Thursday, 11 November 2021
Forestry Sector: Motion
That Dáil Éireann shall take note of the Report of the Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine entitled ‘Issues impacting the Forestry Sector in Ireland,’ copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 2nd March, 2021.
I am sharing time with Deputy Sherlock.
As Cathaoirleach of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, I welcome the opportunity to open the debate on the report. The committee held four meetings with stakeholders. Since the publication of the report, we have held a further series of meetings but, unfortunately, the crisis in the sector continues. I thank the committee secretariat and all the stakeholders that attended the meetings, as well as all the committee members, who put great effort into compiling a vibrant report that has much relevance to the crisis in the forestry industry. Full implementation of the Mackinnon report is absolutely necessary.
Licences should not be required for thinning. There is a deep crisis in regard to licensing and all stakeholders in the sector have become very frustrated with the process. Thinning is an operation that allows a crop to reach full maturity, and it is nonsensical that foresters have to seek a licence for thinning. Roads are also a big issue at the moment. While licences are being issued for felling, access to the sites is restricted by the lack of road licences that are available.
The forestry dashboard is a welcome development borne out of deliberations at our committee meetings, but it needs to be more detailed, with the times the licences have been issued and the periods they have been in the system. It has to be visible to everyone how long these licences have been in the system before they are issued. With that, we would have a visual method for measuring how the Department is performing. It is essential that details of the length of time licences have been in the system be published. We need a forestry charter similar to that which operates in the farming sector, with strict agreed timeframes between stakeholders and the Department, and it needs to meet at least every quarter.
The programme for Government set out that we want 8,000 ha to be planted. Unfortunately, in recent years, we have failed miserably to meet these targets. Approximately 25% of the target is as much as we will accomplish this year. That has been the position for years. In light of climate change and the need to reduce emissions in the agrifood sector, forestry is the key to achieving those targets. It is the cornerstone of doing so. We can achieve it through forestry, which can have not only an environmental gain for rural Ireland but also an economic gain. It is criminal that we are failing so badly with our afforestation targets. In 30 years, people will question why trees were not planted in Ireland.
We have to ensure also that land is available for forestry and designated as such. We have managed to greatly depreciate designated land and it is worth only 20% of what it was worth pre-designation. There is a strong view that habitats for protected bird species and so on can be enhanced by varying stages of afforestation, as well as providing a green area. This blanket ban was a national decision and it needs to be revisited immediately.
We are in the final stages of preparing our submission in respect of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, for the period 2023 to 2027, with a new and enhanced environmental scheme as a key part of this plan. In 2015, 852 farmers planted trees, whereas in 2020, that figure had fallen to 100. The main reasons for this relate to the blanket ban on designated land and the fact green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, participants were prohibited from carrying out afforestation. The new environmental scheme has to wrap its arms around forestry. Farm forestry has to be one of the measures allowing farmers to achieve the maximum payment under the environmental scheme. Environmental forestry measures have to be included to persuade the 50-plus farmers who will be in this new scheme to consider planting a portion of their farm and to ensure forestry will once more become attractive to farmers from an environmental and economic perspective. I cannot stress enough that this new environmental scheme under the new CAP for the period 2023 to 2027 has to embrace forestry. It must also be a measure by means of which farmers can obtain the maximum payment available.
Forestry measures must be counted as part of it.
The Minister of State should use her influence with members of the Cabinet to again move the premium back to a 20-year timeframe. Stakeholders have lost confidence in the industry and a revamp will be needed to restore it. Restoring a 20-year premium would have a major economic benefit for forestry and it would also be the stimulus to once again push forestry at farm level and to make it a viable economic option for a portion of farmers' land. This endeavour must be financed by the Exchequer. This is an essential point. We cannot go robbing the CAP programme for this money, but scope exists to finance this undertaking through the Exchequer.
Turning to the matter of ash dieback, this issue must be adequately addressed but that has not happened to date. In 2012, we had 20,000 acres of privately-planted ash trees. Unfortunately, at least 95% of those ash trees are now diseased. Grants must be provided to allow sites to be cleared of diseased trees. A scheme exists, but it must be enhanced. Fair compensation must be provided to the owners of ash tree plantations affected by the disease, and people who choose to replant their plantations should then be allowed to receive premiums for those plantations in future. If these people were livestock farmers - and we have seen this with pig farmers - who were unfortunate enough to encounter a disease that was entirely outside their control, they would be compensated. I see no reason farmers who planted forestry should be treated any differently. The advent of this ash dieback disease was completely outside their control. We can get into an argument about what caused the disease to be in this country, but that would not achieve any objective at this stage. However, we can say that the disease came in on imported plants. Ash was a valuable cash crop for farmers who planted it and they have now been left with nothing but diseased trees. If people choose to replant the area containing diseased ash trees, then it would only be fair that they would have access to premiums in this regard. It would be a significant gesture to show that this Government is serious about forestry and about helping forestry owners.
I stress that this is the only time I have seen a farming sector, and that is what farm forestry is, afflicted by a disease beyond the control of the people involved in the sector when the Government has not stepped in with some meaningful compensation for them. Access to the premium over several years would not place a significant immediate burden on the Exchequer and it would be reasonable and fair for those plantation owners if that were to happen. It would be a recognition of the great financial loss they have suffered.
We have a sector under pressure. It is a sector in which all the stakeholders have, unfortunately, lost confidence. It is also a sector that rural Ireland badly needs, but not only rural Ireland. If we are serious about addressing climate change and reducing our emissions, forestry will be the key component that will let us achieve that objective, which will also be environmentally friendly and economically friendly for rural Ireland. I urge the Minister of State, therefore, to take on board the recommendations in our report. Putting all our shoulders to the wheel, we can again get a vibrant forestry sector in rural Ireland. I am a livestock farmer, but I fully understand the need for a vibrant forestry sector and that is what I, as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and all the members of the committee want to achieve.
I thank Deputy Cahill for sharing time. I congratulate him, as the Chairman, and all the members of the Joint committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, for bringing forward this report.
In the short time available to me, I acknowledge the work of the Social Economic Environmental Forestry Association, SEEFA, which as an organisation has done much to raise consciousness concerning afforestation and felling issues. As we speak, in the shadow of the COP26 meeting, we are felling more trees and granting more licences to fell trees than we are granting licences to plant trees in the Twenty-six Counties. We have the forestry licensing dashboard before us to show us proof of that.
