Emergency plan calls for ‘amnesty’ for forestry licences

The Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) is calling for an ‘amnesty’ for some forest licences as part of its emergency plan for the sector.

IFA president Tim Cullinan said the Irish forest sector is being “strangled by the very department that is charged with promoting it”.

“The forest sector is in ‘a state of emergency’. There is a backlog of approximately 2,500 licences that are pending a decision by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

Some of these licences are pending for over two years. This is in addition to the nearly 500 licences that are under appeal.

“The new Minister of State with responsibility for forestry Pippa Hackett needs to get an immediate grip of the situation if we are to have any credible farm forestry programme in the country,” he said.

“While the recent amendment to the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act will help to speed up the process, the real problem is in the Forest Service within the Department of Agriculture.”

There are three different types of licences – afforestation (planting), forest roads and felling (thinning and clearfell).

Cullinan said that the delay in felling licences, in particular, is causing huge and immediate problems and that there is an acute shortage of timber in the country.

“This is threatening the very future of the sector with sawmills grinding to a halt and 12,000 jobs at risk,” he said.

Timber is now being imported from abroad. Thousands of acres stand ready for harvest, but they are blocked by a dysfunctional licencing system.

“It is indefensible that farmers who were encouraged to plant forestry are now being prevented from thinning and managing their timber crop,” he said.

Farmers are fed up

The IFA said that farmers are “frustrated” with forestry and are “disengaging from it as a land use”.

Cullinan said: “It is expected that only 2,500ha of the target of 8,000ha will be planted this year. This is just 30% of the target and yet it is a crucial part of Ireland’s emissions reduction strategy.”

He has stated that the costs associated with planting and managing farm forests are unsustainable.

“The average farm forest is 8ha. The current system actively discourages planting of smaller areas due to the costs involved,” Cullinan said.

Emergency plan for forestry

The IFA has set out an ’emergency plan’ to address the crisis. This includes an immediate amnesty for forest road and felling licences, if they are waiting for more than four months to be processed.

The IFA is proposing the following six emergency measures:
  • The system must ensure that no farmer has to wait longer than four months for a forestry licence as set out in the Forestry Act 2014 Section 18 (1), irrespective of the application size;
  • Forest road and felling/thinning licence applications that are in the system for more than this period (four months) should be automatically approved under an amnesty provision;
  • Amend the Forestry Act 2014 to introduce exemptions for forest road and thinning operations, these do not present a significant landscape change and present a low risk from an environmental perspective;
  • Review the current appropriate assessment (AA) screening process, associated rules and thresholds. In particular, introduce a threshold that forests less than 15ha should be exempt from the AA screening requirement;
  • A cost-based planning support grant should be introduced, as referenced in the Mackinnon report, to assist with increased costs and requirements associated with applying for licences;
  • The appointment of an independent project manager within the department to implement the operational changes to develop an appropriate and effective licensing system.

“We need to cut out the messing. This is an emergency. The very fabric of the industry is at risk. If sawmills close, they may not re-open. We risk shutting down infrastructure built up over decades and jobs being lost in rural areas,” Cullinan concluded.