Delany spoke to the committee earlier in the year about €1.3 billion. The announcement - as we got a bit baffled - is €304 million of aid from Brussels and the rest will be grants over 15 to 20 years. It was thrown out in the media that it would be thrown out in the next five years. The public needs to know that.
On planting, if I want to apply for a licence to plant 5, 6 or 10 acres, a good few reports are required in certain areas. Will I get paid for them? "Yes" or "No".
I would be out of pocket by €2,500. I talked to foresters this morning who told me that if I apply in an area and my application is refused I will be out of pocket if I do not get the go-ahead. It costs €2,500 to get the reports that are required in many areas.
I remember sitting around the audiovisual room while Mr. Delany talked about how many licences of the old licences that could come in under the de minimisaid scheme were approved. Why has there been such a lack of pick-up when Mr. Delany told us that day that there would be 7,000 ha?
In the audiovisual room, we were told that 7,000 ha were available going back a few years and that there would be a great pick-up of it because they could come in under the new scheme. What is the problem?
Mr. Barry Delany:
Sorry to cut across the Minister of State. At the moment, as regards what has been reported, there is still the planting that happened with de minimisaid. Those payments are still being processed. Another 600 ha have yet to be applied. In total under the de minimisaid scheme, which is in addition to the ones planted under the old programme, about 1,950 ha were approved. The landowners we mentioned had valid licences and decided to come in through the de minimisaid scheme, the new programme, and get the new payments at the old environmental-----
Let us call a spade a spade. The industry tells us at the moment that it expects about 15% of it. If it has not applied in three or four years, it will not all of a sudden get wings and start to.
I have spoken to farmers who have their licence and have waited for the new programme. It is typical for any new programme. If potentially something better is coming next year, they will not have planted last year.
That is not the question I asked. I asked if I was refused the financial support so I did not get the licence and I said I would not bother with the grant. I am a big company. I have plenty of money. I can go and plant. There is nothing stopping me.
Mr. Barry Delany:
The Deputy may recall that some of the delays in applying the new programme involved waiting for the new EU state aid rules to kick in. The manner in which those new rules facilitate us to pay landowners has changed so de minimisaid does not apply now. De minimisaid does not apply to the 20-year payments to farmers.
I put it to Mr. Delany that under de minimisaid, grants of more than €200,000 per year were not possible, off the top of my head. With no de minimisaid, it is now open to landowners to draw down whatever money they want for 15 years, which suits the big corporations. Am I correct that, up to now, in the three years of de minimisaid, if you drew down X amount from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, there was a certain threshold, which was the most you could draw down? There is none of that now. Is that correct?
In the last scheme, between 2014 and 2020, there were three years of de minimisaid and 12 years the other way. Now there is no de minimisaid so there is no block to the amount of money a big cartel or big company can draw down under the two schemes. Is that correct?
Is there a fear there? Since 2016, we are down a lot because of the different problems that arose. In the last four years, we will have done only one year of 8,000 ha. The amount of timber that is cut, in tonnage or cubic metres, is published on the dashboard every week. When are we going to go into negative in the sense of cutting more than we are planting and what will be the consequences of that?
Mr. Barry Delany:
Just to clarify, in the private clearfell, there is about 5,000 ha this year and that is increasing up to over 10,000 ha by 2036. All of that forestry that is felled has to be replanted, to be available in 30 years' time. In addition, every single hectare that we plant under afforestation is additional to that, in 30 years' time.
What if this does not work? I am going to nail it now and say that it will not work because farmers are not going to take it up, although I hope they do and I hope I am proved wrong. If this does not work, what is plan B?
If the Deputy looks at what we have done here, there has been a massive step change in terms of the supports available. The key objective here is to support family farms. We want to support the farmers in this country who have the land to adopt some forestry as part of their farming enterprise. The premiums are very attractive and are up by almost two thirds on an annual basis, as well as an extra five years for farmers themselves.
Can I just say something to the Minister? I do not want to interrupt him but in the area that Senator Murphy and I come from, there is not a hope in Jesus of planting a tree now. At one time, one could but one could not do so now because of the amount of reports that are needed. That is being honest.
There are restrictions in certain areas. We can only provide licences where it is appropriate to do so and where it stacks up to do so and that does present challenges for people in those areas. However, from the Government's point of view, we have put really strong premiums in place. We are trying to make sure people can get their licences in a timely fashion, which was not the case for two or three years but is now the case again. The commitment from the Department is that within six months, if an appropriate assessment is not required and a new licence application comes in, the farmer will get that licence. If an appropriate assessment is required, within nine months the farmer will get the licence. The premiums are in place, the licensing system has now been righted and the backlog that emerged as a result of the court case in 2019 has been addressed. All of the ingredients are there but obviously it is up to farmers to decide what they want to do with their land. There have never been more opportunities in terms of demand on that land but it is the farmers' choice.
I welcome the Minister, the Minister of State and their officials. I will ask all of my questions now and give them the time to answer. One relates to ash dieback. I have not had the opportunity to read the report in full yet but in terms of the implementation, is there any mention of or reference to roadside trees that are affected by ash dieback, and the costs associated for the affected owners? These people, like those with plantations, are affected through no fault of their own and are now facing major costs or else those trees will be hazards.
The Minister touched on the bark beetle but what contingency plans are in place? The word on the street is that while it might not be documented or acknowledged yet, it is either already in Scotland or it is only a matter of time before it will be. Given what we have learned from ash dieback, the last thing we want is another disease coming in. What contingency plans are there?
On the overall forestry programme, I hope this works. I am trying not to be negative but I want to ask some devil's advocate-type questions. Some might be hypothetical, depending on the answers to others and what the outcome might be. I want to talk about all of the licence applications that are in the system that were blocked and it in for a long time because of the historical licence issue. When the Government announced that there would be a new programme of grants, some people decided to wait for that new programme to begin. Has there been any survey done of the original licence applicants to find out how many of them still intend to go ahead with forestry? How many have not changed their land use plans, moved on to another type of farming or sold the land? How many of the applications that are in the system are real, live options?
There is a major issue with confidence. There is good money for forestry now in comparison to what was available previously but there is also very good money in the leasing of land, especially now with the change to the nitrates derogation. Farmers can do the sums and see that what they would get if they sowed 50 acres of forestry, for example. What they would get from a dairy farmer who needs more land to meet the new derogation requirements over a five-year period is comparable, but they will get their land back in five years and possibly in better condition. They are not committing the land for generations to come. That is something we have to face up to. As good as the money in the forestry programme is, there is a new player now that did not exist when the forestry programme was being designed. It is going to be very hard to get people to buy in. There has to be, as Deputy Fitzmaurice said, a plan B if people are not buying into the programme. What is that plan B?
As was mentioned earlier, our target is 8,000 ha per annum under the climate action plan. The Minister said that target may increase, going forward, as the climate action plan changes. What is plan B under the climate action plan to replace the 8,000 ha if the target is not reached? What happens if we do not hit the 8,000 ha target, never mind increasing it to 10,000 ha or 12,000 ha per annum? What changes will have to be made or what other sectors are going to have to be sacrificed, for want of a better word, to meet the emissions goal that the 8,000 ha target was set out to meet?