The total number of afforested hectares is 3,598, but for felling it is 24,185. We are cutting down more trees than we are planting. That is a real-time analysis of where we stand regarding forestry policy in this country. The situation must be reversed. In her speech, the Minister of State will tell us that more ecologists have been appointed. That is all well and good, and I do not doubt the bona fides of the Minister of State. However, I had a call from a woman in my area of Cork today who is tearing her hair out because she has been asked for another Natura impact statement, NIS, even though she has proposed a forestry plan to her consultant. Something is still wrong in the Department regarding how felling licences are being dealt with. Notwithstanding the appointment of more ecologists, a massive gap remains and the metrics show that clearly. If the Minister of State delves deeper into the licensing process in a way that will ensure it will be possible to get rid of the low hanging fruit, no pun intended, to enable all the smaller applications be dealt with for felling licences, then she would be doing a good day’s work.
On the afforestation side, we take our lead from people such as Jo O'Hara and Deputy Cahill, as the Chair of the relevant committee, and the Mackinnon report concerning what needs to be done to ensure proper afforestation and the proper management and felling of our forests. That must be done to ensure, in the shadow of the latest COP meeting, that we can sequester carbon and put in place, as Deputy Cahill said, through the next round of the CAP programme, a system that embeds the idea that forestry will become an integral part of that programme. Farmers will not mind if such a system is part of Pillar 1 or Pillar 2 of CAP. Forestry, however, must be embedded into eco-schemes and agri-environment climate measures. It should be self-evident to everybody in the Houses of the Oireachtas that forestry must get the prominence it deserves. It is a vital sector, and we must ensure that not only do we have a sustainable forestry sector but that we also recognise the potential that afforestation brings in helping us to meet our carbon emissions targets.
I would also support any measures put in place to address the issue of ash dieback. Those farmers, foresters and landowners are doing everything they can. Again, they are also tearing their hair out because of the inaction of the Department on this matter. We again have a situation where the facts speak for themselves. We are importing timber for our sawmills. On one hand, we have ash dieback, but, on the other, we do not know what kind of policing there is of pests such as the spruce beetle. The controls in place do not allow us to know what is coming into the country and, therefore, we do not know what is coming down the line in the context of what is being imported. We need the afforestation programme to at least hit a target commensurate with the programme for Government targets at a minimum. When I sought, in my modest way, to have sectoral targets for forestry included in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021, let us call a spade a spade and say that the Green Party Minister refused to accept that amendment. We have a massive opportunity in this area and I welcome this report. This is a timely debate, and I thank Deputy Cahill for sharing his time.
I have never seen such interest in a Thursday evening committee report. It must be because the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, is here and Members want to hear what she has to say.
I will share four minutes with Deputy O'Connor.
As Members will be aware, the issues impacting the forestry sector have been a priority of mine since taking on this brief. I welcome the interest and engagement from the members of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the other Deputies in the Chamber. The committee's report of March 2021 on issues impacting the forestry sector in Ireland was a detailed and considered analysis, with recommendations, observations and conclusions. The recommendations were in line with many of my views and, indeed, I expressed that to the Chairman of the committee, Deputy Cahill, in my letter of May 2021. Many of the recommendations in the report are being acted upon.
As I said earlier in the Seanad when I spoke on the issue of forestry, I have come directly from COP26 in Glasgow. The discussions on climate change and the need to move towards carbon neutrality were thought-provoking and resonated strongly with me and, I am sure, with many of the Deputies here. Climate change is, without doubt, the challenge of our era and the one future generations will judge us on. In that context, forestry and woodlands have very much to offer. If we harvest our wood resource and unlock our potential for tree planting, we will have renewable resources and a consistent rate of carbon capture and storage to help us on the pathway towards significantly reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.
I wish to make it clear that this Government is committed to the future of forestry in Ireland. We recognise its importance to society, the natural environment and the fight against climate change. It is our goal to deliver on our ambitions for forestry in the future.
The committee's report welcomed the establishment of the forestry policy group and referred to the implementation of the Mackinnon report. I set up Project Woodland earlier this year as a mechanism to reach consensus among a wide range of stakeholders and to oversee the implementation of Mr. Mackinnon's recommendations, which aim to ensure the current backlog in licensing is addressed and to bring a new impetus to woodland creation in Ireland. As Members may know, the extensive stakeholder membership of the forestry policy group now forms the membership of working groups set up under Project Woodland. I acknowledge the work of those stakeholders who have given their time and expertise to advance proposals under the project.
One of the key areas highlighted in the committee's report is that of guaranteed timelines for issuing licences. While we have been making improvements on this issue, the reality is that before we can agree on specific key performance indicators, certain aspects of Project Woodland must first be completed. We have started a full and independent regulatory review of the licensing of forestry activities. It is being led by external consultants and we expect them to report back next February. It will review the existing statutory framework for the licensing system as it relates to environmental and public participation obligations. The question of a single consent covering planting, road construction, management and felling will be considered as part of this review.
We have also had an independent systems analyst look at our processes. She has submitted an interim report to the Project Woodland project board on this end-to-end process. Hopefully, this will yield some process improvement gains in due course.
Complementary to that are two proposals to help to improve the quality of applications received, which is an important aspect of service delivery. The two proposals for the payment of an environmental planning grant and for a pilot project for pre-application discussions are well advanced.
Some people are of the view that Project Woodland is not delivering as quickly as it should. However, this is not easy work and, as most Deputies here will know, there any diverse views in Ireland right now on current and future forestry policy. I am determined to build a vision and strategy that provides a place for new woodland creation while highlighting the multifunctional benefits this can bring.
I will turn to specifically consider licence delivery. I know it is a key area of concern that was highlighted by the joint committee and is a source of deep frustration for those within the sector. We are moving in the right direction but it is important that this discussion is based on facts and the latest figures. It is untrue to say that very few licences are issuing. In the past two months, we have issued over 1,000 new licences. This rate of licensing means that licences are issuing at double the rate of applications received and every week means a net reduction in the number of licenses on hand. By October this year, we had issued more licences than in the whole of last year and we remain confident that we will issue over 4,000 licences this year, which will be 50% higher than last year.
The volume of timber licensed this year is on track to be the highest ever licensed in a single year. By the end of this week, we expect to have passed the 7 million cu. m mark. The length of forest roads licensed this year will also be the highest ever. It is already well ahead of the target in the climate action plan.
Notable too is the number of private felling licences approved, which is something forest owners and those in the sawmilling sector have been calling for. To date, we have issued over 1,000 private felling licences to farmers. Coillte, which supplies 75% of Irish timber, is fully licensed for 2021 and we expect that its 2022 programme will be fully complete by the end of the year.
