Dáil debates

Thursday, 24 November 2022

3:10 pm

Photo of Pippa HackettPippa Hackett (Green Party)
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I am grateful for the invitation to address the House. I welcome the opportunity to speak to Members about forestry at a time governments across the globe are seeking to implement policy solutions to tackle the climate crisis. In recent years we have had our own crisis in the forestry sector, with particularly low planting rates. Today I will outline the Government's plans to reverse that trend and to put in motion actions that will help us to deal with our climate change challenge as well as addressing other important environmental and societal needs.

Planting trees is one of the most effective actions we can take to tackle climate change. Compared with our fellow EU member states, we are coming from a relatively low base, with forest cover of 11.6%. This low level of existing forest cover gives us the scope to increase tree planting significantly as part of our climate change mitigation efforts. Since taking on ministerial responsibility for forestry, my primary focus has been to address the barriers to planting and to understand better what Irish people want from our forests in order that we can progress towards our target of planting 8,000 ha per annum.

I recently launched a new shared national vision for trees, woods and forests in Ireland until 2050. This vision is rooted in the principles of planting the right tree in the right place, for the right reason, under the right management. The shared national vision also sets out our vision to use wood as a material of choice in the buildings we construct. We canvassed views across society to inform our shared national vision. That consultation was wide and deep; we sought views from communities and young people, from a representative sample of citizens in a deliberative dialogue, from all sectors of society through a public consultation process, and through a series of engagements with stakeholders from across the sector.

The draft forestry programme and forest strategy are out for public consultation. That closes next Tuesday. We are anxious to hear all views before we finalise both the programme and the strategy. I encourage all those with an interest in forestry who have not yet done so to send in a submission if they want to make their views known.

This will be the best funded forestry programme in the history of the State, with €1.3 billion committed to its implementation. This is a huge vote of confidence in forestry as a public good and in our farmers. The structure of the new programme recognises that we will depend to a large degree on farmers to deliver our targets for increased planting. Our farmers have done this in the past and I am confident they can do it again in the future.

I myself am a farmer who has planted trees through a previous forestry programme. I know from personal experience how well farming and forestry can complement each other. Forestry has a huge role to play in supporting rural Ireland, offering an additional income stream for farm families open to diversifying some of their holdings into alternative land uses.

The new programme will have something to offer all types of farm enterprise, with 12 different forest types, including agroforestry. Whether they are dairy farmers in County Tipperary, sheep farmers in County Louth, tillage farmer in County Wexford or dry stock farmers in the midlands, they will find a forest type that suits their farm. If they are organic farmers, they can now receive an organic payment as well as a forestry premium on the same piece of land if they sign up to the new agroforestry scheme. It is important to remember that all farmers will continue to receive their basic payment or basic income support scheme payments on land they choose to afforest.

Key to re-engaging farmers with forestry is increased incentivisation through the annual forestry premium rates. The new forestry programme will deliver on this, with premiums increasing from between 46% to 66%. In a further backing of farmers, we have introduced five extra years of premia for farmers, giving them an income for 20 years.

We are asking not only that private landowners sign up to the new forestry programme, but also that public bodies play their part. The new forestry programme will incentivise public bodies to establish new native woodlands on suitable public land. This includes Departments, higher education authorities and local authorities. I believe that this intervention under the new programme will provide these public bodies with a wonderful opportunity to play a valuable role in our climate action efforts.

For those who wish to engage in tree planting for the first time, the new native tree area scheme is worth exploring. It allows farmers to plant up to 1 ha without the need to apply for a forestry licence. Such planting will, of course, be subject to environmental requirements, but the application and approval process will be much more straightforward. The scheme will facilitate farmers to plant appropriate areas on their farms and along watercourses at an accelerated premium rate over ten years.

That brings me to the licensing process, which we can all agree has been a difficult issue over the past few years. I am well aware that it has negatively impacted the perception of forestry among some landowners. I am happy that we have worked hard to improve the system, tackle the backlog and reduce turnaround times for licence applications. We have brought in more ecologists, forestry inspectors and administrative staff to tackle the licensing workload. We have looked at our processes and made them more efficient, and we will continue to make improvements to the system.

As Deputies will be aware, we also commissioned an independent expert legal and regulatory review of forestry licensing, which was carried out by Philip Lee solicitors. The report was published in June, following extensive stakeholder consultation. While it is clear from Philip Lee's analysis that a robust forestry licensing regime is required as a matter of EU and Irish environmental law, the report makes a number of recommendations for positive action in areas where greater efficiencies and streamlining of processes can be achieved within the existing regulatory regime. I am pleased to inform the House that my Department is now working on a detailed and time-bound action plan for implementation of those recommendations.

The steps we have taken to date to improve the licensing process have led to a welcome increase in the number of licences issued. We have issued 4,279 licences so far this year. The pace of processing applications has also picked up significantly. We are issuing nearly 30% more licences than applications received. That means that the backlog continues to drop, with faster turnaround times for new applicants. The backlog has reduced from 6,000 in August 2021 to 3,700 in January of this year. At the beginning of November, the number of licences at hand stood at 1,606. While we still have work to do, we have achieved a lot, and I am confident that, thanks to the investments we have made, my Department is well equipped to meet the licensing demands of the new programme.

This year will be a record year for roads and timber volumes licensed. Some 272 km of forest roads have been approved, which is already the most on record for any given year. The volume of felling licences issued year to date stands at 8.6 million cu. m. This is in the context of the Council for Forest Research and Development, COFORD, forecast for harvesting this year having been just over 4.5 million cu. m.

We have issued licences for 4,500 ha of afforestation this year and we continue to prioritise afforestation files in advance of introducting of the new programme.

Beyond afforestation, this programme contains a wide range measures and interventions to support a healthy and viable forestry sector. I will not go through all of them here today but I will highlight some. Current forest owners are very important given that we depend on them to supply wood to our sawmills. This is an industry that delivers renewable wood products and maintains employment in rural areas.

Forest owners will have the opportunity to join knowledge transfer groups under the new programme. In these groups, forest owners will learn from their peers and from professional foresters how best to manage and optimise the yield from their forest. The new programme will also contain measures that will support sustainable forest management, such as continuous cover forestry, a woodland improvement scheme for thinning and tending of broadleaf forests and a native woodland conservation scheme.

As with the current programme, we recognise that forests can sustain damage from unforeseen events such as threats from weather, pests and disease. That is why we have included for reconstitution of such forests, which includes ash plantations, and I know that this has been an issue of concern to many in this House. We have paid out significant sums to many whose plantations have been affected by this devastating disease, but I am still very aware of the difficulties faced by the owners of ash plantations. That is why we will actively look at the scheme again in the new year to see what possibilities there are to take account of concerns expressed.

This is a hugely exciting time for our forestry sector. Only yesterday I spoke at a conference in Avondale in County Wicklow about building with wood, and it re-emphasised in my mind not only the huge potential of wood as a sustainable building material, but the environmental imperative to transition to the widespread use of timber in construction as a low carbon option.

We have an enormous opportunity to achieve something of lasting significance for generations to come with the new forest strategy and the new forestry programme. The Government has put the funds in place to achieve this and we now need everyone across the sector to come together to promote the benefits of forestry for climate, nature, water quality, wood production, people, the wider economy and rural communities. I hope the members of this House will help us in this endeavour.

3:20 pm

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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We are back in this Chamber discussing forestry again. It would be useful to commend the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine which has ensured that this has become and remains a prevalent issue. We know that agriculture occupies a unique role in Irish society. It is our largest indigenous sector. It does not up and leave when recession hits. It is an integral part of and the core economic driver of many of our rural communities. It also produces top quality food for people in Ireland, Europe and across the world. We also know that the climate crisis poses challenges to every aspect of Irish society. An under-recognised and under-valued fact is that because of the unique ability of farms to sequester carbon provides an opportunity for them to play a positive and important role in achieving our emission reduction targets in a way that is both environmentally and financially sustainable for the farmers concerned and the communities that depend on them.

