Forestry not seen as viable by many farmers, department admits

Department of Agriculture says Government target for licences this year unlikely to be met

The shortage of timber has driven up the cost of frequently used building products by 75 per cent, adding up to €15,000 to the cost of new homes, according to key industry bodies

The shortage of timber has driven up the cost of frequently used building products by 75 per cent, adding up to €15,000 to the cost of new homes, according to key industry bodies

 

The Department of Agriculture has said it is unlikely to reach the Government’s target on issuing forestry licences this year, and admitted the backlog in the processing of applications had led many farmers to conclude the industry was no longer viable.

A department backlog in handling applications for forestry licences – needed to fell or plant trees, and to build roads to transport logs – is squeezing supplies of timber needed for homebuilding.

The shortage has driven up the cost of frequently used building products by 75 per cent, adding up to €15,000 to the cost of new homes, according to key industry bodies.

In a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture and Marine, Department of Agriculture secretary general Brendan Gleeson defended his department’s record under heavy criticism from parliamentarians, but said this year’s targets would be difficult to meet.

“In relation to the 4,500 figure, I don’t think – at least it will be very difficult to meet the 4,500 target now because essentially we have lost eight weeks of high output,” he said. “My view is that a more realistic target is about 4,000 licences.”

Mr Gleeson said the loss of the eight-week period of high output was “unfortunate but unavoidable” as the department went about upgrading its processes. “The administrative burden associated with this process was greater than anticipated,” he said.

Applications

Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice said the number of applications for forestry licences had fallen from 1,409 in 2017 to just 330 so far this year. “What does that tell you?” he asked.

Mr Gleeson said the licensing delays were “a factor” in the decline, and admitted that many farmers appeared to have become disillusioned with the industry.

“Obviously it is a significant concern because there are a range of reasons why we have ambitious forestry planting targets over the next 10 years,” he said. “It tells me, for whatever reason I suppose, that farmers don’t at present see forestry as a viable option.”

Mr Gleeson traced the licensing backlog to two 2018 judicial decisions which changed the manner in which licence applications had to be processed in “the most profound way”.

“The net result of these judgments was that approximately 80 per cent of licence applications had to be screened in for a comprehensive ecological assessment, compared to approximately 2 per cent before that. At the time the department was simply not set up for that volume of assessments.”

In addition to that, Mr Gleeson said the number of appeals against licensing determinations “exploded”.

“It went from 21 in 2017, to 150 in 2018, to 321 in 2019 and peaked at 582 in 2020,” he said.

Appealed

“For a period virtually every Coillte licence was being appealed. Dealing with this volume of appeals was hugely time-consuming for staff at a time when the system was struggling to deal with licence applications. Equally, the appeals structures we had established were not designed to deal with these kinds of volumes.”

He said the department had “significantly increased” the resources in its forestry divisions. The number of ecologists has increased from one in 2018 to 27, while the number of forestry inspectors has increased from 40 in 2020 to 61.

The system was issuing more than 100 licences a week, Mr Gleeson added.