My final question is about what happens if this starts to take off and we start meeting our targets. What communications are going on with the contractors? Do we have the manpower needed? Do we have the nursery supplies required to start meeting our planting targets? Based on what has happened over the last number of years, I am aware of a lot of contractors who have now diversified into different sectors because there was nothing happening in the forestry sector. This is especially true on the afforestation side and nurseries did not know when the programme was going to take off. Has the Department been in contact with the relevant players in the sector? Will the manpower and nursery supplies be there if this takes off and we start meeting our targets?
In relation to ash dieback, roadside ash is referenced in the report, although it was somewhat outside its scope. The main focus was on plantation ash but I agree that roadside ash is an important issue. It is probably cross-departmental in nature, rather than just an issue for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, where the ash dieback scheme for plantations lies. I have had conversations with Ministers from other Departments on this. I have flagged it with them because it is going to be an issue-----
Yes, absolutely. It is an issue already. I have met many people who have been taking their own trees down but there is a challenge with that. I agree that we need to look at it.
I agree with what the Senator said about bark beetle. We are very conscious of the challenges that will exist with that. We have applied the most stringent biosecurity measures in relation to it. We only import barked logs from one particular area in Scotland which has been granted pest-free status. While that remains the case, we still check all of the logs that come in. If it spreads in Scotland, we will have to look at other ways of keeping it out of our country. That is going to be the most important aspect.
I have written down "forestry programme" and "original" but I am not too sure what the question was so I will have to come back to it.
Yes, that was it.
On the books, if you like, at the moment, we have approximately 700 unused afforestation licences from the previous programme. We have written to all of those licence holders to see if they are interested in continuing with the new programme rates. We also have 440 that have been sitting in the system since December. We could not approve those applications but we went through the processes and those applicants have all been written to. Those two cohorts represent approximately 1,150 licences. I do not have the specific number but those interested in availing of licences would account for the equivalent of over 3,000 ha.
For those 700 applicants, the total is approximately 5,500 ha. For the 450, the total is roughly 3,900 ha. That amounts to over 10,000 ha. The majority in the system, between those two figures, have opted in. It bodes well that people are still interested in planting trees. I would like to think that this new programme has-----
A cohort is in the system and ready to approve, subject to the new rules. They are the ones we were talking about, and some 3% will not be granted licences because, for example, they are too close to curlew nests. Some 24% of those are good to go. Those licences will be issued in the next couple of weeks.
I think so. Those would have just come in. They are new licences. Those people have opted in, which is welcome. Land availability is a challenge. The Senator is right that the challenges that exist now probably were not there previously. It is an issue across the board for agriculture and forestry. I am not sure what the solution is but we need to look at the situation in some way. We need to increase our tillage and forestry areas. Something, in one sense, has to give. From a forestry perspective, it is all about farmers seeing forestry as part of their farms and not a different part of their enterprises. It is not an either-or situation. That is part of the communication required to promote the new schemes.
We have been engaging all year with nursery suppliers and with the sector. The desire now is that we would issue the licences. We want to get planting. That is definitely the message we are getting from foresters and the sector itself. Those involved just want to get planting and do what they are good at. I do not foresee any concerns in respect of the resources there. Is that everything? I think it is.
I thank the Minister of State. She referred to the report that was brought forward to the Cabinet and the three conditions that might need European approval. The last time we addressed state rules with the European Union, we were affected by the environmental impact rather than the issue we went to consider. Has the Minister of State started negotiations with the European Union? Has there been any contact with the Department? Last time, it took more than six months. What does the Minister of State believe would be the timeline to get European Union approval for this?
My understanding, and Mr. Delany can correct me if I am wrong, is that this is not a similar process. It will not be an over-and-back process. It will be up to us to identify a mechanism that we have not identified up to now with the potential to support farmers with finances in this situation. We would then go to the European Union and tell its representatives that we have found a mechanism and explain what we want to do. Is that fair enough, Mr. Delany? It is. It will not be the same sort of protracted process. If we find a mechanism, we will go with it and tell the EU that is what we want to do.
Regarding the announcement she made today in respect of 1 ha or 2 ha, depending, can the Minister of State elaborate on the conditions pertaining? What type of forest is allowed? Is it strictly native wood or are we looking at opening it to any kind of forestry?
It is strictly native trees. It is very much aimed at small-scale planting. I do not know if the Senator recalls the debates on this issue in the Seanad. A higher bar has to be passed because we are not putting it through the rigorous process of the licensing review. There will be certain areas of the country that will be told "No" straight away. Farmers and foresters will find that out straight away once they say they want to plant 1 acre or 1 ha. They will be told "Yes" or "No". It is a simple binary option. If they are told "No", they will be encouraged to look at getting a licence and through the licensing process, they might well be allowed. Two thirds of the country should be available for farmers to plant on. That is quite significant.
That is very good. Some 8,000 ha has been proposed and that is a figure we will fight about. To be honest, with the competition over land for use in dairy, tillage, forestry and beef, that is, to say the least, an ambitious figure. What does the Minister of State think would be an appropriate figure for what could be planted next year with the programme up and running? I do not think that anyone in this room believes that 8,000 ha is an achievable target. What does the Minister of State think is an appropriate figure for what could be achieved next year?
To be honest, it is hard to speculate. We just opened the new programme. It depends on what comes through that and what is sitting there and ready to plant. There are licences in the system at the moment. There is going to be quite positive engagement with the 1 ha scheme. Every hectare counts at this rate. Several thousand farmers choosing to plant 1 ha would mean several thousand hectares of forestry. I want to be hopeful that we will see good engagement with the programme.
I would like to think it would be more than that. I like to think it would be between 5,000 ha and 8,000 ha. The Senator might say I am speculating wildly but we have to aim high as we put the programme in place. We have had engagement with farmers on the ground. I have spoken with Teagasc and my own Department. At the National Ploughing Championships, there was a lot of interest. As I said earlier, despite the general negativity that people sense, there are many happy farmers out there who have trees. We need to hear from them. We have also been promoting it strongly. Teagasc has 20 events coming up. We are promoting it on the airwaves.
Mr. Fergus Moore:
We had a review of our national forest inventory plots that landed on an afforestation plot that was established in a previous programme between 2017 and 2021. The figures show that 76.6% were found to be on mineral soils and 12.8% were on organomineral soils. The remainder was on deep peats. Most of the planting that took place during the previous programme was on mineral soils. That planting accounted for a total of 76.6%.
The Minister went into detail about the conference about timber he attended. That was an important conference that I missed. We are being told that 70% or 75% of homes will be made of timber by 2050. It will be the norm when we are building homes. Has the Department a figure regarding how much wood is required to service that industry? The industry is evolving and changing. It is decarbonising. It is going away from steel and concrete. It is trying to ensure carbon efficiency.
We now need to ensure we have enough planting of spruce in particular, which is a building product, to ensure we reach those criteria. We export some of it at the moment. In 2040, we will be on a downward spiral while 2050 is the real date. It is by 2050 that the planting happening now will be coming through. How many hectares of spruce would we need to ensure our building industry can be self-sufficient when it comes to that issue, taking into consideration that we will probably have peaked ten years before that?
I do not have that figure but what I know is that we export 90% of what we produce. We are well in the field of being self-sufficient for our own. COFORD may have done some work and come up with some projections. I can check the figures. I do not think we have a problem; we will just end up using more here and not exporting more. We are well-serviced in the amount of timber that will be available.
My worry is about the 2050 felling times. If one takes where we are with the product that has been planted over the last five years, it has been quite limited. We are moving to a different phase of planting. When one does that calculation, we will be exporting very little, if anything.