As we are committed to reducing our carbon emissions we should equally be committed to ensuring that the cost is not borne alone by the already inadequate margins of family farm incomes. Forestry, therefore, is an area that should unite opinion among environmentalists, farmers, local communities and businesses. I have often said that a good forestry strategy is one that would deliver for the environment and for local communities. Until now, it must be said the current strategy is not delivering by any of these metrics. Climate change is happening. Every individual company and state must take action; the bigger the entity the greater the responsibility.

We know that forestry will be a pivotal part of Ireland meeting its climate action targets. I would go so far to say that if we do not deliver on forestry then we will not deliver on climate. At the moment we are nowhere near delivery. That needs to be recognised.

The programme for Government sets a target of planting 8,000 ha of new afforestation each year. We are currently reaching about a quarter of that. What is not often commented on is that all the numbers recited for 2030 and 2050 in climate action targets work under the assumption that we have actually met our 2021 and 2022 targets. Therefore in reality every year of missed milestones results in the need for even greater numbers in the coming years. Nobody I have spoken to in the sector has the slightest confidence that this will be realisable under the current framework. The implications for climate action and biodiversity plans are incredibly worrying.

The Minister of State hardly mentioned how forestry has become a dirty word in some parts of the country. The failure to engage adequately with local communities and the concentration of forestry especially the blanket planting and subsequent clearfelling of Sitka spruce in a few regions and the failure to ensure that local families, farmers and wider communities see the economic benefits of afforestation has led to widespread hostility and ill-feeling in those areas. That was and is entirely avoidable. I have said many times here that a forest is something that people should want to live beside. They should have the benefits for clean air, good living and economic benefits that afforestation can represent when it is done correctly. Those economic benefits can only happen when there is a functioning, vibrant timber industry. That means that you have to have a sustainable, constant, free-flowing supply of wood. Within that there will be a growing need for soft wood if for no other reason that we will need it to build the houses that my party wants the Government to deliver, as well as the furniture, pallets and vast array of products that can be produced most sustainably with timber.

My view has always been that when the required timber can be sustainably produced in Ireland then this is the place that it should be produced rather than Irish companies being reliant on imports. There needs to be a correct balance. One or two counties should not be expected to accommodate wildly disproportionate levels of monoculture afforestation. There must be a regional balance as well as a species balance across the board.

I acknowledge that this is an area that was in crisis prior to the Minister of State taking office and I recognise that it could not be turned around over night. But the reason we are having this debate again is not because the sector could not be turned around overnight but because it was subjected to gross mismanagement, teetering on incompetence. In 2019, prior to the formation of the Government, afforestation rates stood at a modern low of 3,550 ha. Since the Government took office we have been hitting just above 2,000 ha. The Government has been achieving that against a backdrop of a 8,000 ha target. My fundamental difficulty is that having failed to meet the target in 2020, 2021, and it will fail to meet it in 2022, the target for next year with all the additional investment is again only 8,000 ha. We will see whether it can be delivered.

There have been improvements in the licensing regime. However, I must say that farmers were responsible for 81% of all afforestation between 1980 and 2019 but the numbers involved in afforestation actually dropped from 950 to 206 between 2014 and 2019. Without farmers there will not be next or near the levels of afforestation required over the next 30 years. I acknowledge the recently published payment rates for the new forestry programme represent an important step even if their publication arose from yet further delay to an existing programme which was already two years out of date. However, the payment rates essentially amount to a single-page document. The route to restoring confidence must be through using the new forestry programme when it is eventually published in an all encompassing new covenant with our farming families. For farmers, I hope this can mean a new start for forestry and for the Government it will no doubt be its last chance to garner any credibility in this area. Back in 2019 the Mackinnon report identified a lack of political commitment as a key part of the problem. To prove that lessons have been learned, the forestry programme must be all-encompassing.

How do we get to the place where we can deliver a forestry strategy that delivers for the environment, communities, economy and industry in the first instance? It involves the investment announced but we need quick confirmation that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has signed off on the full allocation, and also a firm commitment that the ongoing debacle on forestry licensing will finally be resolved. One hundred licences per week is an incredibly soft target. It is insufficient to meet the ambition and must be revised upwards. This is an area about which I still have concerns because it has been missed for 29 weeks of this year.

We also need additional targets to ensure a fair allocation of licences to non-Coillte applicants. We have a difficulty in that this year to date, for all the improvements the Minister of State has cited, which see us getting to the point we should always have been at, only around 4,500 ha have been approved for a licence. That is not because of a backlog or EU regulations; it is the result of a systemic failure. If it is not corrected, higher payment rates simply will not lead to an increase in afforestation.

While there are some welcome innovations regarding supports for forests for water and seed orchards in particular, I remain incredibly concerned that the policy approach in other areas remains entirely unreformed beyond increased expenditure. While the expenditure is welcome, the crisis in the forestry sector goes beyond that.

The Minister of State indicated she is going to revisit the ash dieback scheme. If not, all this will count for nought. In our engagements with farmers, they cite ash dieback repeatedly as the reason they are refusing even to contemplate re-entering forestry.

We also need to ensure fairness in the system. I am sure the Minister of State is aware of the joint venture between Coillte and the British investment fund Gresham House. Many in the sector are pointing to that as a cause of genuine concern. I am sure the Minister of State is aware of the deliberations in the Scottish Parliament, where this type of scheme has been cited as involving not the expansion of community ownership but an explosion of corporate ownership. I asked the Minister of State to disavow that type of venture.

3:30 pm

Photo of Martin BrowneMartin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to address the matter of forestry because, despite recent announcements and fanfare, the issues facing many foresters remain the same in many cases. The Minister of State claims these are exciting times for the forestry sector but this is not what any of the rest of us are hearing from foresters. We note the anger and frustration of foresters, who know the Government is not up to the task of solving the problems in the sector.

The dysfunctional licensing system, poor communications and overall mismanagement of the licensing process are still factors for operators across the sector. Since I was elected to this House in 2020, forestry has been a persistent feature of the agriculture committee's agenda. Licensing, ash dieback, the reconstitution and underplanting scheme, RUS, planning matters and the overall objective of making the sector attractive to get involved in have been discussed over and over but those problems are still evident. They are getting in the way of operators making the income they depend upon and result in a degree of reluctance to invest. Such is the uncertainty within the sector over the Department's ability to roll out a forestry programme that is accessible and efficient.

I want to turn to the issue of ash dieback. Does the Minister of State have any idea of landowners' anger and frustration in dealing with ash dieback? Farmers and landowners who planted native ash trees are watching their forests die or deteriorate every year. Forestry owners in my part of the country are still asking when the Government will intervene to fix the problem. Let me give an instance for the sake of clarity. In July 2020, a Tipperary forester submitted a RUS grant application for a specific area of forestry. Incidentally, this was at the same time that a letter sent to industry groups by the Department specifically promoted its communication plan. Until a letter arrived in October 2022, almost two and a half years later, there had been absolutely no communication with the farmer on the part of the Department. The October letter requested a harvest plan for the site. At the time of the application, the RUS criteria did not require a harvest plan. What does it mean for the landowner? It means the slow pace of the Department, alongside its inability to keep foresters updated, will result in the farmer expecting further delays in dealing with the disease on the land.

