Rate of new forestry licences fails to tackle demand for timber

Delays are squeezing supplies for Irish house building and hurting export potential

Delays in processing forestry licences have held up timber production. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Delays in processing forestry licences have held up timber production. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

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Government officials are issuing fewer than half the new forestry licences needed to tackle an ongoing squeeze in timber supplies, industry figures warn.

The Department of Agriculture has pledged to tackle ongoing delays in the issue of licences – needed to cut, plant and transport trees – that have hit timber supplies over the last year.

However, figures show that on average its staff are issuing 45 new forestry licences a week, compared with 100 or so needed if the department is to hit its target of providing 4,500 permits this year.

Forestry Industries Ireland (FII) director Mark McCauley warned that the problem was not only continuing to leave the Republic short of timber needed for house building, but it was leaving an opportunity untapped in the UK.

“Scandinavia and Russia are exporting everything to the US, because they are paying big, big prices there, so the UK is screaming out for timber, and we could fill that gap,” he said.

“We could potentially double our market share in the UK from 6 per cent to 12 per cent. Once you get those customers and that market share, you retain it.”

FII estimates that this would increase the value of timber exports to Britain from €500 million a year to €1 billion.

Mr McCauley pointed out that the UK is stepping up house building to tackle its own accommodation crisis, creating an “open goal” for Irish timber suppliers.

At current rates, Mr McCauley’s organisation estimates that the department will issue just 2,300 licences this year, far short of its 4,500 target.

Extra staff

The department has hired extra staff to speed up its handling of permit requests. The Oireachtas last year passed legislation meant to streamline both licence applications and appeals.

Figures published by the department show that it issued 233 licences in March.

Tree-felling permits issued last month covered 1,059 hectares, compared with 1,462 last year and more than 13,000 hectares in March 2019.

In February, staff issued tree-felling licences for 1,691 hectares, compared with 1,400 in the same month last year and almost 14,000 in February 2019.

Irish law requires that all forestry activity, tree planting and felling and building roads to transport logs be licensed.

However, delays in processing licences and appeals led to a backlog that FII and others estimated stretched back more than two years, holding up the production of enough timber to build 50,000 homes.

Tackling the backlog is one of the goals of a new forestry strategy announced in March by Pippa Hackett, Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture. The department did not respond to a request for comment.