Mr. Fergus Moore:
Yes. COFORD does a forecast every five years. The recent forecast was only done last year, and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, launched it. It states that by 2040, there will be about 6.6 million cu. m of timber harvested from the forest estate in Ireland. That forest will be replanted, and will feed through then to the next ten to 15 years. The target we have is basically to plant approximately 18% forest cover. That will require more than 500,000 ha of additional land to be planted. Even with the 50%-50% target, one is looking at 250,000 ha of spruce and 250,000 ha of broadleaves. If we manage to maintain our replanting figures, and also attain our afforestation figures-----
Mr. Fergus Moore:
If we plant 8,000 ha per year, we will achieve 18% forest cover towards the end of this century. If we plant 16,000 ha per year, we will get there by 2050. Depending on the rate of replanting and afforestation, we will obviously achieve our targets a lot sooner but 8,000 ha will allow us to achieve 18% forest cover towards the latter half of this century.
I want to ask about the information technology, IT, systems within the Department itself. Is the Minister of State proposing an upgrade to or change of the IT systems? Is she happy with how they are working at the moment? Talking to the industry, it seems to have issues pertaining to the IT system itself, in that it has not been upgraded. The new system is not available to the industry online as much as it would like compared to other systems, even through the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine or other fora. Can I get an update on where that upgrade is, or are we happy that there is no need for an upgrade?
Mr. Barry Delany:
Through Project Woodland, when the external parties came to examine our systems, they were quite impressed by it, especially a lot of the registered foresters and the Irish Farmers' Association, IFA. They had not realised the capacity that was there. It is a very impressive system and that was backed up in the Mackinnon report as well. Having said, that we have invested really heavily. There was a systems and processes review to make changes in the efficiencies of that. If one looks at the interface now between the applicant and the iForest system, it is a bit more user-friendly for them. We are trying to make it as efficient as possible. We have obviously had to make massive changes in recent months, and so when it was rolled out, there were one or two glitches but they are more or less sorted. Regarding payment delays, they are all sorted and people are able to submit there. The systems are open now for applications, and we can see that there are foresters preparing applications to submit to us in the system. On payments as well, we are trying to make it as efficient as possible.
I thank the Cathaoirleach, the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and their officials. The theme of the day is the restoration of confidence in the sector. The Minister said in his statement: "It is not always an easy decision to get involved in forestry and I know that ... planting has been in decline in recent years." I want to put it to both the Minister and the Minister of State that the woeful system that was in place for several years was directly responsible for the decline of the sector, especially the non-issuing of licences, the backlogs and the ash dieback. This alone killed off any ambitions many farmers and businesses had for taking part in the forestry or afforestation sector.
In fairness, farmers could not invest in something that was not fit for purpose, or that was dogged by inaction and intransigence. This intransigence effectively almost brought one of the country's most valuable natural resources to a halt. We had timber mills, the self-employed, nurseries, contractors, farmers and foresters all left high and dry in the past. Why was this allowed to happen? What fundamentals have changed to ensure this does not happen again? I want to ask both the Minister and the Minister of State to make it a priority for the next six months and to push all of key personnel in their Department to deliver on the policies and the new forestry programme, and most of all, to deliver on licences in a timely manner.
Ms Jo O'Hara, the former chief executive of Scottish Forestry, has been appointed by the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, to make recommendations on improving the administration of forestry in Ireland. I ask the Minister and Minister of State to consider appointing a full-time project manager to implement her recommendations.
I thank Deputy Mythen. First, it was not the system that was at fault. The challenges that came about with the licensing came about because of EU challenges on how we were issuing licences. We had to completely and fundamentally change how we evaluated licences, hence the backlog came. The system at the time maybe did not deliver but we had to change that, and that was a massive challenge for us. This is going back three or more years. In that time, we did invest heavily in personnel, like ecologists. We went from one ecologist to 30 in a period of time. We invested in engineers and forestry inspectors, and we looked at the processes by which we issued licences. We refined that and made it more efficient and effective, and it is. I would like to call it a well-oiled machine at the moment, and it turns around licences in the manner in which they need to be turned around. At the end of the day, they have to be issued under strict environmental criteria, and the criteria are strict. While that is certainly a challenge for the Department, it is also a challenge for farmers who are maybe waiting a bit longer than they may have wanted for their licence. We have made commitments under the farmer's charter. If licences are screened in for appropriate assessment, it might take up to nine months to get the licence, and if they are screened out it might take six months. It could take a shorter time for some of them, and I hope not much longer for others. We are making efforts in regard to them, and those are significantly improved turnaround over previous years, so that is to be welcomed.
I assure the Deputy that we have all of our key personnel on top of all of this, and we have been actively engaging with foresters and our own inspectors on this new programme, making sure that we engage with the forest owners of the future. It is important they get to engage early on in the process and the pre-application discussions, so they are fully aware of what needs to be done. There is a lot there, and that is also to be welcomed.
We have looked at Ms Jo O'Hara's report, and in fact, it has informed a lot of what we now do. I do not think there is a necessity for an implementation as such. The best way to look at it is that most of the recommendations that were in Ms O'Hara's report have now been rolled into the new programme. I will establish a new forestry strategy implementation group, although we have not named it yet, and it will implement the new forestry programme which is what we have been working towards over the last number of years. We have a new programme, we will establish a group to implement it, and I look forward to seeing it being successful.
I want to add to that. When both the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and I came into office in early 2020, there was a growing crisis at that stage.
Up to then, licences were issuing in a relatively timely manner. The result of that court case, however, meant that the time and resources going into processing each application in hand radically increased. This led to the build-up of a significant backlog. After the Minister of State and I, and our teams, were appointed, much of our first year was spent dealing with managing that crisis. This is what it was. We needed to massively increase the resources and the number of staff in the Department and examine and radically change our systems as well.
I remember that three years ago this Christmas, coming up to Christmas 2020, we were in a situation where sawmills across the country were running out of logs and were not able to function. Some of them were having to put their employees on three-day weeks. This was the situation. We were living from hand to mouth in respect of trying to get things through the system. Over the last two to three years, therefore, we have worked our way through that backlog and reduced it. When we were talking to the members throughout 2020 and into 2021, some 6,000 licence applications were being processed in the Department's system. We have now reduced this number to 2,000, which is much closer to what the normal business would be. Regarding any new licence applications coming in now, the commitment from the team is to take six months for those screened out. This is for new licence applications to get dealt with.
Last year, for example, we had a record. We issued the largest amount of licensed felling, in terms of volume, in the history of the State last year. We have, therefore, worked our way out from that acute crisis to a situation where we had a record in terms of licences for felling issued last year. We have now got to the situation where licensing processes are getting back to operating in a normal fashion, with the new forestry programme in place. We are in a much better and different place. With everyone working together now, the objective is to rebuild confidence and advertise clearly what is in place in order that people can expect an efficient service when they engage in respect of licensing.
I thank the Minister and the Minister of State and their officials for coming in again. They encountered a perfect storm in 2020 when they took up their current roles with the legal issue that was encountered. Additionally, forestry became centre stage because of the new climate commitments and biodiversity challenge we have. It fell to the Minister and the Minister of State to navigate the sector through a difficult time for it. They inherited a very challenged sector.