While this incident relates to one particular forester, the problem is being experienced by all the other applicants around the country. Can the Minister of State tell the House why it has taken the Department almost two and a half years to decide it requires additional information? Foresters want to know how long more applications will likely take to be approved and whether there will be further requests for more information. Furthermore, the forester's site is going to be replanted with conifer trees. An application was made to Tipperary County Council for planning approval, in the form of a section 5 planning exemption. The application was approved by Tipperary County Council, which has the competence to deal with planning issues in the county. Why, therefore, is the Department questioning the process of the competent local authority? The Minister of State is well aware of the consequences of treating operators in the sector in this way.

The Minister of State has a target of 8,000 ha of new forestry each year, but because applications are taking so long to process, many of the farmers being granted licences are delaying planting because of the likelihood of similar delays when they apply for felling licences.

The Minister of State's new forestry proposals are out for public consultation. I hope she and her Department will do more than listen to what foresters say to them; they must act on their contributions. One thing the Government should set about doing immediately is provide for a statutory period in which applicants are entitled to a decision on their licence applications.

Felling licence targets for Coillte have now been met but they have not been for other operators. Is there room for manoeuvre to put the focus on them? What thinking goes into addressing current shortfalls? It seems a real-time response is lacking when opportunities present themselves. I urge the Minister of State to listen to the suggestions of the foresters and act on their contributions as she rolls out the public consultation. That includes addressing continuing concerns about the RUS, among other schemes. I appeal to her to act on their concerns, not just pay lip service, as is usual.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I wish her well with the new forestry programme that has been devised. We appreciate that it is a draft programme. One certainly perceives there has been a tremendous amount of energy put into forestry, certainly in recent months. The premiums for the proposed forestry programme, across the forestry types the Minister of State has outlined, indicate a significant increase, on the face of it, for those who will plant and grow trees. That is to be welcomed.

I took possession of an interesting report by Auxilia Group entitled The Economics of Afforestation and Management in Ireland. It was commissioned and was published in 2022. I am sure the Minister of State will have had sight of it. The key person who drove it was Professor Cathal O'Donoghue, whose opinions on forestry policy matter. We take at face value his bona fides. He did what I would call in my awkward language a mapping exercise of the estimated total establishment cost by species in 2023. The report states on page 37 that the total establishment cost for a conifer plantation will be approximately €7,000 per hectare. For hard broadleaf, it is to be €10,551, and for soft broadleaf it is to be €9,631.

The table of forestry types has 12 categories, ranging from FT 1 to FT 12. These include native forests, forests for water, forests on public land, emergent forests, mixed high forests with conifers and 20% broadleaf, and mixed high forests with mainly spruce and 20% broadleaf. The proposed grant per hectare for a native forest is €6,744.

That includes hard broadleaf. The establishment costs are more than the premium devised in the new forestry programme. Therein lies the challenge. The proposed establishment grant for mixed high forest with mainly spruce and 20% broadleaf is €3,850. The analysis that Professor O'Donoghue and the Auxilia Group have done is based on real-time receipts they have been furnished with. They are the lived and true experience of forestry companies.

The true cost of establishment is far in excess of the proposed grant rate for establishment. Already there is a disincentive on the part of the forestry companies to be able to move into a position whereby they can meet the needs of the new forestry programme without incurring losses. In other words, it will not pay the forestry companies and contractors to become involved in the new programme because the financial metrics are such that it is too expensive for them to be able to do so.

If I was looking at this from the point of view of somebody who wanted to invest in forestry or had a land holding on which there was forestry, I would look at the premiums. For example, for native forest the figure is €1,103. I would consider that a very good premium per hectare if I was going to benefit from it. However, the nub of all of this is whether forestry companies, which established roads and land holdings, use forwarders and so on. I am no expert in this area but if they are telling us, and the research is bearing out what we are hearing on the ground, that the costs of establishment are far in excess of the grants that will be provided, then I would respectfully suggest that the Minister of State may already be on the back foot.

In that context, it is vitally important that she bring together all of the stakeholders. The establishment of a forestry development agency could bring all of the stakeholders together. We have such an agency for food, namely Bord Bia, or employment development, such as Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland. If the Minister of State created an agency to bring all of the stakeholders together, she would be able to work through a lot of these issues.

If Coillte is going to change the manner in which it operates such that it will be able to benefit from premiums, there may be a challenge for private forestry companies which may be sucked into operations devised by Coillte because of economies of scale. There are considerable worries about that within the private forestry sector.

Ash dieback needs a scheme. The Minister of State made reference to it, and I am glad she did so, but we need something more concrete than what we have heard heretofore regarding an ash dieback scheme. It has to be sorted. If we want confidence in the sector, we need to sort out the ash dieback scheme.

A forestry development agency will be the mechanism for the Minister of State and Government to succeed. For confidence to exist, we need to bring all of the stakeholders together. My wish is that the Minister of State moves forward and achieves what is necessary.

3:40 pm

Photo of James O'ConnorJames O'Connor (Cork East, Fianna Fail)
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I am here today to represent the constituency of Cork East, which I share with Deputy Sherlock. What is quite interesting about our constituency is that we are very fortunate to have a large number of commercial forestry operators in the region. They provide very valuable employment to communities, in particular in areas like Fermoy and rural hinterlands surrounding some of the mountainous regions in the constituency. Many agricultural landowners in those areas are very fortunate to have engaged in the forestry industry through the decades, planting commercial forestry in co-operation with State agencies such as Coillte and other players in the industry.

We are very fortunate to have many facets of the timber industry located in the county. For example, a substantial proportion of timber from Ireland is imported and products are exported in Cobh, which is something that may be seen as negative and positive. My desire and hope for our Government is that we would be in a position to deal with a long-standing mess. The Minister of State, Deputy Hackett, gets a lot of criticism. My perspective on this is that the Government inherited a substantial mess in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

The Minister of State is somewhat precluded from making such a statement, but I am happy to say, as a Government backbencher, that before we entered into Government there was a very serious issue building up. Putting ideologies aside, as somebody who comes in here day in and day out to vote for the Government and its legislation as a Government backbencher in Fianna Fáil, we have concerns in our party, from an ideological perspective, about the Green Party and the future of commercial forestry in Ireland. We have the overall hope and desire to increase the amount of timber planted in Ireland.

An enormous amount of land is available in this country. There are over 17 million acres in the Republic of Ireland, but unfortunately our forestry cover is far below the European average. I understand we have set a target to increase our forestry cover by 11% by 2050, in line with many of our European colleagues, but I am hopeful that next year we can deal with the red tape and administrative burden of regulations in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to try to bolster the plantation of forestry.

Forestry Industry Ireland has been very good in terms of its engagement with many Members of the Oireachtas. There is deep-felt anger in the organisation and people involved in the timber industry in Ireland from a commercial perspective. They need drastic increases in the amount of forestry being planted. They have concerns that there will only be around 2,000 ha of forestry planted when they want us to reach a target of 8,000 ha per year. I wholeheartedly support this.

I come from a dairy farming background and have an appreciation of the importance of agriculture to the economy. I want to diversify agricultural incomes. People who may have land that is not the most productive and may have been involved in GLAS and REPS should have the option to go into forestry. Off-site farms may have ten or 20 acres available away from the main farm that may be deemed suitable for forestry. If people felt it was easy to get in and out of a scheme, it is something they would consider. However, from a planning and regulatory point of view, I am hearing time and again that people are concerned.

I am very genuine about my desire to see us hit our target for 2050 and increase the level of woodland in this country. However, I want to put the point across to the Minister of State that I am getting it in the neck at home from people involved in the timber industry and farmers who want to get involved in it. They feel the burden and barriers of entry to get involved are very difficult. That is something we need to continue to work on in a productive and inclusive way.

