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Agriculture; Food and the Marine | Forestry sector licensing

To ask the Minister for Agriculture; Food and the Marine the extent to which the issue of licences in the forestry sector continues to receive attention; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

I am pleased to advise that this year we have seen considerable improvements in the issuance of forestry licences.

To date this year we have issued 3,914 licences which is 92% of our expected output at this point in the year and there are currently 953 approved afforestation licences with nearly 7,000 hectares ready for planting. The backlog has reduced from 6,000 in August 2021, to 3,700 in January of this year and now stands at 1,639. We are issuing more licences than applications received and this means that the backlog continues to drop, with faster turnaround times for new applicants.

When we published our Forestry Licensing Plan for 2022, we set an ambitious target of 5,250 licences, an increase of 30% on 2021.

We set individual targets across licensing categories. In terms of our targets in the year-to date, as of 21st October, we are at 94% of the target for roads, 89% for private felling and over 100% for Coillte felling. I acknowledge that afforestation figures are not quite keeping pace with other categories and are at 69% of year-to-date target .  

However, the Department received 339 fresh afforestation applications, while 578 afforestation licences have issued. Furthermore, the pace of processing of these applications has picked up significantly, since increased ecological specialist resources have come online with 238 licences processed in the 3rd quarter of this year, compared to 131 in the second quarter.

We are embarking on an intensive effort over the last few weeks and next few weeks to prioritise afforestation with an aim of clearing older files ahead of the new forestry programme.

This improved outputs have been achieved through a commitment to continuous improvement as well as through the implementation of  measures recommended under Project Woodland.

Work is on-going with the implementation of the 57 recommendations arising from a business process review carried out under Project Woodland, with 71% of the recommendations either complete or in progress.  This builds on earlier improvements to our processes.

These improvements have facilitated the preparation of Appropriate Assessment Reports by my Department, which removes this burden from applicants in most cases.  Associated with this and in order to assist foresters in submitting quality applications, we provided habitat map training and training for ecologists.  Furthermore, a pre-application discussion pilot has been completed and we now intend to deliver this at a national level, along with the new Forestry Programme.  

All of these measures are aimed at improving the quality of applications received and optimising the time of those assessing applications.

Furthermore, in tandem with reviewing processes, I have substantially increased the resources available to process forestry licences, and the positive impact of this can be seen in the increased number of licences issuing.

In addition, a legal and regulatory review of forestry licensing was carried out by Philip Lee Solicitors and, following extensive stakeholder engagement, their Report was published in June.  The Project Board for Project Woodland has responded to these recommendations and my Department will now finalise a plan for the implementation of the Report, with a certain number of actions already underway.

This improvement in licence output will remove one of the perceived barriers to planting. I am acutely aware of the afforestation target of 8,000 hectares per year set out in the Climate Action Plan and the fact that afforestation rates have been declining in recent years.
As Deputies will know, the current Forestry Programme provides supports for afforestation including grants and premiums and covers the cost of establishing a forest.  Despite strong support for landowners over a period of 15 years, we have not achieved the level of planting anticipated. We hope that a new Forestry Programme will re-engage landowners, farmers in particular, and realise the land-use change needed.
The draft Forestry Programme 2023 – 2027 forms part of the Implementation Plan for the new Forest Strategy. Both the Strategy and the Implementation Plan are currently undergoing public consultation.
Alongside this public consultation process, my Department is currently engaged in detailed discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to agree funding.  We are also in contact with European Commission and are initiating the process for State Aid approval for the new Programme.
I intend to publish the financial supports for the new Programme at the earliest opportunity.  In parallel, once the public consultation process has been completed, we will take account of submissions received to arrive at a final version.
It is my intention to introduce a programme which will deliver for society, for landowners and for the forestry sector in Ireland. Its objective will be to expand the national forest estate on both private and public land. I hope to incentivise farmers in particular to re-engage with forestry and we hope to offer increases in grants and premiums to enable land-use change. A comprehensive and well-subscribed forestry programme has the potential to deliver lasting benefits for climate change, biodiversity, wood production, economic development and quality of life.   I am confident that once the programme is launched that both public and private actors will support it in order to realise its ambition.

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