In talking about confidence, I must say I have absolute confidence in the Minister and the Minister of State. I have seen at close hand the efforts they have put in to get the sector on the path it must be on. In time, whatever about what some might say, in this room or across the headlines of the newspapers, any objective analysis will show that the Minister and the Minister of State tackled this crisis commendably and put the sector on the path it needs to be on.
I have some questions. I ask for some elaboration on the progress made concerning the programme for Government commitment to incentivise small-scale native planting and to re-engage farmers with on-farm forestry. I also ask that agroforestry be touched on, the potential which exists in this regard and the part it will play in us meeting our forestry targets. Colleagues have spoken about the importance of timber in construction. From a climate perspective, I chair the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action and we talk about this all the time. The hundreds of millions of trees that we are going to grow in the next decades here are going to sequester megatons of carbon but they are also going to displace more megatons of carbon that would have been generated by producing steel and concrete. This is how important forestry is. I ask the Minister and the Minister of State to develop their thoughts on how timber can play a role in displacing steel and concrete.
To the Minister and the Minister of State, if either of them might have thoughts on this issue, the European Commission was clear during the state aid approval process that Ireland needs to achieve a better balance between broadleaf and conifer planting. With respect to the State-owned entity, Coillte, they might comment on what it is doing to play a part in this rebalancing. There is much talk from the environmental NGOs about renewing the mandate of Coillte. What are the thoughts of the Minister and the Minister of State with respect to pivoting Coillte from the profit-oriented entity it is now to one with a broader mandate concerning the challenges we have?
I thank Deputy Leddin. I thank him as well for his vote of confidence, which is much appreciated. He is right that in the programme for Government there is a commitment concerning small-scale native planting. He may have heard earlier about the small-scale forestry scheme launched today to support farmers to plant 1 ha of native woodlands. In fact, if they have any waterways, rivers or anything like that running through their farms, they can plant an additional 1 ha. Both these options are available without needing to have applied for a forestry licence. I think there will be good interest in this scheme and it might well entice farmers who have never considered planting trees on their farms to do so. This one hectare can be broken up into smaller plots on the farm. It might not just be one block of trees, but different sizes of planting in certain corners and so forth. There is good flexibility here. This initiative might well support farmers to engage with tree planting, perhaps for the first time, which would be great.
Turning to agroforestry, this is quite an exciting part of the programme. We had agroforestry in the last programme for Government, but it was only supported for five years. There may not have been so much of an uptake. Even in recent years, though, we see more engagement, including on social media, regarding what agroforestry can deliver. It enables farmers to plant trees with much greater space between them. Farmers could potentially still have livestock grazing between them because it is possible to fence off trees. If trees were planted more linearly, potentially tillage crops could be grown between them as well. There is, therefore, a great deal of flexibility with this scheme. Additionally, agroforestry also offers farmers, if they are organic, the opportunity to retain their organic payment because the land will still be managed organically and producing food of some description. Of course, as is the case with all forestry, the basic payment scheme, BPS, will go with this as well. I think this is an attractive option for farmers who may not be entirely sure about undertaking plantation forestry. Anecdotally, from talking with Teagasc advisers, there seems to be a great deal of interest in this scheme. I think it will be welcomed and it will be good to see more of this type of planting around.
The Deputy is correct that we need to embrace timber in our construction sector. The event I was at today in Avondale was the second year of a conference all about using timber. The Deputy will be aware that his colleague, Deputy Matthews, is very supportive of it. My colleagues in the Seanad last year brought forward a motion on using timber in construction. We are not brilliant at doing this in Ireland. To be honest, we are pretty bad. Even today, a comparison with Scotland is instructive. Some 80% or 90% of new builds there have timber frames, while we stand at about 25%. There is, therefore, much work to be done here. This is why I launched the timber in construction steering group today. It has been established to look at all the opportunities, but also to deal with some of the challenges, including those around fire regulations and several other issues. These are the challenges we need to unlock to enable our country to go forward with all this mass of timber that will come online in the next 20 to 30 years and continue beyond then.
Turning to the state aid process for this programme, as the Deputy said, there was a great deal of pressure from the environmental side to get a bit more balance into it.
As regards Coillte which is, as the Deputy said, the State forestry company, it also has ambitions to increase its afforestation rates. It wants to create 100,000 ha of new forests. It also wants to take a balanced approach. Its strategy is still out for public consultation. Coillte's aim for new plantations is also 50:50. It wants to increase the carbon store on its existing estate but is also looking at some of those legacy issues that plagued Irish forestry over the years. It is looking at redesigning 30,000 ha of areas that have been planted with trees where it has not worked or which have just not delivered. It is looking at rewetting, rewilding or redesigning of certain areas. Coillte's strategy to date is proactive, progressive and aligns quite well with our overall ambition as a country. It currently manages approximately 25% of its land for biodiversity and wants to move to 50% to be managed for nature over the course of the next number of decades. Good things are happening there.
I thank the Minister of State for those answers. I do not want to put her on the spot, but does she have something to say with respect to the call to look at the mandate of Coillte? Under its current mandate, it has an obligation either to maximise the return to the Exchequer or just to make a return. Is that a valid call?
I think it is. Coillte plays a significant role in supplying timber to the sector. The supply of timber is approximately 50:50 between Coillte and private landowners. It will go up slightly on the private side. That balance will shift over the next few years. Coillte has an important role to play. It also has its processing facility, Medite Smartply, so it is involved in the whole supply chain. That is also a valuable role it provides. It is also into renewable energy. There is quite a broad spectrum of industry within Coillte. There have been calls to look at its mandate, however, and there has been a motion or Bill in the Seanad around those issues. It is something we will have to tease out.
I thank the Minister, the Minister of State and their officials for being here. On behalf of County Kerry farmers, I thank the Minister for the extension of the slurry spreading period but it is not adequate. People on marginal ground, not just in Kerry but throughout the country, will need until 1 November. A bit of fine weather is coming but the type of ground we are representing needs to dry out. The extension is fine for people with good land but those on marginal ground need more time. I respectfully ask the Minister for that. I thank him for what he has done, but I ask him to do more.
My questions for the Minister of State will be very quick. Short answers will suffice so that I can get through the questions. Can she guarantee that every owner with diseased ash will have the option of choosing a more commercial conifer crop as a replacement under the new scheme?
That is fine. Once we are saying "Yes", that is all. Page 22 of the report on ash states that there are "weaknesses in culture, leadership, communications and capability" in the Department. Does the Minister of State believe that the new programme will be a success if this is the independent view of her Department?
What is the hectares target for planting licences to be issued from the 210 applications that have opted into the new programme? If there are zero targets, how can we deliver a programme? Is this just business as usual?
The sector has been left in limbo as regards submitting new applications due to the lack of guidance on the new layers. Industry stakeholders advised that mixed messages in respect of guidance are coming from departmental officials. The head of the environmental section in the Department informs them that sufficient information is out there and the Department will not be providing any further guidance at this time. Foresters are basically being left on their own. Is that the Department's policy? Will the Minister of State assure us that officials will be more forthcoming in trying to engage?
It should be remembered, as I said previously and have continuously told the Minister of State under her term of leadership, that 1946 was the last time that forestry in the State was in the same type of despair. Although things are improving, she cannot tell me that landowners, foresters and people who own forests have any confidence in the sector at present. Is it now the Department's policy to not engage with people? Will the Minister of State give a commitment that she will engage and will try to get us back to a better place? We have the finest country in the whole world for growing trees, but we seem to have a Department and a Minister of State that is not actually interested in that. Will she confirm that her officials will work with people and not work against them?
