Tuesday, 25 May 2021
Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine
528. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if the Statutory Instrument was signed to give the Minister of State responsibility for forestry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27540/21]
S.I. No. 40 of 2021 (AGRICULTURE, FOOD AND THE MARINE (DELEGATION OF MINISTERIAL FUNCTIONS) ORDER 2021) was given under the Official Seal of the Government on 2 February 2021 by An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, T.D.
529. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine when the current senior inspector in forestry was appointed to that position; the length of time the person was given the role as senior inspector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27541/21]
530. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if the Forest Service has written to every licence applicant whose application has exceeded the number of days without approval explaining the cause for delay in accordance with the charter; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27542/21]
Under Section 18(1) of the Forestry Act 2014, it shall be the objective that a felling licence application is determined within four months. The Act further provides for notifications to applicants where it appears that a decision cannot be made within four months. Such notification to give reasons for the delay and in addition to set a new date, except in cases where an environmental impact assessment or other type of assessment or significant further information is required, for the issue of the licence.
Prior to the introduction of far-reaching changes to the Appropriate Assessment system, such notifications were issued. However, the changes to procedure meant long delays and resulted in a large number of felling licence applications exceeding the four month period. The majority of cases were held up in ecology and therefore the practice of writing to applicants in each case was suspended.
Registered foresters and industry stakeholders were made aware of the backlog and the reasons for it. Individual queries from applicants continue to be dealt with by means of a dedicated contact line for such queries.
I appreciate that good communication with applicants is very important and that the current situation is far from ideal. The question of customer communication is being examined by Working Group 3 under Project Woodland, and a new Customer Charter for forestry is under development. Along with Minister of State Pippa Hackett, who has responsibility for forestry, I am committed to the implementation of Project Woodland and to the improvement of customer relations and to better meeting customer expectations.
531. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine when a circular is issued by the Forest Service, if the Forest Service inspector has to certify sites in accordance with the latest circulars issued; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27543/21]
The Department issues forestry related circulars to the forestry sector on a regular basis throughout the year.
These circulars are issued to the trade and clarify or amend Department policy. Such policy clarification or change would then fall to be implemented by Department staff as per the contents of the circular.
532. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if a Forest Service inspector can advise and-or instruct a felling licence applicant that the Forest Service inspector will not approve a felling licence unless that applicant submits a forest road application for the same site as the felling licence application; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27544/21]
I am not aware of any incidence where the Department has instructed an applicant that they will not approve a felling licence unless that applicant submits a forest road licence. I would be happy to have my officials examine if you have any written correspondence to that effect.
If an applicant submits a harvest plan as part of the felling licence application, the Department may query any aspect of the plan including any proposed road on the plan. This may be necessary as the assessment of the felling has to include the extraction of the timber to forest road and the position of this road is an important consideration and therefore needs to be some level of certainty around the forest road location.
533. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine further to Parliamentary Question No. 962 of 11 May 2021, if the numbers of hectares outlined by the Forest Service in each of the yearly planting programmes for the past five years are based on the area shown on form 2, the certified species map; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27545/21]
534. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine further to Parliamentary Question No. 963 of 11 May 2021, if his previous answer is accepting that the screening process was not carried out correctly in relation to the case outlined (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27546/21]
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine fully accepts the decision of the Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC) in the case of the person named in the case supplied.
When screening for Appropriate Assessment, it is necessary to take into account other plans and projects and to properly record these on the file. As there was no record of this before the FAC, the application was set aside and remitted to the Department to be reassessed taking account of other plans or projects.
535. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine further to Parliamentary Question No. 964 of 11 May 2021, the exact number of direct ecologists working with the Forest Service on a full-time basis; the person or body that employs the 12 other full-time ecologists that are not assigned civil service grades; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27547/21]
There are nine full time ecologists working as permanent employees with the Forestry Inspectorate. The other ecologists working for the Department on forestry files work for Fehily Timoney, Environmental Facilitation Ltd while other ecologists working part time on files are predominantly sole traders.
536. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine further to Parliamentary Question No. 965 of 11 May 2021, the reason he states that he expects output of licences for May to be higher when the dashboard for the week ending 7 May 2021 noted that the Forest Service had only issued 36 licences; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27548/21]
The Department is continuing to make improvements to its licensing system in order to streamline the processing of licences.
This does not obviate the need to consider the potential environmental impact of each individual application but there has been an increased output of 109 licences for the third week in May (of which 101 were new licences and eight were re-issued licences from previous FAC appeal decisions). This means that, as predicted, the output for May will be higher than the previous month.
537. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine further to Parliamentary Question No. 966 of 11 May 2021, if the Forest Service sought expert advice to make these changes to procedures and practices or if all changes were introduced by the Forest Service headed up by the senior inspector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27549/21]
The Department made very significant changes to its Appropriate Assessment procedures in 2019. These were in relation to increasing the zone of influence for consideration of appropriate assessment from 3km to 15km and to implement in the European Case law in relation to the consideration of mitigation at screening stage.
There were a number of inputs to the decision including NPWS advice, expert advice from environmental consultants, feedback from the Forestry Appeals Committee and an examination of practice in other sectors.
538. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine further to Parliamentary Question No. 967 of 11 May 2021, if a person (details supplied) is the project manager for Project Woodland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27550/21]
The Jo O'Hara report recommended the recruitment of project management expertise to assist in the implementation of the project. The Department responded immediately to this recommendation by recruiting an external project management specialist, Mr. Eamon O'Doherty to this role, starting on 4th May 2021.
