Forestry not seen as viable by many farmers, department admits

The Department of Agriculture has said it is unlikely to reach the Government’s target for the issuing of forestry licences this year, and admitted the backlog in the processing of applications has led many farmers to conclude the industry is no longer viable.

A Department of Agriculture backlog in applications for forestry licences – needed to fell or plant trees, and to build roads to transport logs – is squeezing supplies of timber needed for home-building.

The shortage has driven up the cost of frequently-used building products by 75 per cent, adding up to €15,000 to the cost of new homes, according to key industry bodies.

In a meeting of the Oireachtas joint committee on agriculture and marine, Department of Agriculture secretary general Brendan Gleeson defended his department’s record under heavy criticism from parliamentarians, but said this year’s targets would be difficult to hit.

“In relation to the 4,500 figure, I don’t think – at least it will be very difficult to meet the 4,500 target now because essentially we have lost eight weeks of high output,” he said. “My view is that a more realistic target is about 4,000 licences.”

Mr Gleeson said the loss of the eight week period of high output was “unfortunate but unavoidable” as the Department went about upgrading its processes. “The administrative burden associated with this process was greater than anticipated,” he said.

Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice pointed out that the number of applications for forestry licences has fallen from 1,409 in 2017 to just 330 so far this year. “What does that tell you?” he asked.

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Mr Gleeson said the licencing delays were “a factor” in the decline and admitted that many farmers appear to have become disillusioned with the industry.

“Obviously it is a significant concern because there are a range of reasons why we have ambitious forestry planting targets over the next 10 years,” he said. “It tells me, for whatever reason I suppose, that farmers don’t at present see forestry as a viable option.”

Mr Gleeson traced the licencing backlog to two 2018 judicial decisions which changed the manner in which licence applications had to be processed in “the most profound way”.

“The net result of these judgements was that approximately 80 per cent of licence applications had to be screened in for a comprehensive ecological assessment, compared to approximately 2 per cent before that,” he said.

“At the time, the Department was simply not set up for that volume of assessments.” In addition to that, Mr Gleeson said, the number of appeals against licencing determinations “exploded”.

“It went from 21 in 2017, to 150 in 2018, to 321 in 2019 and peaked at 582 in 2020,” he said. “For a period, virtually every Coillte licence was being appealed.

“Dealing with this volume of appeals was hugely time consuming for staff, at a time when the system was struggling to deal with licence applications. Equally, the appeals structures we had established were not designed to deal with these kinds of volumes.”

He said that the Department has “significantly increased” the resources in its forestry divisions.

The number of ecologists has increased from one in 2018 to 27 currently, while the number of forestry inspectors has increased from 40 in 2020 to 61. The system is currently issuing more than 100 licences a week, Mr Gleeson added.

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