Thursday, 15 July 2021
Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine
41. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he has addressed the shortcomings in terms of resources in his Department to deal with ecologist’s reports for tree felling licences in which there is a two year backlog in the application process; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37228/21]
The situation with forestry licensing is a key priority for the Department, Minister McConalogue and for me. I fully understand the seriousness of the situation with many landowners in terms of the delays encountered and the various issues with the wider sector.
I can assure the Deputy that ecology resources have been put in place and we will continue to invest in ecology resources. We now have approximately 24 full time equivalent ecologists working on forestry files. While crucial, resources are not the only solution to this licensing issues.
As part of Project Woodland, we are examining all options. This includes an end-to-end review of our systems and processes to be carried out by an external systems analyst that has already started work on this review. In addition, there will be a review of our legal and regulatory processes. This review, to be carried out by an independent expert, will include an examination of experiences in other Member States in licensing forestry activities and how they comply with EU legislation without experiencing the same issues that we have experienced in Ireland.
It is of course essential that any regulatory changes fully comply with EU law.
While these initiatives are being developed, the Department continues to pursue continual improvement. We have recently reviewed the systems for the preparation of Appropriate Assessment Screening Determinations, Appropriate Assessment Reports and Appropriate Assessment Determinations. Improvements have been made to the system to optimise the time of the ecologists to concentrate on the ecology aspects of each application.
Currently, these improvements are only applied to private tree felling licence (TFL) applications, which has already yielded results with increased licences issued. The ecologists have been working mostly on these felling applications in advance of the system being developed further for other licensed activities. In the coming days the system will be rolled out for processing road files and the development of the system improvement to assist with processing afforestation files will commence over the next few weeks.
To date this year (9thJuly), 1,836 forestry licences have issued – 1,164 tree felling; 308 afforestation and 364 forest road works licences. This represents 40% of the target of 4,500 licences to issue in 2021. The afforestation licences cover 2,695ha of potential new forestry. This is an increase of 21% on the area licensed to the same date in 2020 and a 5% increase in the number of afforestation licences issued.
Forest road works licence covering 151km of forest roads have issued to date. This far exceeds the Climate Action Plan target for 2021 of 125km of forest roads licensed.
A total volume of 3.594 million cubic metres has been licensed, which is 71% of the total volume licensed in 2020.
In relation to the private sector supply, we have increased substantially the number of felling licences in recent months due to several system improvements and continued investment in ecology resources. June was the highest month for private felling licences in over five years.
I would also like to remind the Deputy that Minister McConalogue and I and previous Ministers have brought in significant legislation in order to assist with the ongoing situation in the forestry sector. This includes SI 31 of 2020 that, amongst other things, allowed the Department to carry out Appropriate Assessments without the requirement of a Natura Impact Statement from the applicant. Also as you are aware I signed SI 417 of 2020 and SI 418 of 2020 and commenced the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020 to bring in a range of measures largely to allow for a more efficient running of the Forestry Appeals Committee and to bring our systems in line with the planning process.