Thursday, 17 December 2020
Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine
634. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if the issues that have arisen regarding tree felling licences have been resolved; the number of applications waiting to be dealt with by his Department; the timeframe for this process; and if he will expedite the process. [44266/20]
635. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the progress made to date in resolving the issue on licensing timber felling and forestry roads, which is vital for the efficient working of timber mills here; the details of the increase of raw materials that have been licensed as a result during the past two months; the number of forestry roads that have been licensed; the further steps he plans taking on this matter; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44328/20]
641. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the progress to date in reducing the delays in processing forestry felling applications which have adversely affected the supply of timber products; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44397/20]
643. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the way in which the shortfall of felling licences will be made up given that 16,309 ha of felling licences have issued to date in 2020 compared to the equivalent figure of 56,080 ha in 2019; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44418/20]
644. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the way in which he plans to issue the 9,000 forestry licences each year, or 750 licences per month, that the forest and timber industry requires, when it issued only 274 licences in November 2020; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44419/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 634, 635, 641 and 643 to 645, inclusive, together.
I fully recognise the impact the current forestry licensing delays are having on the sector at the moment. It is my immediate priority to resolve the issues which have led to this backlog and to issue licences in the volume needed for this important sector to continue to contribute to our rural economy.
I am fully aware of the importance of the sector and the number of jobs it supports in nurseries, harvesting, transportation and processing. I know that it has significant potential for income generation on farms, for the creation of rural jobs, and for the provision of woodlands for public enjoyment. It also has a key role to play in meeting our national climate change and biodiversity objectives.
My Department receives forestry applications and issues new licences every week. There are currently around 4,700 licences on hand for processing. Some 2,000 licence applications require ecology input and, on which, a backlog has developed. The remaining 2,700 licence applications do not generally experience the same delays as the first group. By way of context on our output, we have issued 2,461 licences this year to date. Some 683 of these licences have issued since the introduction of the new Forestry legislation at the beginning of October and I am hopeful that this positive trend will continue. We continue to invest heavily in resources in order to achieve this.
In terms of felling licences, over 1,600 felling licences have issued so far this year for almost 5 million cubic metres of timber. Licences for over 650,000m3 of timber were issued in November alone. The figure for October was over 760,000 m3. In relation to forest roads, almost 120km of new roads have been licensed so far in 2020.
It is worth noting that a felling licence can have a duration of up to 10 years. Our updates are based purely on our licensing output and we make no prediction of when the material will be harvested. The licensing of these areas does not mean that the entire area will be harvested immediately in that year but rather harvesting may be undertaken over the entire licensing period. This gives forest owners flexibility in the scheduling of harvesting operations. The 2019 output figures are somewhat unrepresentative as they include large quantities of thinning licences issued to Coillte last year which does not happen every year.
A thinning licence is different to a clearfell licence in terms of available timber. This is why it is preferable to measure output in volume rather than hectares. This is a better measure of output as it is more meaningful for the sector in terms of available volume. We generally use a methodology to estimate total timber licensed by using an assumption of 70m3 per hectare for a thinning licence and 330m3 per hectare for a clearfell licence. In this regard, we would expect to licence around 5 million m3 this year as compared to 6.5 million m3 in 2019.
In terms of tackling the backlog of licences that need ecology input, we are approaching this by means of continuous improvement and review with the aim of increasing the output of these licences on a weekly basis. Adequate and appropriate resources are key. At the beginning of the year, there were just two ecologists working on ecology files but this figure is now sixteen. Additional forestry inspectors have also been hired to support this work. This has delivered the increased output we have seen in October and November compared to other months this year.
We also implemented significant changes to the functioning of the Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC) and acted quickly to propose and implement the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act. I have significantly resourced the FAC and four appeals committees are now set up and hearing appeals. This is an increase from one Committee that was previously in existence. Since putting these additional resources in place, the FAC has held 61 hearings and has 42 hearings scheduled for December. This is significantly reforming how the FAC does its business and will result in a more fit-for-purpose, environmentally sensitive and sustainable forestry licensing process which serves all stakeholders.
While there is still has some considerable way to go, I am encouraged by this progress and aim to sustain and build on this output of licences issued each week. To this end, my Department will recruit additional ecologists and support staff in the New Year.