It seems the only thing growing in Irish forests these days is a crisis. Delays in issuing licences needed to plant, cut and transport trees have been squeezing the Republic’s timber industry for three years.
Despite commitments made by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and Minister of State, Pippa Hackett, in early 2021 to tackle the problem, the industry says the latest Government figures show no real progress.
The bottleneck is hitting house building, slowing the supply of timber, forcing many to import it. The Construction Industry Federation calculates that the problem adds €15,000 to the cost new homes.
Foresters say the problem threatens 12,000 jobs, prevents them meeting domestic needs and from cashing in on export demand. We have enough trees to easily cater for both, but the department is not issuing licences to cut them fast enough.
Nor is it approving enough permits to replace harvested trees. Industry spokespeople say that last year, department officials set a “soft” target of issuing enough licences to plant on 4,500 hectares, but the actual total by the end of December was 4,255.
That does not sound bad, until you stack it against the official Government aim of 8,000 hectares annually. The soft target is little more than half what the State believes we will need in the future.
Teige Ryan, spokesman for industry group, the Social Economic and Environmental Forestry Association, maintains that planting is now at its lowest level since 1949. He also points out that 12 per cent, fewer than one in eight, of all the 4,035 forestry licences issued last year were for “afforestation”, that is, planting.
Mark McAuley, director of Forest Industries Ireland, notes there are almost 900 afforestation licences awaiting department approval, which takes 15 months on average. He argues for an "overhaul of the regulatory system".
That system dates back to the Forestry Act 2017, enough time for the Government to provide resources needed to handle licence applications efficiently. Hackett promised to make ending the permit backlog a priority when she announced a new forestry programme, Project Woodland, almost 12 months ago.
But instead the crisis continued, and it now threatens both the industry’s long- and short-term futures.