The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine has published a report into the forestry sector in Ireland and the issues it faces.

The report comes after weeks of meetings between the committee and various stakeholders and officials on the key issues.

The report makes recommendations on several problems in the sector, including the Mackinnon Report; the Programme for Government; licencing issues; ash dieback; and planning for the future.

Publication of the McKinnon Report and the commitments in the Programme for Government signaled a strategic approach to reform and support this sector.

Jackie Cahill, the committee’s chairperson, said: “Forestry is a national resource to be proud of and needs to be nurtured. The committee believed that it was necessary to examine the challenges facing the forestry sector to identify key issues.”

He added: “The forestry sector is about livelihood, legacy and achieving long-term global goals. It is an important part of Ireland’s economy and provides opportunity in rural Ireland.”

Cahill also highlighted the importance of forestry in carbon sequestration.

Throughout the launch of the report today – which occurred via video-conferencing – several members of the committee highlighted a lack of “trust” and “confidence” in the potential of the forestry sector, something those members said needed to be rectified.

The committee said it is concerned with the dramatic decrease in the number of farmers involved in afforestation, and believes that to provide sufficient encouragement for farmers to enter, re-enter and remain, it must have sufficient supports in place, including economic benefits and fair engagement with the licensing system.

Recommendations and conclusions

The committee came to several conclusions in the report on how to tackle the difficulties in the sector.

In its engagement with Minister of State Pippa Hackett, the committee recommended the appointment of an individual to oversee the implementation of each of the MacKinnon Report recommendations.

The Mackinnon Report was commissioned and published in 2019 to review the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine’s processes and procedures around forestry, particularly for licencing for afforestation, felling and forest roads.

The committee recommends that an agreed timeframe should be introduced into the licensing application and appeals process, and it is supporting the recommendation of the Mackinnon Report to develop a Customer Service Charter which could “build confidence in the system for applicants”.

The committee also recommends that the department and stakeholders have quarterly meetings to monitor the implementation of a charter and a timeframe agreed by the department and stakeholders. It also calls for additional resources to be deployed “as soon as practicable” to deal with the licencing backlog.

Several members were keen to highlight the recommendation that road and thinning permits should be included as a condition in afforestation licenses, rather than individual applications.

Ash dieback

The hold-up with licences has dominated much of the talk around the forestry sector in recent months, but members of the committee were keen to stress that the problem of ash dieback had not gone away.

The committee is supporting research for the development of resistant species and innovation in the treatment of existing diseased plantations. It would also welcome quarterly reporting on the engagement of the Reconstitution and Underplanting Scheme (RUS).

The new report calls for additional financial resources to be put in place, such as a grant, to cover some financial losses and the clearing of affected plantations. It also calls for ash owners who replant their site be able to draw a premium for 15 years.

The report requests that the department compile a “detailed report on the origins of ash dieback in Ireland and whether there are lessons to be learned that would assist with preventing future disease importation”.

Other recommendations

The other more general recommendations of the report are summarised as follows:

  • The committee welcomes the recent formation of the Forestry Policy Group and looks forward to early engagement with it;
  • The committee believe that the department’s forestry policy should include a strategy for the reconstitution of elm and provide dedicated support to ongoing research on that species at Teagasc;
  • The committee calls on the department to deliver a specific strategy to increase the proportion of native broadleaf afforestation, rather than non-native trees;
  • The report says that forestry has been an essential resource to the public and is important for people’s physical and mental health, and that it needed to be “supported in its development and nurtured for future generations”.