The Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine will discuss Ireland’s forestry policy and strategy with the Irish Timber Council (ITC) and the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) today (Wednesday, February 22).

The meeting will focus on the new afforestation strategy, planting targets, licensing issues, and Coillte’s arrangement with private sector funds to manage long-term forestry.

“One of our main priorities as a committee remains to highlight the impacts on forestry raised by farmers and growers around rural Ireland,” the committee Cathaoirleach Deputy Jackie Cahill said.

Licence output vs. planting

The ITC believes that the fixing of bureaucratic problems should be prioritised, stating that the “fall off” in planting coincides with the introduction of “excessive red tape and bureaucracy”.

Examples of this bureaucracy in recent years are the licensing of afforestation, felling and the acquisition of road permits, which the ITC said is discouraging landowners wishing to plant.

“We are of the opinion that, given the correct conditions, Irish landowners will achieve the government’s stated afforestation targets [8,000ha/year] as they have done in the past.

“I am confident that if farmers and other landowners could get assurances on the prompt processing of all these licenses and reduce bureaucracy in the system, then they will plant,” the ITC said.

However, the new €1.3 billion Forestry Programme 2023-2027 is still subject to state aid approval, and an interim programme in place cannot accept new applications for planting or forest roads, the IFA said.

Based on average turnaround times for afforestation licences at just under 18 months last year, this delay means that meeting planting targets in 2023 and 2024 is unlikely, the IFA warned.

If state aid approval is received at the end of the third quarter this year, a farmer that applies to plant would have to wait until October 2024 to get a decision on the planting application, the IFA said.

Forestry history

The private sector planted 190,000ha between 1990 and 2005, or 12,000ha/year. However, this level of planting can currently not be achieved, as licences for only 4,500ha are issued per year, the ITC said.

Supported by improved grants and premia in the early 1990s, farmers planted over 17,000ha in 1995, which gradually declined to 6,064ha in 2013, and just 360ha in 2021, according to IFA figures.

This decline and the rise in investor planting – accounting for 41% between 2015 and 2020 – can be linked to the equalisation of premium rates for farmers and non-farmers in 2015, and a reduced payment period to 15 years.

While the new programme comes with higher premia and a return of the 20-year payment, issues including the replanting obligation and the lack of support for farmers affected by ash dieback remain to resolved, the IFA said.