Thursday, 17 December 2020
Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine
647. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his plans to increase afforestation levels to 8,000 ha per year, as set out in the recently published Ag Climatise - A Roadmap towards Climate Neutrality, in view of the ongoing licensing crisis and the fact that afforestation rates for 2020 are currently only 2,000 ha; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44472/20]
648. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his plans to provide for the necessary forestry licences to increase afforestation levels to 8,000 ha per year, given the Department is having difficulties processing licences for 2,000 ha per year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44474/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 647 and 648 together.
I fully recognise the impact the current forestry licensing delays are having on the sector and that these delays are a contributory factor in the downward trend in afforestation levels. It is my immediate priority to resolve the issues which have led to this backlog. Notwithstanding the current difficulties, over 4,000 hectares of licences have been approved for afforestation so far this year.
The current difficulties have arisen because of changes to our Appropriate Assessment procedure in dealing with forestry licences, which has meant that a backlog of those requiring ecology input has developed. We are focussed on tackling 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 16. Additional forestry inspectors have also been hired to support this work. This delivered increased output in October and November compared to other months this year and I expect these positive trends to continue into December and 2021.
I 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 intend 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.
In order to meet the ambitious target of 8,000 ha target of new planting per year, my Department will, among other things, need an efficient and properly functioning licensing system and this is our aim. Meeting this level of ambition will be challenging and will require re-engagement by private land-owners, particularly farmers, as well as engagement from public bodies with land-banks and support from the business community and society. We have set, as a priority, the re-engagement of farmers in forestry, particularly through a more farmer-friendly National Forestry Programme.
The aim is that this new programme will highlight to farmers that forestry can represent a valuable and complementary income stream to an active farming enterprise. The new Forestry Programme and the new CAP will provide opportunities to further align agricultural support schemes and forestry, to better integrate planting into the farming system, and to remove any barriers to uptake. Obviously an improved licensing system will be key to restoring confidence to farmers in forestry as a viable land use option.
My aim is to resolve the current licensing difficulties so that the process can support a sustainable forestry model with increased levels of afforestation which will meet our economic, environmental and recreational needs.