Absolutely. Officials have been working with people. We have had online engagement. We have face-to-face engagement with foresters next week. Our State agency through Teagasc will have 20 town hall-type events throughout the country for people to attend. There is plenty of engagement. We are pushing it out through promotion as well.
Were either the Minister or Minister of State aware there were issues with the appropriate assessment, AA, process for sites approved pre-Christmas 2022 in the event of an appeal? Why did appeals continue to be heard by the forestry appeals committee, FAC, when it was known that these licences would not be upheld? Was that not very misleading?
How can the Ministers give assurances that all licences that are screened out will issue within six months and those screened in will issue within nine months, when the process is a lot more onerous than it was under the previous programme? If the same team is doing the same process, how do they expect a different result? We always said the ultimate act of insanity was to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result each time.
We have better processes now. They are more efficient and effective. We get a lot more information now upfront when an application comes, which we perhaps had not sought in previous times and would then have to go back. That is why we set those times. When they are not screened in for AA, that makes the situation much quicker as no ecologists are involved.
I will briefly add to that. It is important to acknowledge what the team has done over the past couple of years in getting to this situation in the context where, as a result of a court case, things were changed radically, which led to a massive backlog. That obviously put massive pressure on the industry and all involved in it. It also posed a massive challenge to the team. We have gone from a situation where there was a massive backlog of 6,000 applications on hand more than two years ago to 2,000 on hand today. For every 40 felling licence applications we receive, we are now issuing 60 licences. That is the current form. It is why we are in a position to get to a more normal way of going in terms of being able to deal in a timely fashion with new licences that are coming in.
The Minister of State was asked this question an hour ago but I have to be blunt; she gave a watery answer.
I would like for the Minister of State to give a firm, strong answer. At a previous meeting of this committee, members asked that the Minister of State meet the Social, Economic, Environmental Forestry Association, SEEFA. I am disappointed to see that she has still not met this group, which represents a large element of the private forestry sector. Will the Minister of State assure the committee that she will respond to SEEFA and arrange to meet it as soon as possible? If not, why not? The Minister of State came before the committee and was asked whether she would meet it. I do not want to say she gave an assurance that she would but she gave an impression that she would. She was asked a while ago by a Deputy whether she would meet it and, as I say, she gave a watery response.
I ask for a straight answer to a straight question. Will the Minister of State meet SEEFA as soon as it is practically possible for her to put it in her diary? If she will not, why not? Just give us a straight answer. Do not mislead SEEFA here this evening. Just tell it that she will meet it within a reasonable timeframe, or else that she will not meet with it. Just tell us that she will not and why she will not. What has she got against that organisation? It works on behalf of landowners, foresters and farmers. It represents real people. To me, it is the Minister of State's job to meet it but it is up to the Minister of State to answer.
I thank the Minister of State. I really appreciate that.
I tabled a parliamentary question about the bark beetle in the last 14 days ago due to concerns that I and people in the sector have with regard to what is happening in Scotland and the potential harm and damage that could do to us here. How sure is the Minister of State that she and her officials in the Department, and everybody else, are doing their best to keep the bark beetle out?
I am very sure. I do not know if Mr. Delany has specifics. I do not know the actual structure. As I said already, we have very high levels of biosecurity. We only import logs with bark from a certain part of Scotland, which currently has pest-free status. We thoroughly physically check everything that comes in.
Regarding the pest-free status, there is only one area in the whole world that we are entitled to import barked logs from. If it is coming from anywhere else, it has to be de-barked or sawn into boards and so on. I do not know if there is anything else that Mr. Delany has to add from his pest days.
Mr. Barry Delany:
There is a pest-free area in Scotland. That is the only area in the United Kingdom and across the EU that can export those sawn logs to Ireland. Before they are exported, there have to be surveys of that particular area to ensure that it is free from all the pests we are free from in Ireland. On the basis of the inspection, the exporting has to give us a phytosanitary certificate. We receive that certificate and then inspect all the consignments that come in, predominantly through Wicklow and Cork. We continue to do that. We also engage really closely with the Scottish plant health authorities to clarify exactly the situation. I think Deputy Flaherty pointed out that it is in the UK and has been found further north than previously. We are of course concerned. We are working closely with them and will take any actions we have to take to protect our protected zones and forestry in Ireland from bark beetles.
The last word I would say to the Minister of State and the officials is that the confidence that is lacking in the countryside is frightening. The Minister of State mentioned happy farmers and happy foresters a number of times. I do not know who she is meeting or what sort of an act they are putting on, but people are not happy. They are not happy with the Department, the officials or the Minister of State. If she thinks they are, I am very sorry, but she is gravely mistaken. The facts will stack up any time. When the Minister of State's time is finished, the only other time it was as bad was in 1946.
I can only speak from some examples and if there is a Pro Silva walk anywhere in the Deputy's jurisdiction, which are all about promoting the benefits of continuous cover, I encourage him to go on one and he will meet some very happy foresters.
For the record, before I came here, I gave six or nine months of every year to forestry, so I know it too well. The first question I need to ask, because so many people are on about it, is about when the Department will start compensating people for ash dieback.
As the Deputy will be aware, a scheme is currently in place but I have been aware of dissatisfaction with the current scheme, which is why I commissioned the independent report which was published just yesterday. I do not know if the Deputy has had a chance to read it yet. It is an independent report into how the Department dealt with the ash dieback issue. It has a number of recommendations. There are 13 in total. We can deal with many straightaway. They are in hand. There are three that relate to financial supports for farmers, which we will have to look at within the parameters of the EU state aid rules. That will take a little time but hopefully not too long. My officials are actively looking at that to see what mechanism within the state aid rules we can use to support farmers. It is an EU state aid requirement.
I cannot give that timeframe yet but I have encouraged farmers to apply for the current scheme because they will not be disadvantaged by any new scheme that we may come up with. It is important that they get those diseased and dying ash trees cleared as soon as possible. They need to apply to the current ash dieback scheme to get that ball rolling, so that is important.
I cannot say what compensation package will be available. It is quite clear under the state aid rules that we cannot compensate for loss. We have been able to support for clearance and replanting. We will examine the state aid rules further to see if there are any other mechanisms by which we can support farmers.
We know we cannot compensate for any loss of timber or future loss. What we have been able to do so far is support farmers to clear what is there and replant. We have been supporting farmers to do that through two different schemes over the last ten years.
As has been said previously, confidence in the forestry sector is at an all-time low. There are so many things against it. The Minister of State will appreciate issues with land being made available, with the derogation rules, Gresham House sourcing and buying land, and another dimension in Kerry, where the national parks or environmental organisations, with approval from the Government, are in competition for land as well and have bought places in Kerry. Would the Minister of State agree that this is impacting or will impact on any planting programme?
I agree and accept that there are challenges with land availability. There are all sorts of pressures from different sectors. At the end of the day, the vast majority of land in Ireland is owned by farmers and it is about their choice about what they want to do with their land, whether they want to rent it to someone, plant it, keep cattle or sheep, have tillage or whatever. There is a choice and we are trying to support farmers to consider forestry as part of the choice in how they see their farm enterprise developing in the coming years. We believe what we have put together in this programme is an enticing package. There are many options for farmers to engage with forestry as part of their farm enterprise. It is a choice that I hope many will take.
