Planting licence delays threaten the forestry industry’s long-term future and Government policy, leading figures in the business warned at the weekend.
The Department of Agriculture licenses tree-planting in the Republic, but there is a two-year delay in getting these permits, according to Teige Ryan, chief executive of leading nursery None So Hardy (Forestry) Ltd.
He says that while the Government wants tree-planting to reach 8,000 hectares a year, just 2,300 hectares were planted last year, 3,400 in 2019 and 4,200 in 2018.
"That is no longer a crisis – it's a scandal," said Mr Ryan. The industry estimates that a minimum of 6,000 hectares a year should be planted to ensure its future viability.
He warned that as well as falling far short of Government targets, the slowdown in planting threatened the long-term future of the forestry industry, which supports around 12,000 jobs in rural Ireland. "There will be a huge loss of employment," said Mr Ryan.
Marina Conway, chief executive of the Western Forestry Co-op, said that farm forestry nationally had collapsed. One of her clients in Co Mayo was still waiting for news of a licence he sought in February 2019 to plant most of his land.
"He is extremely annoyed and frustrated at the length of time it has taken Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to make decisions, and now he has been forced to consider other options," said Ms Conway.
Mr Ryan argued that the Department of Agriculture had sacrificed tree-planting in order to deal with a backlog in felling licences, which reached a crisis earlier this year as officials struggled to deal with applications and appeals.
It emerged at an Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture and the Marine last month that just 15 per cent of forestry licences issued by the department are for planting, the remaining 85 per cent cover felling and road building, which also require permits.
Committee chairman, Jackie Cahill TD, told members that the Government would be lucky to hit 20 per cent of its planting target.
Colm Hayes, assistant secretary, Department of Agriculture and the Marine, conceded at the meeting that the rate of planting was behind what officials wanted.
However, he pointed out that the department was hiring new ecologists, needed to work on processing applications, so performance was improving.
“Nobody wants to see a 2021 that is like 2020, that is absolutely sure,” he said. “We will do everything we can to make sure that is not the case.”
Mr Hayes noted that only around 60 per cent of the land licensed for forest planting ended up being used for that purpose, and said the department was working on improving that conversion rate.
Mr Ryan's business is the leading private sector tree nursery in the Republic, supplying 95 per cent of demand and employing 85 workers across three operations in counties Wicklow and Wexford.
The company has supplied 43 million native broadleaf trees to forests in recent years. Government policy is step up planting of these species.
None So Hardy has begun exporting trees to Scotland, where planting reached 11,000 hectares last year, in order to stay in business.
“We would have started dismantling our nursery three years ago without the Scots,” Mr Ryan acknowledged.
He said that Scotland reached its current rate of planting from 4,700 hectares in 2017 and predicted that this trend would continue this year.
The Department of Agriculture and the Marine did not respond to a request for comment.