As Deputies will recall, I introduced emergency legislation this time last year to make the Forestry Appeals Committee more efficient in how it conducts its hearings. This has been remarkably successful and the committee now has 30 appeals to hear, down from almost 1,000 at the peak. Appeals are still coming in but are now being dealt with efficiently and effectively, which was the primary purpose of the legislation.
I am not claiming that everything is resolved; far from it. I am well aware that the output in terms of afforestation licences has not kept pace with felling licensing. Getting afforestation licensing back on track remains our main outstanding priority. We are addressing that and now have ten ecologists dedicated to afforestation. By their nature, afforestation licences are more difficult to process as they represent a change of land use activity and there are strict requirements in terms of assessment. As things stand, there are 5,700 ha of approved lands available for afforestation and I would encourage every landowner with an afforestation licence to make use of it.
There has been some critical commentary about how long it takes to issue a licence and I fully accept it. Right now, the average time for a decision on a forestry licence is about 11 months. This figure is reducing all the time and we are working hard to reduce it further. Overall, our improved output reflects our investment in resources within the Department. As Deputy Sherlock pointed out, 27 ecologists are now working exclusively on forestry files. We have also increased the number of inspectors and administrative staff dealing with forestry. This was needed, given the complexity of the licensing environment and the increased need for public participation. We are keeping resource requirements under continuous review, in line with one of the recommendations in the joint committee's report. However, I firmly believe that issues in forestry now will only be resolved through a collaborative approach involving stakeholders, communities, State agencies, NGOs and farmers. We must take a longer-term view and put in place a strategy which aims for consensus and a national vision for forestry. This is why I established Project Woodland.
A phrase I heard during my visit to COP26 was that if you want to get somewhere fast, go alone but if you want to go the distance, bring the team. That is what I am trying to do with Project Woodland. I acknowledge the members of my forestry policy group, all of whom are going the distance.
Of course, Project Woodland is not only looking at licensing; it is also looking at a vision for the future which will chart the way forward for forestry for the rest of this century. This renewed vision foresees the right trees in the right places for the right reasons and under the right management.
The committee raised the issue of ash dieback, as did Deputies Cahill and Sherlock in their contributions. The Department is preparing a report on the origins of ash dieback in Ireland to assess lessons learned for similar issues in the future. We will share the report with the committee in due course. The question of liability that would arise from restarting premium payments on the affected sites was considered by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine but found not to be feasible. Additional payments have instead been made for site clearance and for the establishment of a replacement crop. I have visited many sites of ash dieback and fully understand the devastation it has caused. Some of those owners have availed of the reconstitution and underplanting scheme, while others have not. I note and welcome the committee's support for the research into breeding for tolerance to ash dieback which is currently under way, with a number of trials established in Ireland and Europe.
The committee also called for a strategy for the reconstitution of elm.
Teagasc is interested in finding out about trees growing in Ireland that may be resistant to Dutch elm disease, and it will collect samples to verify resistance if landowners contact it.
As a nation, we must think about what we want from our trees. Everyone will get a chance to have their say as part of an extensive consultation process to create a shared national vision for what our forests will look like in the future. Public consultation will include a public attitudes survey, deliberative dialogue and engagement with young people. This will inform the design of the next forestry programme, which will commence in 2023 and address the issues raised by the committee in respect of its strategy to increase native broadleaf afforestation, highlight the importance of forests as recreational spaces and address the need to encourage farmers to participate in afforestation.
We must also consider small-scale planting. I would like to see every farmer in this country, where possible, planting trees. To encourage that, and tackle climate change, we are drafting legislation that will allow small-scale planting of native trees, whether in groves on farms or as riparian planting to protect water quality. Between this and measures that will be incorporated into our agri-environmental schemes and a fit-for-purpose new national forestry programme, the objective is to have many more trees covering our land over the next few years.
I am concerned, however, that the public narrative on forestry right now is both too narrow and too negative. Farmers are disengaging, and, for sure, and licensing delays have played their part in that. However, woodland creation needs to be viewed as an opportunity. It is an opportunity for farm diversification as well as for meaningful environmental measures by farmers.
I thank the members of the joint committee and the House for their engagement this evening. All of us need to recognise the opportunity that the expansion of the sector affords us as a nation in respect of our economy, environment and recreational needs. I fully appreciate that delivery on licensing underpins its future development. I am firmly committed to continuing our progress in dealing with the licensing backlog.
I thank the Minister of State for yielding some of her time. I appreciate that. I am here this evening as a Deputy from Cork East, a constituency that has a very large amount of forestry and timber processing. I have often discussed these with the Minister of State. I compliment the Chairman of the joint committee, Deputy Cahill, and Deputy Flaherty, who are Fianna Fáil members, on the work they have done to bring this report to the House for discussion.
It is extraordinarily prudent to consider this subject given the crisis that faces forestry in Ireland. Much of the timber imported into the Republic comes into Cobh, a major town in my constituency. That timber is brought to processing facilities right around the county. I am particularly concerned, however. The issue I want to raise this evening is the requirement for clarity. I grew up on a farm, just as the Minister of State lives on a farm. There is a need for clarification for those who wish to get involved in forestry. At present, many are listening to our ongoing debates and taking note of many things that are discouraging them from getting involved. We need to have trees planted in this country for climate reasons and for the commercial activity it brings to rural areas.
An interesting point made to me by Forest Industries Ireland, which I thank for its ongoing engagement with me as a Deputy, is that every hectare of new forestry and its timber will offset 150 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in its lifetime. Therefore, for every 1,000 ha of new forestry, 150,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide are removed from our atmosphere. That is a staggering fact. It is a clear incentive for the State to try to promote commercial forestry. I am aware that environmental issues are important to the Minister of State and her party but, as a Fianna Fáil Deputy, I want to try to be a voice for commercial forest activity because of the level of investment in jobs and enterprise. Even in Fermoy, a small rural town in my constituency, approximately 150 jobs are directly supported by timber-processing facilities. It is crucial, therefore, that we try to address the licensing issues.
The Minister of State committed to having her Department issue 4,500 licences this year but I am concerned that this target looks like it will be missed. I ask the Minister of State to put her shoulder to the wheel this month and in December, and even in early January, to honour the commitments we have given as members of Government parties. Above all else, she should address the need for clarification. If people want to get into the industry and if we want more trees planted, we must deal with the issues in front of us. The work that Deputies Cahill and Carey have done along with their colleagues is very much welcome.