I agree that farmers should be entitled to do what they wish to with their own land, whatever it is.
For farmers who wish to buy extra land to plant with trees for timber, the Department seems to favour trees for timber and the construction of houses. There is another rule as well, the 80% rule, whereby one has to have 80% green ground vis-à-vis20% of outside or rough ground as we call it. Will the Department consider changing that rule now to allow those with more marginal land to plant?
Unfortunately, no. That rule is now gone so we do not allow planting on unenclosed land. It is just too damaging from an environmental perspective due to carbon loss and a number of other issues, so that, unfortunately, it is not available. It still needs quite a bit of land that is suitable for forestry.
There have been a lot of meetings of this Oireachtas committee where we all made many serious contributions on the granting of felling licences. The Minister of State says the situation has improved a bit. It has improved for some but others are having serious difficulty and are waiting a long time to get a licence. Surely there must be a presumption that when forestry is planted, it will be felled at some stage. Should the system not be more proactive? People with plantations should be advised on what they need to do about assessments and not to leave it to the last minute. Could they apply for their licences a few years before they need them?
It depends on the licence, but a felling licence can last for up to ten years, so they could feasibly apply ten years in advance and seek an extension. There is that option. I do not think there has ever been a case where we have not issued a felling licence. They have all been issued at some stage. I appreciate that there were delays but the vast majority of those delays have been addressed.
Just in terms of the figures, if Deputy Healy-Rae looks at private felling licences, this year we received 696 but we issued 1,176. We are issuing a lot more than we have received. We received applications for 750 Coillte felling licences and we issued 1,132. We are more on top of felling licences now. When they come in they are dealt with very promptly and issued. That is coming from a situation where this time three years' ago we were in a big crisis, coming out of the court case and the ramifications of what happened in 2019.
Going back to the mid-1980s, we were planting what we call boggy ground that time. There has been massive growth in spruce trees in those places. In fact, they have been replanted in recent times, about ten years ago. Is the Minister of State saying that type of ground cannot be planted any more?
There are restriction in terms of the depth of peat. Anything deeper than 30 cm can no longer be planted but we can plant land under 30 cm depth of peat. There are other restrictions around special protection areas, SPAs, curlew nests, and the freshwater pearl mussel.
In response to Deputy Healy-Rae, the point is that we are putting massive amounts of taxpayers' money into the premiums for forestry and, therefore, we must make sure trees are being planted in areas that serve the public interest well in terms of where the money is being paid to put in forestry. We are paying for the planting of it and we are paying 20 years of premiums to farmers. The assessment in regard to peat-based soil is that where it is above a depth of 30 cm, from an emissions and carbon point of view, despite the fact that a tree is growing in it, it emits more carbon than it sequesters. When we plant in soil that has less than 30 cm of peat, it sequesters more carbon than it emits. When we plant in mineral soils, it is very positive in terms of the carbon sequestration. A lot has been learnt from where forestry has been planted previously. That is the reason and rationale in terms of providing a licence but also in terms of providing very significant funding for the planting of forestry. We must ensure we are doing it in appropriate places.
To be clear, is what the Ministers are saying that no more boggy ground can be planted, only good land? Farmers are already under pressure for more land with derogation and everything else. The Minister is saying there is a problem with sourcing land, without saying it.
That is what the Ministers say, but I do not agree with them. I suppose we have to be fair and admit that spruce trees would sequester way more carbon than broadleaf trees. Do the Ministers agree with that?
Are the Ministers aware that there is a policy at the present time, especially in national parks, whereby fallen timber cannot be removed? It is supposed to be left there to rot. Are they also aware that this is where the insect that spreads Lyme disease thrives? That has harmed and hurt so many people who have visited our forests. I just want the Ministers to answer this question. Are they aware that is happening?
When there were protests outside the Dáil, a lot of people said they got bitten by insects in parks. It is worth looking into it to see if it is an issue.
I want to make a couple of points and I know one or two other members want to come back in again. I wish to raise the bark beetle. We have estates of Sitka spruce with a huge value in this country. There is timber worth millions to be harvested in the next ten to 20 years. The border of the exclusion zone is moving constantly in Scotland. It has come from Wales and gone up through the UK and the exclusion zone is getting smaller and smaller in Scotland. In the interests of biosecurity, do the Ministers not think we should have a ban on all bark timber coming into the country? We have had the experience of ash dieback and we do not want to see another disease coming in. This beetle is moving up through the UK and it is going to take over Scotland in a matter of time. In the interests of trying to protect our hugely valuable Sitka spruce, we should have a ban on any barked timber coming into the country.
I agree. It is a huge threat that is of concern. At the moment we are satisfied with the biosecurity arrangements and the pest-free zone that exists. It is something that we must keep under watch. I am not too sure how such a ban could be introduced.
Mr. Barry Delany:
There are harmonised EU rules regarding what measures we can take as a member state in respect of those imports. We are engaged closely with the Scottish colleagues in terms of them fulfilling the criteria of a pest-free area exporting to the EU and the protected zone of Ireland in particular. We are also in close contact with the European Commission phytosanitary services on exactly what is possible in respect of the science and the issues that may or may not occur. The Cathaoirleach is correct that it is in the UK; it is not in that pest-free area. That pest-free area is still the same size as it has be. We are working very closely with them and our pest risk analysis unit is exploring the science to show the risk pathway that is possible so we can defend with any measures we might take as required.
I strongly the urge that we consider a ban; not stopping the timber coming in – just taking the back off it. We have such a valuable crop here so we should not let it in. We will not even be able to replant if that beetle comes in. It stays. You cannot just clear-fell and start again. If the beetle is there, the land is useless for the production of timber going forward.
I have spoken on ash dieback on numerous occasions and I had a Topical Issue matter taken on it last Thursday evening in the Dáil. The response I received was that we cannot compensate for the loss. In my fairly long experience representing farmers – people with ash dieback are farmers – it is the first time I have ever seen a disease outside of their control that could not be compensated for, as TB, brucellosis and foot-and-mouth disease were. The list is long and endless. We are not going to get into where ash dieback came from and who is at fault for it. Farmers expected this to be a retirement pot but now unfortunately all they have is a heap of rubble. I made this suggestion the other night and I have made it on numerous occasions. If these farmers had access to premiums going forward, while they would not be jumping up and down with joy, the vast majority of that 16,000 ha would be replanted. As it stands at the moment, they are standing back and waiting for a signal as to what will happen as regards compensation or some kind of retribution. If we do not want to call it compensation, we could give it some other title. They are waiting to make the decisions on that land. To get 16,000 ha back into the afforestation system would be a huge boost for confidence in the industry. It would do an awful lot of good for confidence in the forestry sector. It would bring fair play to these farmers who have suffered huge losses.
The next point I wish to make relates to something said to me at the start about the level of premium farmers and private investors are getting. My understanding from stakeholders is that they lobbied strongly for farmers to get a higher premium. Private investors will compete now for land for afforestation. While I accept farmers are getting the premium over a longer period, which was always the case in the past when private investors could access premium as well, in the past, farmers got a significantly higher level of premium than private investors. I do not see how individual farmers will be able to compete with the likes of Gresham House and so on in purchasing land. We have seen the price of afforestation land rising. I do not see how they will be able to compete. The vast majority of the suitable new land that will go into afforestation and come onto the open market and be sold will go into the hands of investors with the forestry strategy we have now. In my vision for the forestry sector in Ireland, I would rather see it in the hands of local farmers and locals. One of the big problems we have had with the Save Leitrim group is they resent that much of the land in Leitrim is going outside of local residents. I know the strategy has been devised, but it is most definitely an issue with the competition that will be there for land. The bias will be too much in favour of private investors.
