The Irish government has been criticized for falling short of its target to plant 8,000 hectares of new forestry this year. Senator Victor Boyhan raised the issue in Seanad Eireann, stating that he believes the government will not meet its targets this year. He warned that this failure to hit the planning targets could threaten the future supplies of timber. Boyhan also highlighted the frustration among foresters and farmers about the delays to the launch of the proposed €1.3 billion Forestry Programme, which will cover the period from 2023 to 2027.
The Forestry Programme is subject to state aid approval by the European Commission before it can be implemented in Ireland. Boyhan welcomed the ambitious plans but warned that if Ireland failed to meet forestry targets, there would be implications in terms of climate targets and aspirations. The Senator pointed out that there have only been 5 km of road licences and the lowest volume of felling licences for 2023. “Back in 2010, which was a peak for us, 7,929 farmers planted forests over an area that covered 8,314 ha. When we move to 2021, the most recent figures from the CSO tell us that we have a drop from 7,929 farmers down to 360. The government’s target is 8,000/ha. We are a hell of a long way short of all of that,” Senator Boyhan stated.
During the Seanad session, Boyhan asked Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), Green Party Senator Pippa Hackett, to update the Seanad on how many forestry planting licences had been granted since the beginning of the year. However, the minister said DAFM cannot issue licences for grant-aided afforestation, roads, or forestry support schemes until the new forestry programme is in place. Minister Hackett informed the Seanad that the formal submission had been made to the commission for approval of the €1.3 billion programme.
In the meantime, Minister Hackett said felling licences had continued to be issued, and in 2023, 957 felling licences had issued for 11,000/ha. She also referred to the interim schemes based on the de minimis rule, which effectively makes them exempt from state aid rules for afforestation and roads. These schemes are currently in place until a decision is granted by the commission on the new programme. “To date in 2023, a total of 261 applications have been approved under the interim afforestation scheme, representing more than 1,000/ha. Under the interim roads scheme, 71 approvals have issued representing more than 27,000 m. Of the 1,583/ha approved in 2023 for afforestation under the interim scheme, over 700/ha of planting has been completed and planting has commenced on a further area in excess of 500/ha,” Minister Hackett added.
However, when Senator Boyhan questioned the minister on when exactly the government had made the submission to the European Commission for state approval for the new forestry programme for 2023 to 2027, Minister Hackett was unable to supply the exact date. Senator Boyhan said in his opinion, “forestry is in crisis.” “We are heading into May, and no approvals have been given, despite all of the promises,” he stated.
Members of the Rural Independent Group have also accused the government of failing to deliver on the new forestry programme. Independent TD for Cork south-west, Michael Collins, said: “The 2023 planting season is almost over, and the forestry industry has been let down by both ministers as the 2023 planting season has been almost missed entirely, with forestry contractors sitting in limbo.” Meanwhile, the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) said the delay on securing approval for Ireland’s new forestry programme from the commission had “taken its toll”.
“Farmers that want to plant and avail of the new grants and premiums cannot make an application at present and will continue to be excluded from planting until state aid approval has been granted. The programme needs to be opened as a matter of urgency,” said Jason Fleming, IFA national farm forestry chair. The delay in the approval of the new forestry programme is causing frustration and concern for farmers and foresters alike, and it remains to be seen how the government will address this issue.