The first line of the committee’s report captures the main issues we are discussing this evening. It states that it is a challenging time in the forestry sector. The committee has repeatedly heard that it is a time of crisis. The sector is expected to respond constructively to the current backlog in forestry licenses. Ireland has a native forestry industry but the backlog has effectively curtailed domestic activity, leading to a reliance on imports. This is just unbelievable. Although the report was published in March, the situation remains largely unchanged. Like other Deputies, I am regularly contacted by local forestry businesses, landowners and communities that are all deeply frustrated by the backlog in our licensing system. Not only is this affecting the economic side of forestry but it is also preventing communities such as Kealkill in my area from planting trees. They want trees in public spaces and on publicly owned land for people to enjoy, but it seems they may have to wait for two years to achieve that.
While the new system brought in by the Government last year is processing more licences, it still seems to be very insufficient. If the community of Kealkill is facing two years, the figures the Minister of State gave are confusing. Are they just for felling or do they also include planting? When she states the period is down to 11 months, does she mean applications such as the one in question will see a reduction as a result?
I had tabled amendments to the forestry Bill that would have allowed for a more efficient system that would have balanced the commercial and environmental dimensions. I specifically included amendments that guaranteed the timely processing of licences and appeals. It was rejected by the Minister at the time. The report from the Government-majority committee recommends an agreed timeframe should be introduced for licensing applications and the appeals process to provide certainty to applicants. This is the very thing the Minister refused last year. While I am aware it is common practice to reject every amendment coming from the Opposition, it baffles me that we have waited until now to do what I proposed when we could have done it initially. The fundamental problem that existed before the enactment of the forestry Bill still exists in that licence appealed are not being decided upon in a timely enough manner. Until it is addressed, this disastrous situation will continue.
I particularly welcome the committee’s call on the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to deliver a specific strategy to increase the proportion of broadleaf afforestation. Planting the right types of trees is just as important as drastically increasing forestation. Native broadleaf species are considerably better for our environment and are part of our natural heritage. Only a few centuries ago, most of Ireland was covered in native woodlands with incredibly rich ecosystems. It is possible to recreate areas of natural forest across the country, and this type of approach is essential to tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis. Our focus should be on preserving and expanding our natural biome of primary deciduous forests. There must be rewilding strategies and incentives to convert portions of land to native forest.
Planting along watercourses is a natural flood prevention measure, while forestry on every farm would help to generate a connected wildlife corridor throughout the country. I hope the committee will focus on that. Unfortunately, I could not become a member of the committee, despite my best efforts.
Connected to my point on biodiversity is the report’s recommendation for greater supports to encourage farmers to enter and remain within a forestry programme. Almost 20,000, or 15%, of farmers have diversified into forestry, resulting in 270,000 ha of grant-aided forest land. However, this figure could and should be much greater.
Speaking at a meeting of the committee, representatives of the IFA and other bodies highlighted the need for more incentives to help farmers to move to this model. The MacKinnon review mentions delays, uncertainties and perceptions of excessive bureaucracy as disincentives to farmers. I can speak from experience in that my family planted half the farm with native forestry around the time small dairy farms became unviable after the then Minister, Deputy Coveney, lifted the milk quota. During the general election campaign, I remember somebody saying to me that they would not vote for me because my family had ruined the farm with trees. I am aware, therefore, that we still have cultural resistance to forestry in this country. There was resistance from my family too in that we always had livestock all over the farm. It was a difficult transition but the forest is now genuinely everyone's favourite part of the farm. That needs to be realised more broadly.
We need a clear strategy to address these concerns and put all of the programmes in place that encourage planting of native broadleaf trees and provide income to family farms. It is important to note the importance of the knowledge transfer programme for forestry and its continuation.
The report also identifies the recreational input of forestry as natural spaces for families and communities to be active and have improved contact with the environment. Last year, Coillte announced that nine Dublin forests would transition away from commercial activities of felling and replanting cycles and towards planting native broadleaf varieties. At the time, I wrote to the senior Minister and met Coillte to push for a national roll-out of that approach. West Cork already has amazing recreational forests, such as Glengarriff nature reserve and the woods at Dromkeen near Innishannon, but the use of sites that are currently only commercial would increase our natural and tourism resources. I again call on the Minister to work towards ensuring this model is applied throughout the country and not just in Dublin.
On a related matter, there are local concerns in respect of the sale of forestry land. For example, a substantial section of forest near Riverstick in Cork is currently for sale on the instructions of Coillte and the local community is rightly concerned that it will lose that lovely natural amenity. I am pursuing the matter with Coillte but, in addition, the Minister needs to review the practice in respect of the sale of forestry land at a time we should be greatly increasing afforestation.
One of the most concerning findings of the Mackinnon document was the consistent theme that emerged during the review of a lack of political commitment and priority from the Government for woodland creation. Only a fraction of the afforestation targets this year have been met. Although the Mackinnon review referred to previous governments, it also seems to apply to this Government. I hope that will change.
I thank Deputy Cairns for sharing time. In 2015, 852 farmers planted. In 2020, that figure is approximately 100. That will drive home to the Minister of State the message in respect of what has gone on. A year ago, all present supported her in the context of the legislation that was being brought in. When she came before the committee, there was a backlog of 5,000 licences. She spoke about how the Department has gone through so many licences. Today, there is still a backlog of 5,000 licences even though there are now X amount of ecologists involved. Whether we like it or not, 49 licences have been granted in afforestation in the past five weeks. That is a fact. The facts do not lie. The reality is that since 2016, this country has failed on this issue. The target that was set was to sequester more than 2 million tonnes of carbon in those few years but, over the lifetime of it, 8.6 million tonnes have been missed in targets. That might stop a bit of the kicking of farmers that has gone on.
Nurseries are in trouble, as the Minister of State is well aware. I commend Deputies Cahill, Carthy and Flaherty, who are members of the committee. The Mackinnon report needs to be resolved. The likes of the thinning issues need to be resolved. Where in the world, whether under a Green Party Minister or any other kind of Minister, would people in the green low-carbon agri-environment, GLAS, scheme, be told they cannot plant trees? That is what is happening under the current rules for GLAS. Will those rules be continued when we head into the results-based environment agri-pilot, REAP, scheme? If the Department keeps doing that, things are not going to get better. Unfortunately, forestry has become a dirty word in farming communities.