In politics, it is often difficult to take criticism, but I want to relate what I am hearing from people involved in agriculture, not just at a small-scale level but also at the upper echelons of the industrial level. I have been very fortunate to see the direct employment some timber mills provide. I will not name any company, but I recently had the opportunity to visit a plant in Fermoy which has provided over 150 jobs near Corrin. It is spectacular to see in a small rural area far from Cork city that scale of local employment provided for people across a range of ages. That is the type of balanced regional development Ireland can thrive on. We need to ensure strong rural enterprises continue to be allowed to thrive. Some in the industry in Ireland have become international leaders in this area, something we have to salute as a small, open and diverse economy. I want Ireland to have an impact.

On the impact timber can have when it comes to sustainable practices in the building industry, it is exciting what Ireland could achieve if we fully explore the options of including more modern timber building and timber-frame housing in trying to meet our housing targets and bolster the volume of housing being built in this country.

If we want to do that, though, we must get serious about increasing the amount of forestry being planted and remove the regulatory red tape around felling licences, maintenance and thinning, in which respects there are many challenges. We could be much more proactive and progressive. I wish we could try to do this. A significant amount of timber is being imported from places like Scotland that are further advanced in their use of timber in housing construction. When it comes to lowering the cost of construction in rural Ireland and having more sustainable practices in forestry, this is an area where we need to up our game. We have the right people at the helm in the Department to drive this forward. I encourage the Minister of State to do everything she can in the time between now and the next general election to take on the civil servants and demand that we make a change. Doing so would be for the good of society, lower building costs and give young people like myself an opportunity to buy a home some day. That is important.

I am passionate about this issue. I come from a family of landowners and farmers and I grew up on the land I knew. The Minister of State has a serious appreciation for that and our stories are not too dissimilar. I am passionate about improving Ireland's capacity to grow native species of trees. I would love to see a project in the south east to develop a national park of some description where native trees were planted, although not for commercial forestry use per se. The south east is missing something like that. There are many fabulous locations there. For example, the Comeraghs are a short drive from where I live in east Cork. There might be some scope to work with Coillte on considering how to segregate biodiversity and recreational areas. We are looking at bolstering our stock of native woodlands, so we could have segregated stock of native woodlands as well. This would make a major difference. From the point of view of education, providing a national park in the south east - to my knowledge, we do not have one currently, with most national parks being on the west coast - would have considerable benefit.

Killeagh is my home village and parish as well as being Joe Deane country, for people who are familiar with hurling terminology. Killeagh is a fabulous little village in east Cork and is where I grew up. We have a fabulous facility there in the form of Glenbower Wood, some of which is owned by Coillte. We have seen the impact that some aspects of forestry have had on the area. Perhaps the Government, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Office of Public Works, OPW, which is under the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, could consider taking such woodlands that are owned and maintained by Coillte and where there are already natural walkways into the ownership of the OPW or funding them through the Department so that they could be expanded and made available as amenities. I wish to cover commercial forestry, but I also wish to cover forestry's recreational side by considering the expansion of native woodlands. This is something about which I am deeply passionate. Fianna Fáil does not get as much praise as it should, but people like Charles Haughey and other former Fianna Fáil Members of this House always had a strong interest in preserving many facets of Ireland's biodiversity and expanding our native woodlands. This is something that has been lost, so I would like to see some work being done on it.

I wish the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, continued success, but I want to relay the fact that I am getting it in the neck from people involved in commercial forestry. They are not happy with the level of forestry that we are planting. As stated by Forest Industries Ireland, FII, people in the industry want to see planting increasing from 2,000 ha per year to 8,000 ha as quickly as possible to try to bolster timber production and limit the need for so much to be imported. Aside from the positive impact on the rural economy and the timber industry, this could have a positive knock-on effect on the housing crisis.

3:50 pm

Photo of Johnny MythenJohnny Mythen (Wexford, Sinn Fein)
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Forestry is one of the key components that can deliver lower emissions and contribute substantially to our domestic construction industry. It also has a major role to play in reducing global warming and achieving our emission targets. However, we must all learn the lessons from our over-reliance on imported energy and fuel and the consequences of Russia's invasion of a sovereign nation, including the domestic consequences where we are being held to ransom by suppliers and middle brokers who are making significant profits, scandalously profiteering from a pricing system that charges the same for a unit of gas as for a unit of energy produced by free wind. Therefore, we must invest even more in our forestry and afforestation.

The €1.3 billion announced by the Government is welcome. It gives Ireland an opportunity to become a leading example in managing afforestation and forestry and the capacity to contribute to substantial reductions in our carbon emissions. To achieve this, we must consider the existing weaknesses and the slow, grinding processing of applications and licensing. Six months into this year alone, the number of afforestation licences issued was behind target by 43%, with private felling licences behind target by 18%. This situation must be tackled. Farmers who have been granted licences to plant are choosing not to do so simply because they do not want to go through the same long rigmarole of a process to be granted felling licences. I ask the Minister of State to provide for a set statutory period within which applicants are entitled to a decision on their licensing applications. If this fundamental issue is not addressed, then all future plans for afforestation and the industry will be in jeopardy.

Let us remember that afforestation missed today cannot be made up in subsequent years. The successful model already exists. In our neighbour, Scotland, the Mackinnon recommendations were fully adopted. Within 12 months, Scotland's afforestation stabilised and, within 24 months, target levels doubled. The same senior civil servant, Mr. Jim Mackinnon, published a report for the Irish sector in 2019, yet the Government's response was to commission an implementation report on that report. How many reports do we need?

The message here is to act now. This is a national asset that can be harnessed into a thriving industry for the benefit of all our citizens. It is possibly the only industry that can be future-proofed. It is a national resource that can provide citizens with a healthy environment that can be enjoyed by all and help with their well-being. Agriculture can remove carbon through forestry. I urge the Minister of State to take on board the issues I have raised, recognise the importance of stakeholders - the farmers - and provide a streamlined licensing process that gets this industry back on its feet as quickly as possible.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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I speak on forestry with some trepidation because I once spoke in the Chamber many years ago about fisheries. A then prominent Fine Gael Member said that I would not know a mackerel from a herring. I am likely to transgress and, with Deputy Fitzmaurice here, I am sure he will tell me how wrong I am.

Photo of Cormac DevlinCormac Devlin (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I am sure he will not criticise Deputy Bruton.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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He will show great restraint.

For good reason, we have set ourselves transformative targets. We aim to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and we hope to have 18% of our land in forestry by the same time. We are seriously struggling to develop policy tools to deliver on these targets, though. I commend the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, on achieving a much higher planting premium, but we are 75% off target. We are not using timber in buildings.

The Scots use three times as much timber in buildings than we do. As a sector, we do not have the integrated approach to either land use or forestry that we need. We must think seriously about how we are going to approach this. We thought forestry and land use were emitting 4.8 million tonnes of emissions and that was going to go up to 7 million tonnes by the end of the decade. That has been radically re-estimated to 6.8 million tonnes now, rising to 11 million tonnes by the end of the decade. We are heading away from the hoped for carbon neutrality from land use. That is leaving aside agriculture altogether. Even if we deliver the 8,000 ha of planting, its impact will be just 2 million tonnes by 2050 and the imbalance in our land use will not be corrected. We must seriously examine how we can reward farmers for the carbon farming that is inherent in the two big challenges we have, one of which is to deliver forestry at probably more than double the target contained in the Minister of State's strategy. We must also consider how we will succeed in restoring the peatlands, which are in grassland, and being used in such a way that they are accounting for 10 million tonnes of emissions. If we take the 10 million tonnes of emissions that are coming from 400,000 ha and we value them at €100 a tonne, that equates to €2,500 per hectare per year on those lands. That is theoretically what is at stake. No agricultural activity is yielding anything on that scale in terms of the potential rewards from carbon farming.