Contractors have been mentioned. Manpower for the industry going forward will be a significant issue. We have had a number of years where there have been serious problems with licences and so on. We will not go back over that. The Minister and Minister of State have given figures the increase in licensing output and that is most welcome. One thing that has happened in the recent past was the start date someone could work on designated land has been brought forward from 31 March to the end of February. That is shortening the season for these contractors even more. I wish that to be looked at and the date of 1 April that was in place up to the past 12 months. If contractors were allowed work, it would at least extend the season further. If we give contractors too short of a season for working, they will take other options and move away from the industry. It is a very specialised industry. The operators of that machinery are very specialised. There are many different tricks to the trade that people will not just pick up at random, such as stopping watercourses as well as understanding the distance to be back from them, stopping pollution coming out during clear-felling and so on. The contractors have a lot of experience. The issue of the shortening of the period of work by a month on hen harrier land or designated land that has been raised with me is making it much more difficult. In addition, the weather conditions in the depths of winter can make it very hard to work at that kind of land. Normally, March would be a more suitable month for working. I would like the Minister of State to consider that again to see if we can go back to the previous date of 31 March.
We talked about the licensing issue and the reissuing of licences. The applications that have gone in were talked about. Is it possible to try to reboost the confidence of people applying? We could have a charter in place as a timeframe so people know when they apply that they will get an answer in a specified period - whatever the period is, whether it is four or six months, etc. I saw a charter working superbly with farmer payments. When the charter came in place, farmers knew exactly the date they were going to get it. In fairness to the Department, in 98% of cases, they would hit the charter and the date of issue of the licenses. If we could put a charter like that in place, it would be block in building confidence for new applicants into the industry.
I am sorry for the long-winded speech at this hour of night.
I think I have them all now. Regarding ash dieback, there are state aid constraints. There seems to be a bit of a challenge because we have different state aid rules for different sectors. Livestock state aid rules for supports and compensation are different from the ones for crops and forestry. We will absolutely fully explore what is possible within those forestry state aid rules and we are actively doing that. We will do everything we can to find the mechanism within that to enable us to support farmers.
On the premium payments, it is 33% more by time and money for farmers rather than non-farmers. I think in the previous programme it was 15 years for everyone and we did not differentiate between farmers and non-farmers. I do not know whether there was any difference in payment rates and whether there were higher payments for farmers but both were 15 years – same time. Perhaps there was a slightly different approach taken then.
The best land for farmers to plant trees on is their own land. That is where they will get the best bang for their buck.
The point I made is when land comes up in an area for afforestation, the way this forestry strategy has been designed, the investor coming in with the bottomless pocket will buy the land.
That is my view and the Minister of State is not going to change it. Previously, the significantly higher premium the farmer received gave him an advantage in purchasing the land. That advantage does not exist now.
There is a big step change in the current forestry strategy by comparison with the previous one in that farmers now have a premium one third greater than that of non-farmers. Farmers have the premium for five years more than the 15 years for which investors or non-farmers will have it. It is at the back end but it is loaded in favour of farmers, which is what we were seeking to do in the strategy and why we made the step change. Last time around, both farmers and non-farmers were on an equal footing.
Coillte could not but private investors could. They were certainly in the market last time around. Farmers now have the added advantage of the additional five years of premium in deciding and competing.
We have to have a balance here too. We will not have the contractors if they are to be confined to doing their work in the depths of winter. It is often impractical to go onto land in mid-January. March is when the contractors really get the work done. What we are talking about is clear-felling. We have to have a balance and make it economically viable for contractors to operate in the industry.
I suppose a balance has been struck in that they can operate for five months, not six, as was the case previously. However, I accept the challenges that exist.
On the point on the farmers' charter, we have a farmers' charter commitment on licensing. Is it afforestation licences or everything?
Essentially, if a licence is deemed to be such that it does not need to be screened in for an appropriate assessment, we are committed to issuing that within as close to six months as possible. If an appropriate assessment is needed, the period will be closer to nine months. It could be much quicker than six months. Sometimes we can issue licences in two months.
Mr. Seamus Dunne:
As the Cathaoirleach knows, we have not been issuing afforestation road licences this year but we have been issuing felling licences. The time has been coming down. The last 100 licences issued were issued in nine months, on average. We are not there yet with regard to having all licences issued within nine months, but approximately half of them are issued in less than nine months. It would have been well over a year-----
I thank our guests and I appreciate their time.
I said at the outset that I was short on confidence in the process and that, despite the best efforts of the Ministers and their officials over the best part of nearly four hours, I am afraid the mood has not lightened. The reality is that farmers, forestry sector producers and, indeed, the bulk of committee members have all expressed deeply held reservations about what we believe is a flawed policy. I was particularly struck by a comment the Minister of State made about conifers and their sequestration value. She said the policy was not wedded to the carbon targets and that there were other values involved, including amenity value and water quality, which are all very laudable. We are operating within an agriculture prism here but when members of wider society consider the cost of meeting the carbon challenge, they will see that the quickest and easiest solution for sequestering carbon is through the planting of conifers, as every school project or cursory Google search will show.
Dr. Eddie Casey, chief economist with the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, was on "Morning Ireland" this morning and reeled off the likely costs of our decarbonisation campaign for the next ten to 20 years. A carbon reduction of 50% by 2030, which is our target, will cost this generation and the future generation billions of euro per year. The council estimates the clampdown on fossil fuels, which is laudable, will cost the Exchequer €2.5 billion per year every year between now and 2030. The council also estimates that we face a potential cost of €1.5 billion per year owing to the shortfall associated with our retrofitting targets and associated projects. We will have to make good on this. On the basis of a conservative estimate, the decarbonisation plan to which we are wedded and committed will cost €5.5 billion per year. The easiest way for us to meet the targets is through plantation, including the plantation of conifers. It is a price that the public is willing to bear if they can see value and see that Government policy is pursuing the best options to ensure we meet the targets.
The public expect the Government, but particularly the two Ministers, to pursue a course of action that will ensure that the expenditure represents value for money. In the context of the budget that will be announced next week, expenditure of €5.5 billion per year is considerable and is a massive burden for this and future generations to shoulder. There is an onus on the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Ministers to do everything possible to ensure future generations will not be burdened with excessive debt. However, the reality is that, at best, we will achieve a reduction of only 29% by 2030, as IFAC is warning. That brings us back to the point that we should be availing of every opportunity to ensure we will meet the targets.
It is probably unique at a committee meeting to have 90% to 99% agreement on the concerns regarding where we are going. The reality, as everyone here has stated, is that we are simply not planting enough. Despite the Ministers' best efforts to paint things positively and point to the changes happening, the reality is that the sector is in a stranglehold, a stranglehold associated with the Department. We have the worst afforestation rate in the country since 1949. The commercial forestry sector is worth €2 billion and there are 12,000 jobs at stake. The sector is on its knees. The Ministers and officials have been here before and have heard the committee's unanimous concern, perhaps with the exception of Deputy Leddin. I respect the Deputy's views and the fact that there can be different views but we desperately need to kick-start the industry. I have noted nothing in the ministerial opening statement or subsequent reply indicating something will happen in the next few months to kick-start the industry.
