The recently published second interim report from Project Woodland has raised the ire of the members of Irish Forest Owners (IFO).

In particular, the section on licence output has purportedly infuriated forest owners, with some going as far as calling it ‘whitewashing’. In it, it states that “a significant improvement in licencing output is being achieved” and “clearly there is good progress here”.

However, according to Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) licencing figures for the week ending October 29, 2021, there had been 4,097 new applications (year to date) and 3,158 licences issued (year to date).

This represents an increase of 939 in the backlog (year to date), the group said.

Project Woodland

Project Woodland is an initiative which came on the back of a report by Jo O’Hara, a private consultant who was formally a British forestry commissioner; the chief forester for Scotland; and the chief executive of Scottish Forestry.

Her report was commissioned by the department in the hope that it would suggest ways to implement the recommendations of an earlier report – the Mackinnon Report – into the various challenges the sector faces.

In relation to the latest report, IFO said that, alarmingly, the same set of DAFM figures shows that of the 5,462 applications in the system on October 29, 2,375 have been there for over 13 months.

The group of forest owners said: “This is the opposite of progress and clearly confirms the general opinion within the forestry industry, that the interim report is attempting to spin the project’s total failure to produce any real change in this absolutely critical area.”

IFO said that other figures regarding the numbers of licences that have been referred to ecology and the inspector are equally concerning, with the vast majority of files in the system for what they describe as “totally unacceptably lengthy” periods.

IFO said that no data is provided for those licences in the system for over two or three years.

Project board as steering group

The intention that the project board would act as the steering group for the Regulatory Review and the Organisational Review is “totally unacceptable to IFO members and must be reversed”.

IFO is calling for these reviews to be completely independent of DAFM. IFO said:

“There is a strongly held view that the DAFM [is] attempting to control and direct the narrative from these important reviews and effectively prevent the necessary changes being made. This must not be allowed to happen.

The IFO has raised concerns about what it feels is a lack of timeline for the completion and implementation of Project Woodland.

In a statement, it said: “The last thing the industry needs is a report on the implementation of the O’Hara report on the implementation of the Mackinnon report.

“The industry needs to see action and urgent implementation of recommendations emanating from the Working Groups. The afforestation figures alone should be enough to engage political minds, however it appears there is no political will in government to actually do anything other than provide spin.”

Future for Project Woodland

IFO claims that it has been suggested that Project Woodland is on the verge of collapse due to the disenchantment of many of the organisations and individuals involved.

It admits that the aims of the project are ambitious and could bring much of the necessary reform needed to the forestry sector.

“However, this interim report is deeply concerning. Government needs to step up and start making necessary changes now,” the statement continues.

“A good start would be to immediately remove woodland management from the
licencing process completely. It is time to take action before it is too late.”