I accept there are all sorts of uncertainty. It was quite depressing to hear Teagasc say to our committee recently that it could not pin down whether we would save 1 tonne or 10 tonnes per hectare. We are still far away from having metrics that could have genuine carbon farming that would give farmers a good prospect of being able to do something differently in line with the big transformative goals we have set ourselves and be well rewarded for it. We must get our act together. We are waiting for the perfect research before we come up with some policy tools that farmers will see as attractive to make the sort of change that is required. I can understand the suspicion of farmers regarding these issues because they have not had a great experience with many of the initiatives. Going into biomass was not a success. The difficulty with forestry is that when the land must be locked up for a long period, its value immediately falls. We must think more creatively about how we devise a model where carbon farming is genuinely rewarded. Agriculture is in a unique position. It is responsible for one third of our emissions, but it is unique in that between agriculture and land use we have the capacity not just to stop the rate at which climate is deteriorating but to reduce and sequester carbon. This is something that is not available in any other sector. The best that they can do is slow down the pace of deterioration in climate, whereas agriculture and land use have the possibility to improve the situation. We are not creating the policy framework where there is such a level of potential reward that people could see a bright future for their farm or district in this transformed environment.

I recently read an article by an academic from Galway whose name I cannot remember, which pointed out the value of the sequestration of carbon on a hectare of forestry is €25,000 and the avoided methane by not stocking it was worth another €17,000. That is just in carbon terms, not to mention the income that could be derived from the use of the timber in various ways. There is not the urgency in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to address the situation in the new context we face. The Department's food strategy delivered and was successful, but its forestry strategy has completely failed, notwithstanding the great efforts the Minister of State is making to turn that around. The Department does have serious questions to answer. I know that people will be critical, but we must partner with farmers on a different conversation.

I am very taken with the concept of the circular economy, which is the idea that we can still deliver high standards and quality of life but take the environmental damage out of it. The conversation we must have with the agriculture and land use sector is how we create this new vision that we want to achieve in a way that they come with us. Too much of the conversation with agriculture and about forestry and land use is about pointing the finger at people for failure rather than saying that this is a genuine opportunity to transform rural prosperity and to build strong vibrant rural communities on the practices and infrastructures of the future instead of pretending that we can hang on to all the ways of the past. That is the vision I would like painted for rural communities. It is possible to do that. I genuinely believe that the sort of changes we need are potentially available, as well as the rewards, because the cost of doing these sorts of things in other sectors will be astronomical in terms of the commitment to net zero. Agriculture, which has this great competitive advantage in this particular arena, should focus on how it grabs that opportunity for itself.

I think I am taking extra time. I have probably said enough. I genuinely believe that we must change the conversation about the future of rural Ireland. Broadband will change it, as will the circular economy. A well-thought out strategy for carbon farming as well as food production can genuinely offer a much brighter future than many think possible. That is the conversation that we need to lead.

4:00 pm

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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Like many policy areas, the crisis within the forestry sector has increasingly worsened under this Government. We have a target to achieve 18% forest cover by 2050. While the Government set a target of 8,000 ha of new forestry each year, it has only achieved 25% to 30% of the target each year to date.

COFORD advises that 16,000 ha of annual afforestation is required to achieve our target. At current pace, the Government is failing miserably. The Department is taking too long to process applications - in some instances several years. Applicants have lost confidence in the process. Many who have finally been granted licences this year are choosing not to plant because they fear similar delays when they apply for licences to fell.

Landowners who had been considering planting trees are staying away in their droves because they have heard of the bad experiences of others. In recent weeks, further issues have arisen with the forestry programme, which meant that forestry companies were unable to market services to landowners as the level of grant supports was unknown. I find that incredible. The Government has been slow in publishing this payment, while the public consultation on the programme is ongoing, and there are no details available on the programme itself.

These delays are costing jobs, investment and the health of the planet. We need action immediately to move towards a resolution.

The Mackinnon report, first published in 2019, provided the solutions to resolve this crisis. In typical time-wasting and money-wasting fashion, the Government commissioned an implementation report of that report and has since conducted a series of reports on the basis of that report. It is a Russian doll scenario at this point.

The first action to resolve this crisis should be to establish a statutory period within which a decision will be provided to applicants, similar to that in the general planning system. We need to look at best practice in other countries. Scotland commissioned the same civil servant, Jim Mackinnon, to review its forestry sector. Its afforestation rates stabilised within 12 months and returned to pre-crisis levels within 24 months. Targets of doubling pre-crisis levels of afforestation by 2025 have been set at 18,000 ha.

We also need a specific strategy to increase the planting of native broadleaf species, especially on farms. More must be done to persuade farmers to return to the sector. They are guardians of the land, they are at the coalface of climate action and we need to treat them with the respect they deserve. Over the past 40 years, 80% of private lands that have been afforested have been done by farmers. Restoring farmer confidence and reversing their flight from the sector will be crucial to delivering the necessary change. The recent report on licensing throughout the European Union must be acted on. We must provide a streamlined licensing process without impinging on public consultation while providing for environmental oversight, as is in place in other EU countries. Anyone who has flown into a major European city during the daytime will have looked out the aeroplane window and seen how far ahead of us other European countries are. Sorting out this mess is a no-brainer from a climate action point of view and from a public health and well-being point of view. Coillte is good at what it does. Let us take, for example, Moore Abbey Wood in Monasterevin, Killinthomas Wood in Rathangan or Donadea Forest Park. We should support Coillte but not forget farmers and landowners.

I am concerned at recent reports that Coillte is to enter into a joint venture with a private equity fund. We need to know what portion of the allocation is expected to be soaked up through this mechanism. There is no point in killing the goose that lays the golden egg and then giving its lifeless body to a private equity fund. The fundamental issue of ash dieback remains unaddressed, and the manner in which those affected have been treated is a source of negativity. This needs to be addressed if we are to restore confidence in the sector. We need action fast. The best time to act was when this crisis first developed; the second best time is now. There should be no more reports and no more delays; let us get on with it.

4:10 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Despite having the best conditions in Europe for growing trees, we have a totally dysfunctional forestry model in this country, and that has not changed in the 11 years I have been a Deputy. I do not claim to be an expert on forestry, but my interest was piqued beyond a general interest in forests as just being beautiful places before that when, in 2013, the Government of the day agreed with the troika to sell the harvesting rights of Coillte's entire forest estate. At the time, I tabled what was the first Private Member's motion on forestry to the House - it was possibly the only such motion tabled in that Dáil - as part of the campaign to prevent the agreed sell-off of Coillte's harvesting rights to, most likely, an entity called the International Forestry Fund, which at the time was fronted by the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and was operating from a little office in Eblana Avenue, Dún Laoghaire, where the main financiers behind it were a crowd called Helvetica Wealth Management Partners, a Swiss wealth asset management operation. The plan was to go from the fairly dysfunctional Coillte model of planting Sitka spruce, which was commercially driven and was experiencing consistent failure to achieve afforestation targets, to simply the wholesale privatisation of forests.

The large protests we held at the time were successful. We mobilised huge protests in Rathdrum, Avondale and elsewhere throughout the country and, as a result, the then Government abandoned the agreed plan in the memorandum of understanding with the troika to sell off the harvesting rights, which was an important victory. Sadly, however, while that should have prompted a fundamental rethinking of the forestry model, to move it away from that sort of corporatised focus with an industrial forest model based on Sitka spruce and monocultures, demonstrating a failure to take advantage of the climatic conditions in this country to develop Irish forestry, things have remained much the same for the interceding 11 years. Despite often reasonable rhetoric, promises of change and promises to hit increased afforestation targets and to move away from the industrial monocultural model, we heard recently that there is a plan for Coillte to team up with Gresham House Asset Management, an investment fund, to advance afforestation in Ireland.