I wish to correct the record of the Dáil. The Minister of State said it was the most timber this year ever. Actually, 57,000 ha was given out in 2019. It is not me saying that; it is on the dashboard. We are currently at approximately 20,000 ha, 21,000 ha or 22,000 ha. Unless there were tráiníns in the stuff five or six years ago, there is a big difference in comparison with the figures the Minister of State has put out.
Does she have faith that Project Woodland will continue? I will call a spade a spade. I am hearing that the Department is doing an interim report at the moment. The news is fairly widespread that many of the participants are talking about starting to boycott it because they are fed up with going to meetings. It is meeting after meeting; policy after policy. They want delivery now. They are clear on that. Is the Minister of State confident they will not boycott Project Woodland? Basically, there are a lot of people who are fed up with it.
This narrative coming from the Department that in 2012 the habitats directive came in and then the Department had legal stuff to deal with does not wash for the simple reason that it was there for every Department. It applied to the national parks, the forestry sector, whatever. It does not work. As I have said time and again, it is my honest view that if we keep playing the piano in the same way, we will hear the same song. Unless we decide that an ecologist looks first and screens something out, these issues may continue. What needs to be admitted here is that if a forestry inspector is in danger of being brought to court - there is a possibility of that through the environmental lobby - he or she is not going to screen something out and risk being brought to court because the minute he or she goes into the witness box, there will be questions about what qualifications he or she has and whether he or she is an ecologist or a hydrologist. If the answer is "No", then it is game over. What has to be done is the structure inside needs to be changed. I will call it now. Unless that is done - I do not think it will be done - we will be here until next year and the year after that talking about what we are going to do. COP26 is basically talking about the targets of 7,000 ha that we are going to do. I heard it announced at COP26 the other day. That will be like a fairytale if we do not address the nuts and bolts of what is going on in the forestry sector.
I am sharing time with Deputies Carthy and Nolan. There is a significant lack of confidence within the forestry sector at the moment. In the past five years, we have gone from 16 farmers a week planting trees to just two doing so each week. The saplings produced here are being exported to Scotland and timber is being imported into Ireland for processing here.
A stark example of the current crisis is the ongoing delay in processing forestry licences which is fair on neither the applicants nor the people who are genuinely affected by an application to plant or fell trees. This is sending out a message to farmers seeking to plant to steer clear of the forestry sector. The target set for this year is the issuance of 28 more licences each week compared with 2020. However, that cannot be the measure of success. It must be assessed on the rate of net planting.
At the same time that we are demanding that agriculture do far more to address the challenges of climate change, the single most effective tool to meet that challenge, namely, the forestry sector, is being ground to a halt as a result of an inaccessible licensing system and the lack of any overall constructive and can-do approach to afforestation within the Department. There has been a dramatic decrease in the number of farmers involved in afforestation, leaving Ireland far short of the required target of 8,000 ha annual afforestation set out in the climate action plan. In fact, this year we will achieve just one quarter of that. We need a radical overhaul of the system to clear the bottle necks and ensure there are maximum timelines for the processing of licences.
However, we need to go much further than that. Afforestation must become a fully integral part of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and the agri-environmental schemes. At present, if you are on the GLAS scheme and you plant, you will have to pay back every penny you have received under GLAS. That is not the approach that needs to be taken in the context of an environmental scheme. We need to ensure that agri-environmental schemes actively encourage the planting of forestry. There is no doubt that in order to provide sufficient encouragement for farmers to enter, re-enter or remain within the forestry programme, we must have sufficient supports in place. Those cannot just be economic benefits, but also clear assurances of a fair engagement within and with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
I wish to raise a proposal that has been brought to me by students at Coláiste Éinde Galway who are seeking a children's forest, or foraois na bpáistí, initiative. The idea is that a native tree would be planted for every schoolchild on the island of Ireland and that those trees would be planted on a single site to create a national park dedicated to children.
As the Minister of State is aware, there is huge anxiety out there among young people, at the moment, in terms of climate change. There are just over 800,000 schoolchildren in the country. Would it not be great for the Government to introduce an initiative to plant a broadleaf tree for every single one of those children across the country so that everyone can be seen to do their bit?
I thank Deputy Naughten for sharing time. Perhaps the Ceann Comhairle will shut me up after four minutes to ensure that Deputy Nolan has enough time.
I must say that these debates feel a little like déjà vu. We have had quite a number of them in my short time in this House, in this Chamber, in the Convention Centre and in the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Regardless of all the spin, there is no hiding from the truth that while the Minister of State and other Ministers were over at COP26, farmers and landowners were outside of the gates of this House protesting for the right to plant trees. It is bizarre. To me, it spelled what is a crisis.
There is a tale of two countries and two governments. The Scottish Government employed the services of a consultant, James Mackinnon, to make recommendations in relation to resolving their forestry crisis. An Irish Government did the same. Following the completion of the Mackinnon report in Scotland, within 24 months the Scottish forestry sector saw the annual afforestation rate rise from 4,600 ha to 12,200 ha. They are now setting targets of 50,000 ha by 2024. The Irish Government compiled the commissioned report, received the Mackinnon report, and what did it do? It carried out a review of the report, followed by an analysis of the report. Now it is carrying out a review of the analysis of the review of the Mackinnon report. I do not have a hard copy of the Minister of State's speech, so I cannot count the number of different reviews and assessments that she announced today. I lost count after I heard about the independent systems analysis, which is among the different reviews that the Government is carrying out.
There is a crisis ongoing. In terms of spelling it out clearly, the programme for Government outlined a target. It was the only target in the programme for Government relating to the Minister of State's portfolio. It stated that the Government would plant 8,000 ha per year. The target was not reached last year. Around a quarter of it was delivered. This year it might even be less than last year. When the climate action plan was published last week, it was interesting to note that in the 200 pages or whatever of targets and objectives, no reference was made to the hectarages of afforestation that the Government plans to plant. The answers are in front of us; we know what they are. They are in the Mackinnon report, the review of the Mackinnon report and in the report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which was actually published back in March and related to deliberations that commenced this time last year. The answers are there. They have been spelled out. We need to get to a point where they are actually being implemented.
Yes, sometimes there are improvements. I accept that over the past number of months there has been movement in terms of felling and forest road licensing, but the afforestation rates are absolutely scandalous. The CAP strategic plan that was published barely referenced forestry at all. To reiterate what others have said, if we have an agri-environmental scheme that actually excludes forestry and organics, that will be an absolute travesty on part of the Minister of State's Department. The Mackinnon report clearly sets out roadmap through which we can deliver what forestry is supposed to do. I have said, on a number of occasions, that a forest should be something that people want to live beside. It should be good for the economy, the environment and local communities.
