Foresters demand that Taoiseach intervene in crisis around licensing delays

Lobby group says Department of Agriculture licensing backlog has hit 5,500 applications

Foresters are demanding that Taoiseach Micheál Martin intervene in a crisis that has frozen the industry for two years and is threatening 12,000 jobs.

Representatives of more than 100 forestry businesses protested outside Dáil Éireann on Wednesday to highlight Government licensing delays that are preventing them from harvesting or planting trees.

Teige Ryan, spokesman for the Social, Economic, Environmental Forest Association (SEEFA), said a backlog of licence applications from the industry to the Department of Agriculture had hit 5,500.

Some businesses have been waiting two years for permits to plant or fell trees, he said, demanding that the Taoiseach step in to resolve a crisis in an industry that employs 12,000 people.

Mr Ryan added that the industry had lost faith in Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue and Minster of State Pippa Hackett.

"The Taoiseach is over in Glasgow to speak at Cop26, but here in Ireland we have cop out," he said.

Irish law requires foresters to have licences to plant or fell trees, or to build roads to transport logs. However, Department of Agriculture officials have struggled to keep pace with permit applications, leading to a two-year backlog.

The problem was one of the several that Mr McConalogue and Ms Hackett pledged their Project Woodland forestry strategy would tackle.

Mr Ryan calculated that 1,000 of the 5,500 outstanding applications were for tree planting, but the department was processing fewer than 10 of this category a week.

Consequently the businessman said that companies such as his, None so Hardy, which provide young trees for planting in commercial forests, were selling their products to Scotland instead of the Republic.

“We’re exporting millions of ready-to-plant trees to Scotland,” he said. “Those lorry loads of trees are meeting thousands of tonnes of timber coming back in from Scotland.”

The delays have left actual planting over the last five years trailing government targets by a total of 15,000 hectares.

According to official estimates, those trees would have absorbed five million tonnes of carbon-dioxide through their lives, had they been planted.

The SEEFA wants the Government to set maximum timelines for licence applications and to implement the 2019 MacKinnon Report, which recommended solutions to the industry’s problems.

Timber

The Republic’s forests hold more than enough timber to meet its needs, including demand from house-builders, but the licensing snarl-up is forcing suppliers to import the material, said Mr Ryan. He argued that this was driving up the cost of hew homes.

The Department of Agriculture responded that by last Friday, October 29th, it had issued 3,158 licences this year, compared with 2,592 for all of 2020.

A statement pointed out that State forestry company Coillte was "fully licensed" for 2021. Officials expect to fully license the company for 2022 by the end of next year.

“While accepting that further gains are needed, particularly on afforestation, we are moving in the right direction,” said the department.

Its statement stressed that tackling the backlog was a priority and pointed out that it had now had 27 full-time ecologists dealing with applications, against 18 a year ago.