That says it all. Coillte has been operating a largely for-profit venture, albeit with some decorative nods to the idea of getting back to developing native woodlands, diversifying Ireland’s forest estate, developing a sustainable forest model and acting generally as the guardians of the forest estate. Instead it is teaming up with an international investment fund to compete with farmers rather than support them, as its role should be. It is going to compete with them and, potentially, run them out of business, making it even more difficult for them to engage in forestry, when we should be doing precisely the opposite. This is happening to the extent that we are thoroughly discrediting the entire project of afforestation in the minds of many in rural Ireland, who might be interested in forestry if they were supported and if Coillte saw its role not as one operating as a dominant, business-corporate force competing with the small farmer but rather as one that would support them, and also as one that operates as the guardian of the forest estate, and it seems as though nothing has changed in that regard.

We hear about some moves to transition the monocultural plantations of Coillte to more diverse native woodlands, but how much of that is happening? When we think about the campaign we had to have recently with Killegar Wood in Enniskerry, where Coillte had planned, quietly, to sell off a forest to whomever, we wonder what is really going on in Coillte and what its agenda is. Indeed, given that 57.7% of the personnel involved in the forest policy group that formed Project Woodland come from a commercial background, we again get a sense of the Government not understanding that we need dramatically to change our forestry model whereby, in particular, Coillte would have a role as the guardian of the forest estate while simultaneously supporting small farmers. If we want farmers to move into forestry and to assist us in climate action and in enhancing biodiversity, we genuinely have to support them, engage with them and listen to them.

Simultaneously, Coillte's fundamental mandate has to change from the one it is currently operating. I suspect, sadly, that we are still a long way from that.

4:20 pm

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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There is an element in this Chamber every day, and seemingly more so of a Thursday, of returning to the scene of the crime. We get an opportunity to probably rerun one of the many single transferable speeches we have at this stage. This is not the first time any of us has dealt with forestry in the House. We all see the issue as what is described as low-hanging fruit, in the sense that it is one of the major gains. We could be on to a winner as regards doing what is necessary from the point of view of ensuring sustainable farming and, beyond that, meeting those targets to which the Government has agreed. If we are not doing these relatively easy things which need to be done, we will have serious difficulties in the future and it will be very hard to deal with the targets we have missed. We are talking about the afforestation target of 8,000 ha per year. In the years we have been trying to do this, we have reached between 25% and 30% of that target. We have all seen the figures.

We have all heard from farmers anecdotal stories about the slow application process. This year, a large number of people, even those who had previously had no difficulty, told me they were not entirely sure what the end result would be when they had grown their crop. They are afraid to plant trees because they are not sure they will be able to fell them. They will have a similar problem at the end of the application process. That means we have a real deficit of trust in the system. That is one issue we must rectify.

Many of us have been saying for a long time that the Government needs to deal with the farming sector by producing solutions that work for all of us and for the betterment of society. As we have all seen, the arguments can sometimes become heated, particularly with regard to climate change. Those of us who have attended local Irish Farmers Association, IFA, meetings will have seen that a significant number of farmers accept that we are in very different world with changing circumstances, and that we all need to play our part. That is a fact that we must accept. When people are willing to meet us halfway along the road, we have to do the other part.

The ongoing issue with the application process does not cut it. That is accepting that work has been done on offshore wind, where we are behind. We know there are major issues in the planning process in general. We have to address this problem.

It has already been stated that nobody is particularly enamoured of the relationship between Coillte and private equity funds. These funds are interested in getting bang for their buck and not necessarily the societal payback we are seeking. We are dealing with three particular sets of circumstances, namely, wins for the environment, society and farmers, respectively. If we could get this work done along with work on anaerobic digestion, it would be a good achievement.

Timber costs are through the roof at this point. We must facilitate the domestic timber industry in whatever way we can. We are failing at this point. Everyone has spoken about the Mackinnon report, which laid out best practice. It is about time we implemented the report and delivered what needs to be delivered. As I said, this is low-hanging fruit. It will be unforgivable if we miss this opportunity and particularly unforgivable for a Government that involves the Green Party.

Photo of Michael LowryMichael Lowry (Tipperary, Independent)
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The forestry and timber business is of huge economic importance to those involved in the sector across County Tipperary. It is a national business and industry that has never achieved its full potential. There are many unhappy people in the forestry sector. These same people are very disgruntled with the administration of the Department. Services, practices, procedures and various schemes and programmes are in a chaotic state. We have raised this matter on numerous occasions. We have seen a little progress but it is not sufficient. As a result, many people in the sector are demoralised, there is huge uncertainty and a lack of clear direction. The industry, in general, lacks a clear path for the future. The result is apathy and a lack of confidence in the future.

The timber sector is worth €75 million to the immediate local economy and supports a further 350 jobs through contractors in haulage, forestry, harvesting and planting. Everyone accepts that there has been significant underperformance by the sector. The Minister of State inherited this and is doing her best to regenerate the industry but, unfortunately, there is no confidence there.

At the beginning of this Dáil term, licence applications for afforestation, felling and road access were extended beyond two years. That is as a result of all Deputies raising issues we had in our constituencies with the Minister of State. This is having a significant effect on the ability of those who depend on the sector for employment and a livelihood.

For private growers and farmers, the benefits of participation in the forestry sector were becoming a negative given the delay that existed in accessing felling licences, in particular, due to the significant number of nuisance objections and complex environmental requirements that were delaying afforestation and felling. These regulatory and environmental obstacles remain. In addition, the lack of clear sight within Government to a viable, sustainable and profitable forestry programme has also negatively impacted private investment in the sector. The new forestry programme that was recently announced appears to offer better incentives for landowners and is a welcome improvement on previous offerings. However, the grant that companies can claim for establishing forestry and development sites is not sufficient and does not keep pace with what is happening or match the increases in the price of materials and labour supply costs.

Forestry companies that develop and establish these sites are simply not able to do it; it is not viable for them with the scheme that is being proposed. This begs the question as to who will be able to deliver the new programme the Minister of State has proposed. Many of these forestry companies are in a bad financial position as a result of their trading levels in recent years and all the sectoral difficulties that are impacting their businesses. This has damaged their revenue, bottom line and profit margins with the result that they have very little funding on hand to spend as investment.

Many people have told me over the years that they find it very difficult to develop relationships with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine that would allow them to trade profitably, particularly in the last five years. As I said, many of them are in heavy debt. How does the Department believe these companies can afford to take on new afforestation projects when this programme does not offer them a clear margin or profit?

We have all encountered the problem of ash dieback. Deputies have raised the issue in the House on numerous occasions.

It is a problem for us in Tipperary particularly, as a county that relies on ash for our sporting activities, hurling and Gaelic games. Every hurley maker in the county and country is telling me now that it is a very serious issue and that they have run out of raw material. This ash dieback is having a significant impact on the overall forestry sector. The ash tree has been a feature of the Irish landscape for centuries. It is also part of the Ireland's social, economic and sporting life. But now, serious concern is being expressed about the survival of the species because of the devastating impact of ash dieback.

This invasive fungus was first detected here in October 2012 on plants imported from continental Europe. The disease is now prevalent countrywide and is likely to cause the death of most ash trees over the next two decades. There are inadequacies with the existing reconstitution and underplanting scheme for ash dieback. There are several practical issues relating to this underplanting option. There is need for adequate financial support for forest owners impacted by this fatal disease.