Finally, the Minister of State mentioned the collaborative approach and all of the parties that need to be part of that. Her own Department was not mentioned on that list. That is where the change is required.
This is becoming like Groundhog Day. We have brought this issue up so many times at a cross-party level. It is shameful what is happening in our country. Timber is being imported. The Government is missing its own climate change targets. That is crazy. The afforestation target was to plant 8,000 ha annually, and the Government is missing that target. That does not inspire confidence in any farmer to plant trees. The Minister of State needs to prove herself and listen to us. The frustrating thing for us all is that many of us put forward solid and good amendments asking the Government to put timeframes in place in terms of the processing of licence applications. It refused to do so. It refused to collaborate and rejected all of those amendments.
Today, I am asking again for a timeframe to be put in place for every licence application, whether it is for a felling licence or an afforestaton licence. It is an important sector for us. It contributes €2.3 billion to our economy. The Minister of State does not seem to grasp how important it is for farmers, foresters, sawmills and everyone in the sector. Our sawmills are going through a difficult time again. We have raised the issue with the Minister of State over the past year and a half, but she has not taken anything on board. She made reference in her speech to teamwork and working as a team. I sincerely hope she puts that into practice and starts listening to the stakeholders, who are telling me that Project Woodland is failing miserably because it has not done what it was supposed to do. That is the bottom line. The Government needs to take urgent action to save a sector that is on the brink and to save 12,000 jobs, a big proportion of which are in the Minister of State's constituency of Laois-Offaly, as she well knows.
We do not need any more reports. I have said that in a number of conversations I have had with foresters. A number of Deputies in the constituency of Laois-Offaly met the stakeholders. We do not need more reports from the Government; we need action. The Minister of State needs to prove herself and save the 12,000 jobs that are now on the brink.
I also want to mention the students of Coláiste Éinde in Galway, because they get it, in asking for the forest of the children, foraois na bpáistí, initiative of planting a native broadleaf tree for every child in the country.
Monty Python came to mind for many reasons when I was thinking about this debate, partly, because we just keep going around in circles in a debate that has been going on for years and we are witnessing the sort of slow train crash of the Irish forestry sector, but also partly, because when you think about forestry, it reminds you of that scene in "The Life of Brian" where they ask what the Romans ever did for us, and then list all the things the Romans did. They gave us the roads and the aqueducts. What has forestry ever done for us? It gives us the air that we breathe, sequesters the carbon, filters the water, regulates the weather, provides a place for animals to live, creates the biodiversity we need, gives us fuel if we use biomass fuel correctly and provides amenities. I could go on. In fact, forestry does everything for us. Without forestry, there would be nothing. It can help solve the existential crisis that we face in terms of the climate and it can provide jobs and a living for farmers and those working in the sector.
That is the possibility that the students in Galway and the climate protesters grasp. What is the reality of the Irish forestry sector? It is totally broken. It is a broken model of forestry. The licensing debacle is a symptom - not the cause - of a broken forestry model. Of course, it needs to be addressed. We have been talking about the ecologists and so on for years, but it runs much deeper than all of that.
In preparing for this debate, I went back to a motion that I brought to the House on 27 February 2013 to oppose the then plan to sell off the harvesting rights of Coillte, which had been agreed by the Fine Gael-Labour Government at the time. I argued for all the things that we are arguing for here, including a different forestry model, a focus on native woodland, a support for farmers applying to plant trees, and so on. It really tells a story, because at that time, the targets for afforestation were 10,000 ha to 15,000 ha a year. The objective was to get to the EU average level of 30% forest cover. Now the targets are 8,000 ha - half that - to get to 17% forest cover. This is against an actuality of around 2,500 ha being planted, woefully missing the targets, as we have every single year.
Our forest estate is one of the only forest estates in Europe that is a net carbon emitter because we have a fundamentally misconceived forestry model, which is about monoculture and exporting pulp to the UK, with 90,000 truck journeys every year blasting out carbon instead of having a forestry model that is sustainable and can create employment. To make a comparison with a country half the size of Ireland that knows how to do forestry, in Switzerland there are 100,000 people working in forestry. In Ireland, which is twice the size of Switzerland with better conditions for growing trees, we have 12,000 people working in forestry. It is fundamentally broken.
As well as the fact we need to bring in payments for farmers so they have a viable income if they plant trees as part of CAP and they do not have all of this bureaucratic nonsense to deal with, a big part of the problem is that we need to change the mandate of the State forestry company. In the past week, I discovered that while the Minister was in Glasgow and the Taoiseach was saying we are going to protect the trees and take climate action, the State forestry company was trying to sell off a forest in Enniskerry, just as it tried to do in 2013 with the entire forest estate. Only because people acted did we stop it doing so. We can go through the list of the forest sales by Coillte. The sale to Apple in Athenry is unbelievable. Coillte sold 200 ha for a data centre in Galway. It is unbelievable. In the Kilcooley Abbey Estate, 950 acres were sold by Coillte and the following day, the person who bought it for a reported €1.5 million was boasting that it was probably worth €10 million. There is something fundamentally wrong. We need to change the mandate of Coillte. We need to support the farmers in expanding the forest estate and have a fundamentally different sustainable forestry model.
Despite unprecedented attention for forestry at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, it seems we are no closer to a solution in a crisis that affects not only rural Ireland and producers but has the potential to derail any housing recovery. Zero progress has been made on afforestation, with fewer than ten licences issuing each week and a two-year waiting list. I was probably naive when I became a member of the committee 15 months ago and I heard the scale of the problems in the sector. I said it would be sorted out within a year. Like many Members today, it is déjà vu. We are still discussing the same problems.
The afforestation sector is on its knees and Irish farmers' confidence in forestry is completely undermined. The single biggest issue is getting farmers to plant trees. This is as a result of the delay in licensing. There is too much uncertainty and bureaucracy for them. Farmers are losing millions of euro in lost timber revenue because they cannot harvest when they want.A total of 700,000 tonnes of logs have been lost to licensing delays in the past two years. This has hit forestry owners and sawmills. As a card-carrying member of the Government, it gives me no satisfaction to say the forestry sector is rapidly losing people because of the Government's inability to deliver licences.