There is a most telling line in the Minister of State's foreword to the forestry strategy, which I will paraphrase as best I can. She stated we are moving away from an era of excessive focus on commercial forestry in which, too often, the wrong trees were planted in the wrong areas. My concern and fear are that this is an ideological excuse not to plant conifers, when now, more than ever, is the time to plant them in a balanced way with broadleafs, including native trees. We should plant conifers now but there seems to be ideological opposition to doing so within the Department.
At a time when we should be scaling up the production and planting of trees to support a transition in the construction sector, the reality is that planting is being hindered rather than helped. I ask the Ministers to reflect on the concerns and reservations of farmers, the forestry sector and the majority of members of this committee, as they have heard today, and recalibrate what is clearly a flawed forestry policy.
The replanting obligation is a psychological issue for many farmers. When farmers buy into it, we hope they buy into it for life or for generations, rather than having the obligation of replanting. When members of the committee went to Brussels, we were told the European Union does not have a policy for forestry, but a strategy. Forestry policy is up to individual member states. I ask for clarity on the replanting obligation. Is that a member state or a European decision? Some members of the committee were on that trip at which we would have got an understanding that the strategy is only a strategy but the policy comes from the member states. I ask for clarity on that.
I attended a meeting of the Forestry Owners Co-operative Society in Dunmanway last Thursday night. They were asking about how the trading of carbon credits will tie into farming. I will be honest in saying it is an issue I know very little about. Where do we stand with carbon credits? If the Ministers are not able to answer tonight, they might inform the committee. There is an interesting debate about another avenue to make sure people get involved in forestry. It would be helpful for me and the general public to get clarity on that issue.
Is the Minister of State satisfied with the existing scheme for ash dieback? My reading is that the independent report states it is flawed. As people have not bought into it, clearly it is not working. She is asking us to encourage farmers and those affected by ash dieback to apply and get into the scheme. There might be changes and there might not be; they will not be affected if there are changes. How can we ask them to sign up to a scheme to seek support when the independent review states that the scheme is flawed in the first instance? I do not understand that at all. Compensation has been talked about for years. It is a great pity that the Minister of State is only now looking to Europe as regards state aid rules. She said the requests were brought and that was why there had to be a review. The request has been for the full cost of the clearance which varies - it is not always €2,000, the replanting, the premiums and the compensation. They have been the only requests and they remain the same. Is the Minister of State considering the ex gratia payment as mentioned in the report?
Will we have the licensing plan before the end of the year? Will we have it before the autumn recess and before Christmas?
I welcome the Minister of State's saying that she will meet representatives of the Social, Economic, Environmental Forestry Association, SEEFA, which was one of the first organisations I met when I became my party's spokesperson. It has a real wealth of knowledge in the area.
I disagree with Deputy Flaherty; I do not believe it is a flawed policy. Even when we engaged extensively in advance of this, the public told us they wanted to see a mix of species in our forest estate. They want to see more trees. It is not ideological. There is not a resistance to conifers. We absolutely need conifer trees, which is something I have articulated at every opportunity. We need all types of trees here and not one tree or the other. We need more of all types of trees for all sorts of reasons. We need a multifunctional forest estate. Unfortunately, in the past it has been excessively focused on one or two types of trees. That has been to our detriment and we are still carrying some of those legacy issues and will continue to carry them. We now have an opportunity to try to fix the mistakes of the past and move forward with this exciting new programme in a direction that deals with some of the issues while opening up more opportunities. I am confident that we will get it right and I look forward to seeing that.
Senator Lombard spoke about the replanting. There are a few Acts in play here. The Forestry Act obliges replanting. That is set in our own legislation. The EU has a deforestation regulation which does not support deforestation.
Yes, I understand it is a regulation. There is also a LULUCF regulation which basically requires us to maintain the stocks we have from our land use sector, which means for us our forestry in the largest part. Under those regulations we are obliged not to deforest and to at least maintain what we have. We are required under our own Forestry Act to replant.
Mr. Fergus Moore:
The Irish Government reports and accounts for carbon emissions and removals across all sectors of the economy; it does not claim any particular ownership of those carbon credits. Farmers can explore the voluntary trading of carbon as long as it does not impact on the State's ability to report that carbon. As the Senator may be aware, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine has opened a public consultation which closes on 3 November on rewarding farmers as well as issues relating to carbon farming and trading in ecosystem services. The public consultation is currently open. I would encourage all members of the public to submit their views on that. Last year the European Commission issued a communication on a removal certification framework which would allow landowners to get rewarded for removals that happen on their farms. Part of the consultation is looking at how to incentivise or reward farmers for the removal of carbon activities on their farms.
In response to Deputy Kerrane, I am encouraging farmers to engage with the current reconstitution and underplanting scheme, RUS, because if we come up with another scheme, they will still need to apply for a licence to clear-fell those trees; that will be part of any process. They need to get into that to be in the cycle. If they want to sit back and wait for another couple of months, that is entirely up to them. However, I encourage them to get involved in that part of the process because it will still be the same silvicultural approach. The first stage is to clear those trees and get the land ready for potential replantation. That part will be the same and that is why I am encouraging them to do that. It is fair to say we will probably have the licensing plan before the mid-term break. It depends on how many applications come in and that is how we base it. If we receive 1,000 applications, that equates to roughly an average of 8,000 ha, for example. That determines how we plan it. We do not simply guess how many will come in. That is the main thing there.
I thank the Cathaoirleach and the committee members for giving their time today. I accept it has been a challenging two or three years. However, we are now on a much more positive footing and we have a lot to be positive about with the forestry strategy in place and how we go forward. We have a new strategy with the funding in place to back it. The licensing system is also coming into equilibrium. We have the team and resources in place to be able to deal with what is coming down the track.
If one looks at the option that is there for farmers now under that new forestry strategy with those new premiums and compares this year, for example, to where we were last year, farmers applying now for forestry this year will receive up to 66% more in annual premiums than they did this time last year and they will also get those premiums for five years longer than they would have last year. Under the charter, we have in place now and under the systems and the team we have in place, if somebody applies today, he or she will get his or her licence either within six months or nine months depending on whether it needs an environmental assessment.
Obviously, the decision as to whether a farmer plants is open to him or her, but I believe it is our job to put the best possible options to farmers. Forestry now is a really attractive option and we have the systems in place to be able to support farmers who want to do that. In addition, we have also introduced the 1 ha without licensing which applies to two thirds of the agricultural land area in the country for a farmer to be able to do 1 ha and receive, for that 1 ha over ten years, €22,000 tax free.
There are lots of options there. We have come through a very difficult position. The team has worked very hard to get us to this position. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, has provided very strong leadership around that.
We acknowledge we have a strong job to do in terms of going on the front foot and restoring confidence there, but we have those ingredients and foundations in place now to do that. That has to be our key message now going forward.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity today.
On behalf of the committee, I thank both the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, for coming in before the committee this evening, and also thank their officials. We have had an extensive examination of forestry strategy. As I stated at the outset, we all hope that it works and delivers the afforestation targets that we want to see, both for the forestry industry and for our challenge with climate change.
The next public meeting of the committee will on Wednesday, 11 October at 5.30 p.m. The agenda will be the challenges facing the fruit and vegetable industries. As there is no further business, the meeting now stands adjourned.