Teagasc is currently carrying out research to establish a gene bank composed of genotypes of ash tolerant to the disease, aimed at producing planting stock for forests and hedgerows.

Forest owners are very dissatisfied with the current ash dieback reconstitution and underplanting scheme and it needs to be reviewed. It has been confirmed by the Department itself in a Dáil question that so far, it received 410 applications for 1,608 ha and has decided on 128 of those for 434 ha. Of the outstanding applications, while all have not yet been assessed, some 100 are currently delayed because of the requirement for planning permission for the replacement of broadleaf high forest, in this case ash and conifer species. This is adding insult to injury for affected forest owners and must be changed and we must certainly look at that. This poses difficulties for landowners wishing to replace their diseased ash plantation and it is very important to review it at this stage and to engage with all stakeholders as a matter of urgency.

There is talk of a possible joint venture with Coillte, our state-supported company, which has been largely excluded from participating in afforestation since an EU ruling in 2003 which prevented it from claiming grant premiums as a State-owned company. This proposed joint venture with a UK institutional investor may change this status and mean that this new venture will be able to claim grant premium. If so, we must ask what impact will this have on the already struggling private sector operators who will have difficulty competing for land prices versus a highly geared institutional investor.

To conclude, there are barriers to entry which need to be addressed. There needs to be a review of the current afforestation business model to improve scale economies and deliver wider scale. We need to develop a national land use strategy to provide a formal framework to make use of planning applications and decisions.

My final point is that there needs to be greater communication with all stakeholders involved in the industry to bring it forward.

4:30 pm

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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I believe the Minister of State believes that farmers are going to rush into forestry to save the planet. Sorry, but that is not going to happen. The confidence is gone in the industry. Farmers were never compensated for ash dieback and, in fact, no one is even applying currently for licences for felling or thinning. This year less than 2,000 ha were set. If we were ever to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 we must have a minimum of 18% of our land under forestry. In real terms, this means that we need to be setting 18,000 ha per year to achieve an 18% land cover by 2050. Afforestation is the single largest land-based climate change mitigation measure available to Ireland to reach a net zero emissions level. This is the minimum level supported by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, but - there is a but - there is no strategy in place, so how can this aim be achieved or taken seriously?

The further this target is missed the greater the need to deliver reductions from other sources. None of the value of the carbon sequestered by forestry in Ireland is currently accredited to the growers of the trees. Why is that the case?

The cries from farmers about the layers of bureaucracy is upsetting. They have asked the Minister of State's Department to simplify the process as it becomes more and more complicated. One farmer asked me if the Department thinks we are idiots. He said that if anyone does anything in the forest within 15 km of a special area of conservation, one must submit an environmental impact assessment, with all of the costs associated with that. If one was building a factory one would hardly be expected even to do this. By the time a person receives an answer, it is too late in any event.

The decline in forestry in 2021 and 2022 is nothing short of a scandal considering all of the urgent calls from COP and the EU in the past week. I will be surprised if there will be any forest industry left to salvage.

Like any industry or business in this country - I am in business all of my life - one tries to look for the generation that one wants to support that is coming after. I asked some children what they think of forestry in this country. These were the children of people whose mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers had invested in forestry under the same Government which the Minister of State is a Member of now. They were told when the ash dieback emerged, and the Government knew it was coming in from Holland, that it sat on its hands for 12 months in advance and did nothing. This has now caused the problem with the ash dieback. All of these people trusted the Government and set the forests around this country for the future. When the time came, the Government did not even tell them that ash dieback was coming into the country and when it came to fruition in the past 12 months or two years, the Government sat on its hands again.

The Government expects that it can go back to the same people and ask them now to grow trees again after their livelihoods and their investment for their retirement has been taken, together with the investment for their children and grandchildren. The Government has shown nothing but contempt for those people who are involved in forestry. That is what the children whose families were engaged in afforestation are saying to me. All the Minister of State's Department does is to complicate it.

I am aware that the Minister of State was elected in 2019 to the council and came to the Oireachtas in 2020. I wish her well in her job but this was broken before she got here and it is off the rails now. Perhaps it is to do with the bureaucratic bull that she has to deal with within her own Department to get this thing going but, first, she must look after the people who were trying to do right in the first place if she wants to invite them back in for the future. That is what I am asking for. Look after people who have already invested and who have been burned by the Government's failure to let them know that ash dieback was coming in on the plants. It is on record that it knew beforehand, but it did nothing about it because it said that other states had not done anything. Again, like everything else with this Government, it is last to the table.

Now we have a very serious problem in this country because nobody wants to go into forestry. The first thing that the Minister of State can do now is to fix the problems of the past and encourage the people of the future to go into forestry so that they will save it in this country. That is what I am asking for and this came from the vision of children whose families are engaged in forestry.

They see no future in it after seeing their families cry for what they have lost in recent years by investing like the Government asked them to invest. When motorways were being brought through lands, they valued the forestry land at €1,000 per acre and the grassland at €12,000 per acre. They said it would cost €7,000 or €8,000 to clear the land for motorways. However, when the offer was made to subsidise them to clear the land, it was for €1,000. Fix the problems of the past and nurture it into the future. That is the only way to get forestry back on track.

4:40 pm

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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On the announcement of the €1.5 billion, it is a lot of money. Many people were interested to see how it would be divvied out. There are improvements in the planting grant for some and on the yearly subsidy the farmers get. It is worrying that, of the €1.5 billion, there does not seem to be a red cent for ash dieback. That is unusual because we have a problem that needs to be rectified. We talk about growing more broadleaf trees and we need to get farmers on board.

The worry I have is the Minister of State is trying to promote forestry while the EU is involved in the biggest land grab of all, namely, trying to get 30% of the land in the country rewetted. That is its agenda. Adding the 18% forestry to that 30% and throwing in the odd lake or river, that is probably 50% of the country gone. Where does food production come in? We need to think about people making a living.

Much of what the Minister of State said was sound, but I do not agree with the Deputy who spoke about how we will be carbon farming. You can forget about a community if you are carbon farming for the simple reason that it is abandonment. It is not going out driving in a sheep, a cow or a bullock. You do not have to be there because it is basically rewilding. You do not have to get up at night and go out with a flashlight looking for a calf in a ditch or whatever.

When the Minister of State spoke about planting, she mentioned the south and east but did not mention the west. Is the west being earmarked for rewetting? No one will force us in the west, whether EU or anybody else, on this rewetting thing. They need to cop on to it. For years our livelihood has been made out of shoring some of the land. We above all people have contributed on rewetting. Along with the Minister and the national parks, we have done 6,000 ha working together on certain bogs. When they come into the field, it will be a different story.

The pressure that is on should be recognised. I am not saying it is the Minister of State's fault. She has increased the rates and that has to be acknowledged. No one is saying that has not happened, but consider the rates for the bit of land the dairy man has. I was in Limerick this morning. I spoke to a person whose farm is in Tipperary and who told me that it costs €450 to rent an acre of land in Tipperary. That is about €1,200 per hectare, and your land is not tied up. You can decide after four or five years what you will do. I am not saying it is the Minister of State's fault, but that pressure exists in different parts of the country in respect of land. It is problematic.

There is one part causing problems and the Department needs to nip it in the bud. There is much speculation about Coillte going with an investment company. Why does it not go to the European Investment Bank for funding if it is buying land? It is going with an investment company in England. We hear - and let them contradict it if we are wrong - that a special purpose vehicle will be introduced and that company will draw the premiums, which Coillte never did before, and then go in ploughing out bits of lands. Small farms where a farmer might be trying to be viable and buy 5 or 10 acres will be made unworkable. If that starts, an awful battle will happen in rural Ireland. The Department can nip that in the bud.

