7 key actions urged with 4,500 forest licences now awaiting approval

There are now more than 4,500 licences in the forestry sector awaiting approval from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine – and a number of changes are needed if this issue is to be solved, according to two stakeholder organisations.

The Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) and Forest Industries Ireland (FII) are calling on minister of state at the department, Pippa Hackett, to act now to address the forest licensing situation, if there is to be any hope of revitalising farmer interest in forestry.

The plan to address the backlog published by the department in June has failed to meet its targets. In January, less than 50% of the target output was achieved, the two groups highlighted.

The two organisations are calling for action on the following issues:
  1. There must be confidence that all licences (afforestation, forest roads and felling) will issue in a timely manner. Farmers cannot be expected to wait two years for a licence to manage or fell their crop, nor will they be interested in a process that takes months to deliver an afforestation licence;
  2. Under the new licensing regime, the cost of planting or managing forests at farm scale is no longer viable. A cost-based planning support grant, as referenced in the Mackinnon report, must be introduced to assist with the increased costs and requirements associated with applying for a licence;
  3. Jo O’Hara, former chief executive of Scottish Forestry, has been appointed by Minister Hackett to make recommendations on improving the administration of forestry in Ireland. A full-time project manager should be appointed to implement her recommendations;
  4. All applications accompanied by a Natura Impact Statement (NIS) should be dealt with within eight weeks;
  5. The Forestry Act needs to be amended urgently to remove management operations such as road construction and thinning from the licencing system. The licencing of these operations can be covered by a forest management plan that satisfies all regulatory requirements;
  6. In 2020, fewer than 2,500ha of new forests were established – this is the lowest figure in decades and continues a downward trend. Requirements under forestry schemes must be made more farmer friendly if we are to make progress towards the government’s target of 8,000ha of afforestation per annum;
  7. There is plenty of land available for afforestation in Ireland, that has the productive capacity to grow timber, which is currently restricted. Ireland has the lowest forest cover in Europe. If we are to increase forest cover, we must allow farmers to plant available land including some ‘unenclosed land’ and other farmland currently restricted.

Commenting, IFA Farm Forestry Committee chairman Vincent Nally said that farmers are incensed with the delays getting felling licences to manage their timber crops.

“The delays are disproportionately impacting farmers as the majority are at thinning stage and the delays are devaluing the commercial value of their forest.

“We need the minister to act and reform the system so farmers can have confidence once again in forestry as a land use,” he said.

Mark McAuley, director of FII, added:

“We have witnessed a rapid decline in the Irish forestry model and there are some serious challenges that will have to be addressed if we are to get back on track.

The poor administration of forestry by the department has been a major contributing factor and this will have to be dramatically improved if we are going to make progress.

“Forestry will deliver enormous rewards to rural Ireland if we can get things moving in the right direction – our people, our environment and our economy will all benefit.”