Thursday, 14 July 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
4. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his views on the concerns that have been consistently raised by an organisation (details supplied) regarding the forestry sector. [38552/22]
The forestry sector remains in crisis almost two years after the Minister of State, Deputy Hackett, introduced legislation to address the issue. The programme for Government set out a target of 8,000 ha of new forests per year but we are planting only 2,000 ha. The Social, Economic Environmental Forestry Association of Ireland, SEEFA, which was formed last year to represent private sector forestry in this crisis, continues to raise major issues in the industry. What is the Government doing in response?
All of us who are interested in forestry in Ireland generally share the same objectives. These are to have a well-functioning forestry licensing system, a clear and shared vision for the future of forestry in Ireland, and a new forestry programme which will encourage sustainable forest creation and management that meets societal needs.
In line with these objectives, I set up Project Woodland more than a year ago to tackle the licensing issue and the backlog and to focus on developing a new forest strategy to promote woodland creation. We have made significant progress, along with a wide range of stakeholders from the forestry sector. Among other things, we now have clarity on the regulatory framework, the definition of a backlog, and the principles which will underpin the forest strategy.
Regarding the licensing system, we have committed to issuing 5,250 licences this year. That is an ambitious target and is an increase of 30% on last year. Up to 30 June, the Department issued 2,449 licences, just short of the projected average of 2,635, which is 93% of the target we had planned to reach at this stage. We are close to or above our projected target across the individual categories of private felling, Coillte felling and roads. While afforestation is not at the same level, I fully expect the number of licences to increase in the second half of the year and for us to deliver on our projections, which have been shared with the sector.
We have made, and continue to make, improvements to our system. We have recruited extra resources, with 35 full-time ecologists now in place. We are implementing the recommendations from a business process review, with 39% of those complete or in progress. In addition, the Department is now developing an action plan for the implementation of the recommendations contained in the independent regulatory review of the forestry licensing system, with some of those already in hand.
Regarding the backlog, the Department currently has 3,148 applications on hand. Since 1 January, this figure has reduced from 4,800, and from 6,000 in August 2021. This is significant progress. The number of applications now in backlog, that is, for more than 120 days, now stands at 2,500, and we intend to maintain our momentum in reducing this number.
It is astonishing to hear the Minister of State say that she has made incredible progress in meeting the targets, because the figures speak for themselves. National afforestation rates have decreased since the formation of this Government. It is one of the reasons I voted no confidence in the Government this week. The service is currently reaching a dismal 25% of the target.
For the first six months of the year, only 297 afforestation licences were issued. That is 43% behind the Department's own target. Significant and ongoing delays in processing and making licence decisions are a major cause. Also, the sector has identified that afforestation incentives are not competitive with other farm subsidies and schemes. The Department's policy is discouraging farmers from planting more trees. The ambitious milk target in Food Harvest 2020 was met in 2017 and the beef target was met in 2011. However, at its highest, only 50% of the forestry target was reached, and it is closer to 20% today. Reports from the sector are clear, that the Government's forestry policy is dismal and there is little sign that anything will change.
I disagree. The figures I gave in my initial response show that progress is being made. We fully accept the difficulties with afforestation. We receive about eight applications per week from farmers. It is not about the throughput of the issuing of the licences, it is the interest. I accept that confidence in the sector is incredibly low among farmers and landowners. We accept that and we know we must address it. We know we have to incentivise it more. We know there are challenges to forestry from other land-use sectors. We are working, for example, towards integrating forestry as much as we can with the Common Agricultural Policy schemes. It is important that it does not become a case of either forestry or farming: it must be fully integrated. We are working incredibly hard with the sector and all of the stakeholders through Project Woodland to create a forestry programme next year that will be fit for purpose and will attract farmers and landowners into forestry. Ultimately, that is everyone's aim.
Nothing will change unless the forthcoming forestry programme has some radical changes to overhaul the licensing system and to transfer incentives from other sectors to forestry. I cannot understand how it is not more of a priority, especially when the Green Party is in government, given that the climate benefits from carbon sequestration to compensate for net emission-producing areas are so clear.
The 2021 climate action plan recognises that afforestation is the single largest land-based climate change mitigation measure available to Ireland, yet the Government's policies are reaching a disastrous one quarter of the targets. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has already found that the climate action plan will be entirely insufficient. Now that the sectoral targets are being negotiated, with demands for a 22% cut in agricultural emissions, without sufficient forestry there is not a hope of that sectoral target being reached. I am interested to know what the Minister and his two Ministers of State think the sectoral target should be. Given the Government's track record on this, I have no confidence that it will achieve either the forestry or climate targets.
I have to agree with Deputy Cairns. This is one of the issues that we dealt with more than any other at the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I would love to see the figures the Minister of State is using because everybody in the sector says the Department will not reach the target this year. No one, other than those in the Department, is convinced the target will be reached this year. The stakeholders keep telling the Minister of State that.
Can we see the figures? Deputy Cairns is correct. The Government will not meet the target this year.
The figures are a matter of record and I am happy to share them with everyone. If the Deputies do not believe me, they can see them. We are fully aware of the necessity to increase our afforestation. We are also aware of the carbon benefits that can supply and, if they are planted correctly, the benefits to the wider environment, whether to water biodiversity, soil quality and so forth. This is why we are having continued engagement with the sector and stakeholders on our new forestry programme, which is only due to start in 2023. That is not kicking the can down the road but rather when it is due to start. The new forestry programme will last five years.
We are working hard to develop measures that are attractive for farmers, deliver for the societal needs of our country, meet our climate and biodiversity targets relating to water and so forth, and re-engage people. We accept we need to re-engage with farmers and landowners because we have significant challenges ahead, and if we do not have farmers on side, we are not going to meet any of these targets across the board. It is important we reach out and continue that engagement, and that is what myself and my ministerial colleagues are continuing to do.