The Government prides itself on its green agenda and an ambitious climate action plan but unless we urgently address the forestry crisis we are no more than disreputable used car sales people if we try to talk about climate action. The climate action plan will be undermined completely if we do not see a huge increase in new planting. Each year, we miss out on millions of tonnes of carbon sequestration. There is a yawning gap between our ambition for tree planting and what it is delivering. The industry stakeholders and the joint Oireachtas committee which is so ably led by my colleague, Deputy Cahill, have not been found wanting when it comes to offering solutions. As Deputy Carthy, my colleague on the committee, said, we stood at the gates of Leinster House last week with exasperated forestry producers. These are people who would much prefer to be knee deep in a forest than standing at the gates of Leinster House. They came there to stand, just as people involved in peat came to stand, because, unfortunately, the Government, and, I will add, my Government, is failing these people.
We need to completely revamp our regulation of forestry and fast-track changes to the system, specifically with regard to licensing. The process is not fit for purpose and needs to be comprehensively reformed. The Department needs to get serious about forestry and support the sector. We need to find a way to meet the Government's ambitious tree planting targets and our climate goals. We need a new forestry programme that will encourage and incentivise farmers to plant trees. We need to re-energise and reward our forest sector. We need to start supporting it rather than holding it back. I plead with the Minister of State to take to heart the crisis in the sector. We have too much to lose with inaction at this time. I appeal to the Minister of State to please resolve the forestry issue.
I thank the Minister of State for being in the House for this important debate. I will not pile on because there has been a lot of criticism here this evening. I must say the criticism of the system is justified. We have many systems that need to be improved in this country but I cannot think of a system that operates worse than the licensing system at present. It clearly has failed very badly and continues to fail. There is no way we will meet the targets for the foreseeable future with the system the way it is. I appeal to the Minister of State on behalf of the constituents I represent to please prioritise reform of the system. Will the Minister of State publish a written plan for us on what will be done, what the targets will be over the coming 12 months and how she will address the huge backlog in licensing? It really has frustrated so many people.
Some people are at their wits' end and are very distraught about this. I am very frustrated. I have tabled a raft of parliamentary questions on this over the past 12 months. I have tabled countless questions trying to prioritise this issue and move it along. It seems to be getting worse rather than improving. It is a massive challenge for the Minister of State but I am confident she will do her very best to try to address it on behalf of the people who depend on the sector.
During the week, I was informed that 12,000 employees is more than Twitter, Facebook and Apple put together. The Minister of State can be sure that if there was a regulatory problem of this nature affecting those companies it would be sorted very quickly. For some reason, because it is an indigenous industry and a native industry, there seems to be less of a "can do" attitude. Michael Collins was writing about the potential of Irish forestry 100 years ago in A Path to Freedom. He wrote very well about how much potential there was. We have not achieved that potential. This is not all the fault of the Minister of State as there is a century of underachievement. Surely what is happening now in forestry is the mother and father of all underachievement. I appeal to the Minister of State to redouble her efforts to try to sort this out. It is costing many people so much heartache. As has been referred to, it is also inhibiting our chances to put up houses for people with regard to providing timber for the industry. It is a massive disaster. I ask for more flexibility in future for farmers in terms of land use for forestry to try to encourage it.
Deputy Fitzmaurice has had to leave to attend a CAP meeting in Castlereagh and he sends his apologies. I have listened to all of the debate and I agree with many of the contributions that have been made, including the criticisms. I know they are difficult and I do not wish to personalise it. I do not hear a sense of urgency from the Minister of State. It may be that it is like a swan gliding through the water and underneath something is furiously happening. I hope this is the case. We really do need a sense of urgency. The only place I am hearing urgency is on the television with regard to COP26 and climate change. There is no sense of urgency, and farmers are seeing no urgency, with regard to their applications to plant trees or to cut the forestry they have planted, perhaps to replace it with something more environmentally sustainable.
I agree with what Deputy Boyd Barrett said about the type of forestry we are carrying out in Ireland. It is not environmentally sustainable. I invited the Minister of State to Cappabane to see what Coillte has done there and she did not come. She visited Scariff and the Irish Seed Savers Association. I applaud what they are doing and they are great people. I ask the Minister of State to move outside her comfort zone. Stop talking to the converted and talk to farmers, ordinary people and land owners. They are the ones who are the future of afforestation in Ireland if there is going to be one.
Above all, the Minister of State needs to back up the talk with actions, which have been singularly missing up to now.
I hope we are about to see a change because all the talk in the world about afforestation in Glasgow - one can fly anywhere in the world and produce grandiloquent statements - is completely worthless unless it is backed up by what farmers are experiencing on the ground. We need action now as we are nearly half-way through the lifetime of this Government and we need it soon.
I will hand over to Deputy Cahill now, as he was kind enough to give time to me, but we need action soon.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle. The Minister of State has heard the passionate pleas of Members here. The Ceann Comhairle has commented on the remarkable number of contributors to this debate on a Thursday evening. There is great concern for the forestry sector but there is also a great realisation of what the forestry sector can do for rural Ireland.
I will mention forestry contractors, who are often forgotten in the debate about forestry. Those contractors have come under significant financial pressure over the past number of years because of the low output of felling and afforestation licences. I ask the Minister of State to meet and talk with their organisation. Many of them have serious financial issues facing them. They also have lost their skilled labour force, who obviously were not prepared to stand idly by when no work was there for them. These contractors have serious issues at the moment and I ask again that she meet and talk with them.
As a Government Deputy, I cannot accept her answer on ash dieback. These forestry owners, through no fault of their own, have suffered significant financial loss and it would be a meaningful gesture from the Government to allow them to draw a premium on their re-plantations in the future. As for saying that is not going to be accepted, I will continue lobbying as a Government Deputy to ensure that those plantation owners get some semblance of fair play as it is completely essential for that to happen. It would show that the Government is serious about forestry and forestry owners.
My final point for the Minister of State is that this industry is at a serious crossroads. We have the review of the CAP and this plan for the next five years is being finalised. Forestry has to be part of that plan. It has been said by numerous speakers during this debate that it is completely nonsensical that a farmer in an environmental scheme cannot participate in forestry. Those two things must be married together for the next five years. If the farmer is therefore entering an environmental scheme, forestry should then be part of that if the farmer chooses. When a farmer sits down with his or her consultant to draw an environmental plan for his or her farm, that farmer can introduce forestry measures into that, whether it is to plant into the corner of the field or more extensive planting and that that can be incorporated in the environmental scheme. If we are going to make any serious attempt at reaching the target in the programme for Government of 8,000 ha, that is the avenue we must use. If we close off that land availability this time around, as we did with GLAS, we will stay at 20% to 25% of our targets for afforestation. This country just cannot afford that, whether it is for climate change and the reductions of our emissions or for the survival of our forestry sector. I impress upon the Minister of State the need to ensure that the plan going to Brussels has forestry married into the environmental schemes.