In fairness to the Minister of State, over the past two years, forestry licences, where Coillte had an advantage, have improved well. However, the Minister of State mentioned 8,000 ha and said we are flying now. The facts are we have about 4,500 ha - or let us say 5,000 ha - of planting licences granted this year. Let us multiply that by 2.5 because to plant 8,000 ha, approximately 12,000 ha must be given out in licences as a result of the fact that one third will never go back into it. That is the reality. If the Minister of State is at her damnedest at the moment getting out 5,000 ha, how will we magically get to 12,000 ha to make sure we will be able to plant 8,000 ha with the fall-off of what has happened? There is a reason behind some of it. They went to GLAS or the agri-climate rural environment scheme, ACRES, because they had been waiting two or three years. That is the reason. It is because there is a bad taste in farmers' mouths. I know there are new grants there and appreciate that part of it.

There are solutions but we could be picky about it. It is a solution many farmers will buy into. There will be a scheme for sewing broadleaf trees over 1 ha. Even if every farmer was encouraged to sew 1 acre, however, 130,000 acres would be sewn in one go. It would be about seven or eight years of what the Minister of State's target is. It will tick a box but it will not solve the problem of planting. We still need planting for the timber industry because we cannot just run away from it.

Figures were provided with regard to what trees and bogs or peat will absorb and put out, and what land will and will not do. Everybody needs to know we are on default figures because in fairness to Teagasc, that agency has started doing the research and the initial results look positive. Compared with what the default position was in relation to emissions, it is a good bit less. Even a cow, which everyone was kicking around the place not too long ago, looks like the emissions could be 20% less. That will change a lot of the ball game. There is an awful fight for different sectors and that is where the pressure will come on.

Photo of Pippa HackettPippa Hackett (Green Party)
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I thank Deputies for their contributions. It is clear that across the House, while there are different views on where we are headed, everyone wants the forestry sector to be successful. That is important to acknowledge. We need it to be a success in the context of the climate, nature, water quality, wood production, our people, the wider economy and rural areas.

I welcome Deputy Bruton's comments. I was glad to hear him talk about the use of timber in buildings. It is something we need to progress significantly. We need an integrated approach. We spend a lot of time talking about the need to get trees in the ground but the end-product use has a significant contribution to make to our climate action, particularly in the built environment.

On carbon credits and carbon farming, Deputy O'Donoghue asked why we are not doing it. There is no mechanism yet to do it. We await proposals from the European Commission, which are due to be published shortly. When they are, in the Department we will study them and examine what is in there. A group has been established in the Department to examine the many issues relating to carbon farming and carbon credits. It is on our agenda to examine.

I was disappointed to hear the comments of Deputy Carthy to the effect that he has not heard from anyone in the sector who has confidence. I have spoken to many of the forestry companies, who say their phones are ringing. Farmers are enthused by these new rates. That incentive is important for farmers.

In the debate between the farmers and the investors, the farmers are the big winners here, and rightly so because we will be heavily reliant on them over the coming decades if we are to meet our afforestation targets. Not only have farmer premiums been extended to 20 years, with non-farmers still getting 15 years, but farmers are entitled to retain their basic payment scheme, BPS, payments on forested land. Non-farmers do not have those entitlements. In addition, as I referenced my opening speech, organic farmers will be entitled to receive both their organic payment and their forestry premium on agroforestry land. That is a significant element. If we are to hit those targets, and some Deputies have indicated we may well need to go above and beyond the 8,000 ha per year, we need to use every tool at our disposal, including private lands, farmers' lands and public lands as well as private investment.

Most Deputies spoke about ash dieback. I acknowledge the ongoing concerns and I know it is a major issue. I visited many of the sites of ash dieback around the country. I have been consistent in recent months. There is a scheme for ash dieback, the reconstitution and underplanting scheme, RUS, introduced in the summer of 2020. We have given it time and we have heard the feedback. It would be timely to have some sort of review, and I have committed to doing this in the new year. It is something I want to engage with. I understand and acknowledge the damage it has done to confidence in sector. We need to do something about that. My Department is working with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to change the legislation. I think Deputy Lowry referred to the difficulty landowners are having in converting to a conifer base after ash dieback. We are looking to make that easier for applicants.

Some Deputies need to get their facts right. There was a sense that forestry is in as bad a place as it ever was. There have been significant improvements in the delivery of licences. My Department has made a significant investment of time and money in making processes more effective, and that can be seen. I certainly recommend people to check out www.gov.ie/forestryto get all the updated information.

Some Deputies commented on the licensing process and Deputy Mythen referred to a statutory period. We have examined this in great detail. I commissioned Philip Lee solicitors to examine the regulatory process. I would recommend anyone who has concerns about licences and why we cannot just issue one licence for the whole process to read the Philip Lee report, which is on my Department's website. It is a very comprehensive detailed report. It takes a bit of digestion but it goes through it in great detail with some very positive recommendations. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet but it contains recommendations we will pursue. We think they will deliver improvements into the future in how we issue our licences.

Deputy O'Connor took a balanced approach. He accepted we need conifers for the commercial side of things but we also need the broadleaf. That is the balance we are trying to strike, the balance that has come through from our consultation, which has lasted about a year at this stage. That is what is in our forestry strategy and programme. As I said in my opening statement, those two sizeable documents are out for public consultation until next Tuesday. People should read them, see what is there and give feedback into that process. I hope some Deputies or even their political parties might do that. We need to hear all those views.

Deputy Sherlock and one other asked whether we need a forest development agency. Since entering office my focus has been on fixing the issues that had this sector in turmoil. As I said, my Department has made significant progress in this regard. The backlog in appeals is gone. The supply of timber into the sector is strong. The urgent focus now is on the afforestation levels that many Deputies referred to. We need to get farmers re-engaged with tree planting. My Department already supports the work of Teagasc and we have supported the private sector to the tune of a couple of million euro over recent years in forestry promotion. The establishment of a stand-alone agency would need to be the subject of a cost-benefit analysis. Would it deliver any more than we are delivering as it is? At the moment the focus is on getting the new programme up and running and delivering on our forest strategy.

A number of Sinn Féin Deputies referred to the Mackinnon report. More than half of the recommendations have been completed with significant progress on the others. That has been through the work of Project Woodland. Deputy Boyd Barrett said that something like 57% of the members of my forestry policy group are commercial. I do not know what his terminology was. I have a stakeholder group of 26 people from across the spectrum. We could have six NGO members. We have representatives from communities, representatives from the sector itself, farmer organisation representatives and forest owner representatives. We have every possible representative on there. I say this all the time: credit is due to the members of that because it is a difficult group with very diverse opinion. It is certainly not a commercially focused group as Deputy Boyd Barrett implied. We have kept everyone together and I thank them for their time on that. Project Woodland is essentially coming towards its end. It was established to implement the Jo O'Hara report, which was essentially her review of the Mackinnon report. We are coming to the end of that process, which is to be welcomed.

I was disappointed to hear Deputy Fitzmaurice speak so negatively about forestry, particularly when we are going to be reliant on the hard-working farmers of this country to plant. It would be good to have a bit more positivity there. I reiterate that I believe it is an exciting time for forestry. It is a complex area, but if we get it right, it has an enormous amount to offer. I accept the pressure from other land uses, but I am confident the building blocks the Government is putting in place mean we will get it right. Our shared national vision is a vision worth striving for. We will get there. If we deliver on our forest strategy to 2030, we will be well on the road to that. The first step is getting the forestry programme up and running as early as possible in January so that we can get farmers re-engaged and planting trees in the ground. The Government is giving this new programme its full backing with this historic package of €1.3 billion. We need the sector and everyone in the House to back the next forestry programme and to back the sector to deliver on its enormous potential.