This is a full-time role dedicated entirely to the implementation of Project Woodland and Mr O'Doherty is based in the Department working as part of our forestry team.
539. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if the forest service advised Coillte to withdraw any forestry licence applications at any point in recent years; if this did happen, the reason behind this decision; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27551/21]
The following table shows the number of Coillte licence applications that have been recorded as withdrawn during the years 2016 - 2020.
In most cases, licences are withdrawn when specific issues are raised by the Department and Coillte subsequently decides to withdraw the licence for further work before submitting a revised application.
540. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he will confirm under what the GPC category did the forest service approve and grant-aid Coillte/Bord na Mona to plant disused peatlands with native species; if he will confirm whether or not the same scheme is available to every landowner in Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27552/21]
Bord na Móna formally ended all peat harvesting on its lands by the end of 2019. As a result of this cessation in peat harvesting, industrial cutover peatlands are becoming increasingly available for other land use options, including opportunities for the restoration of native woodland habitats.
This availability of land occurs at a point in time where there is a greater demand than ever for new woodlands, to counteract existing biodiversity and climate challenges. Native woodlands are an important part of Ireland’s natural heritage, history and culture, and are unique in terms of their biodiversity. They are home to specialised native woodland animals, birds, insects and plants. They provide numerous ecosystem services, including the protection and enhancement of water quality, wider habitat linkage, landscape enhancement, opportunities for outdoor recreation and interpretation, wider rural development linkages, and carbon capture.
Further to a request for support for exploration of possibilities for native woodland creation on former industrial cutaway peatlands by Bord na Móna, the Department, has developed a Pilot Scheme that is intended to facilitate the establishment of new native woodlands on state owned former industrial cutover peatlands on a pilot basis. This Pilot Scheme will facilitate native woodland regeneration at landscape scale, aiming at minimum intervention, and is compatible with other forms of peatland restoration measures at this scale.
The overall purpose of the Pilot Scheme is to support biodiversity, help reduce carbon emissions and stabilise soils to minimise soil erosion. These objectives are therefore different to the objectives of the current Afforestation Scheme. The Pilot Scheme aims at mimicking natural vegetation establishment processes in high, dry areas and on slopes that are not suitable for re-wetting. Bord na Móna intends to complement their rehabilitation plans for end-of-life cutaway bogs by creating a mosaic of wetlands and sparse woodlands that enhances biodiversity value, stabilises the loose peatland soil and reduces carbon losses. No project like this has been undertaken before and the Pilot therefore includes the establishment of trials to explore the most effective silvicultural techniques.
The Pilot Scheme was developed in accordance with provisions of the Forestry Act 2014 and is compliant with national and EU legislation, operational and environmental guidelines.
Following the specific purpose of this Pilot Scheme, the Scheme is confined to State bodies who own former industrial cutaway peatlands.
Grant funding for native woodlands created under this Pilot Scheme is subject to the applicant obtaining a licence for afforestation from the Minister. No licence under the Pilot Scheme has been approved to date.
Grants paid under this Pilot Scheme are not following the GPC system which is applied to projects funded under the Department’s Afforestation Scheme, but are on the basis of vouched expenditure and up to a maximum rate per hectare of native woodland established. To be eligible for grant aid, each plot within a plantation must conform to as specifically defined Industrial Cutaway Woodland (ICW) category.
541. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he will refer the forest service to the Public Accounts Committee in order to assess whether it is value for money for the Irish taxpayer, given the current state of the forestry sector when it comes to timber supplies and the backlog of licence applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27553/21]
The Forestry Service is part of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which is amenable to the Public Accounts Committee.
The Irish forestry sector is a significant employer in rural Ireland of almost 12,000 jobs. Improving the licensing situation is a key priority for me, Minister of State Pippa Hackett who has responsibility for forestry and the Department and no effort is being spared to achieve this. We need to maintain an intense focus on achieving this. Some early progress is being made with licences up 15% year on year and I fully expect this figure to increase as the year goes on.
Delays in forestry licensing arose because of a very significant change in procedures in relation to Appropriate Assessment as a result of European Court of Justice judgements and subsequent interpretation by the Irish courts and the Forestry Appeals Committee.
All efforts have been made to address this situation with additional inspectorate, ecology and administrative resources recruited, along with training and guidance for both Departmental staff and registered foresters. The complexity of introducing a completely new assessment procedure inevitably took time to take effect and this has affected output. Having said that, there have been recent gains in productivity, with the 1,236 licences issued to date this year representing a 15% increase on the same period last year. As regards felling, a volume of just over 2.2 million cubic metres has issued this year, which is a 32% increase on the same period last year and represents 54% of the COFORD Roundwood Forecast which predicts a potential harvest of 4.1 million cubic metres in 2021.
While we moving in the right direction, we are more than aware of the impact of the backlog on the sector and, in order to improve the functioning and delivery of the licensing process, Minister Hackett, launched Project Woodland in February. This puts in place a framework consisting of a Project Board and four Working Groups, chaired by independent chairs and with outside stakeholders as members, which aims at resolving the backlog and introducing more efficient and effective processes. The process improvement exercise will examine, among other things, whether resources may be deployed more effectively and an organisational review of forestry teams within the Department will consider the structure, roles and responsibilities of these teams relative to outputs sought.
Along with Minister of State Hackett, I remain hopeful that the framework now in place under Project Woodland will address our current difficulties and will result in a licensing system which meets the needs of forest owners and new applicants and the forestry sector as a whole.