If I have to be less calm, I can be but certainly, I wish to reassure all the Deputies that this is being taken highly seriously. As I said, since taking up this role this issue has been on my desk and has been spoken about in my Department every single day. Progress, despite what people might think, is being made. This time last year, the crisis on the table was a supply of timber into the sawmills, where there was a deadlock in the appeals system. That was the legislation that I brought in this time last year. It only related to the appeals and had nothing else in respect of forestry licensing. It was to deal with the appeals and it dealt with them swiftly and effectively and we are in a situation now where we do not have a backlog in respect of the appeals. I accept that we have backlogs in other aspects but the situation for the sawmills is not as it was this time last year. There is a fairly steady supply of timber into the sawmills at the moment and that has been the case.
I accept what a number of Deputies have mentioned about importation. Ireland has always imported timber, albeit not as much as we have in the past number of months. I understand, however, that that level has dropped off as the domestic supply has increased. We are a timber exporting nation. We import and process here and we re-export. That is the business we are in, whereby we are a net exporter of our timber products.
There is a lot of hyperbole and strong language used and it is unfair to the wider sector to speak of it as one that is on its knees and collapsing. It is not on its knees. I accept there are issues with afforestation and that there are individual issues with licences for felling, thinning, for roads and so on. Afforestation is a matter of great importance which we have to get right. It is a priority. As I indicated, we have moved resources into afforestation to drive that on.
I come back to the fact that there are 5,700 ha of afforested, licensed land at this moment ready for planting. Whether it is a lack of confidence or whether people have changed their minds, we need to understand why people changed their minds and why they do not want to plant. It has been the case for years and years-----
-----and not just recently, that we only ever plant about 40% of what we have licensed. That is an issue because the resources used to generate and issue those licences are essentially going to waste. I encourage forestry companies to get in touch with their clients to try to encourage them to plant those trees because we need them planted in the ground.
Deputy Carthy referred to the Scottish Government and there are many similarities between us and Scotland but there are also dissimilarities, which is certainly the case in terms of the average size of plantations in Scotland versus Ireland. We are a percentage of what those are and we tend to have smaller plantations, each one of approximately 7 ha on average requiring an individual licence. Clearly, the streamlining of the licensing processes has to be a priority because we need a fit-for-purpose licensing system. If we are struggling to issue 4,000 licences here, we are going to struggle to try to hit our targets into the future. That has to be looked at and is why we have an independent review. Deputy Carthy can criticise reviews all he likes but they are necessary. If we did it internally within the Department, we would be criticised that the Department is doing its own review which is no good. That is why we are doing an independent review to look at the regulatory process and to see how we fit in with the environmental requirements from the EU level. I am hoping that this comes back to us and informs us about how we drive on and deliver because we have to plant.
I also indicated in my speech that we are looking at smaller-scale planting of native species only. It could be for the repairing of margins or those corners of fields. As the Deputies may or may not know, we count anything over 0.1 ha, which is about 30 m x 30 m if one was to plant a block, as requiring a licence. We only account in our forestry inventory for areas planted over 0.1 ha. One could have 100,000 plantations of less than 0.1 ha across the country and they would not count for anything. They are still trees on the ground and would offer value but we are looking to increasing that threshold so we can plant a bigger area of perhaps an acre or somewhat above the 0.1 ha level-----
-----in order that we can plant native trees.
Deputy O’Connor stated he was here to represent and push for the commercial sector and I admit that small areas are not necessarily going to be commercial. They can, however, be accounted for in our carbon inventory and are good for biodiversity, water quality and so forth. That is important.
Deputy Boyd Barrett highlighted quite clearly the benefits of trees, as did Deputy Cairns.
As to the nurseries I have met their representatives and the single biggest thing we can do for the nursery sector is to get the licensing process fixed and to encourage afforestation. I certainly would like to think that a smaller-scale planting model might also help with the nurseries.
I talk to farmers every day, and I know and accept the frustrations out there. I take phone calls most days about licences and I am probably writing and signing endless letters for people. Some people's cases get resolved, while others do not. Deputy Cairns asked for specific details. I do not have them, but the average time for a licence is 11 months. It is still too long, but in terms of the certainty that farmers need, we are working on bringing that time down.
We have to instill confidence in farmers to plant trees. That is why I worry about the narrative out there and the negativity associated with forestry. It is hard enough to even think about planting trees, even back in the good old days. In this country, forestry was considered a move away from farming and people were not seen as farmers if they were planting trees. It was thought that they had abandoned their land. That cultural aspect is still lingering at the backs of people's minds and we have to get rid of it. In the past number of months I spoke with the ambassador to Finland and the Finnish Minister for agriculture. People are not farmers in Finland unless they have trees. It is the total opposite of the attitude here. Collectively, we need to encourage our farmers to get involved in tree planting and support that. The Government obviously has a significant role to play in supporting that.
With regard to this being incorporated into CAP, there are tree planting measures in the next policy's strategic plan. It is not afforestation under a strict definition, but we must remember that the CAP strategic plan lasts for five years and we support afforestation from Exchequer funds for much longer periods. I wonder how we could incorporate that balance. By all means, afforested land is still eligible for BPS and that is a good thing. I do not know whether we could incorporate that into a CAP plan for such a short-term period. We do not know what will lie ahead for the next round of CAP.
Everything is being taken incredibly seriously by me and my officials in the Department. If we could all click our fingers, wave a magic wand and fix this, we certainly would. I do not believe that there are any silver bullet quick fixes. We are examining every opportunity and exploring every possibility of streamlining the process to make it simpler. We are obliged under EU and national laws to do things properly. We must not forget why we are in this situation now compared to three years ago, and what has happened in between. We have to navigate our way out of this in the best way.
I have confidence in Project Woodland. The people in my forestry policy group have been dedicated over the past year. This is challenging and I know they are frustrated. Some of them are very frustrated, but they are working together. If people were to drop off, it would be a sad state of affairs. Maybe people in opposition think it would be great to see the project fail, but I do not think it would be a good thing. I want it to succeed. I believe people are working well together and it will succeed. I look forward to the day when we have a smooth functioning forestry licensing system, hit our afforestation targets for once and meet some climate change and climate action goals.