Tree felling licences issued last year included 2.7 million cubic metres for Coillte and 2.3 million cubic metres for private forest owners, according to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
“It is a 52% to 48% breakdown, not the divide that people assume,” said Colm Hayes, the department’s assistant secretary with responsibility for forestry.
“That has continued into January, and that is the way we want to continue.
“We certainly do not want to leave anyone behind.”
He was responding to allegations that DAFM favours Coillte over private forest owners, when approving licences for felling.
Felling licences have become a scarce and critical forest industry requirement, following the experience of 2020, when approved licences for forestry felling, afforestation, and roadmaking totalled only 2,400, 80% below previous years, due to new environmental requirements and increased appeals against licence approvals.
Mr Hayes was speaking at last week’s Oireachtas joint committee on agriculture and the marine debate, where committee chairman Jackie Cahill TD warned there is a serious shortfall in issuing of forestry licences, and Ireland “will be lucky to hit 20% of the afforestation target in the programme for Government”, in 2021.
Mr Cahill added: “I have received a great deal of communication in recent weeks from the private sector from people who feel that there is a serious bias towards Coillte in the issuing of felling licences at the moment, and that the private sector is not getting its fair share of licences.”
But Mr Hayes said there is no prioritisation of Coillte licences.
“There was prioritisation around volume, to try to drive out the biggest licences in order to stabilise the sector.
“Many jobs depended on us getting out a lot of volume.”
He said prioritisation around volume is not exclusive. “Every day of the week, the inspectors in the department are working on licences of all shapes and sizes.” He revealed that about three-quarters of the logs that go to Irish sawmills are sourced from Coillte, and about a quarter are sourced from the private sector.
Commenting on the programme for the Government target to plant at least 8,000 hectares of forest per year, Mr Hayes said the onus is on everybody to get 60% of land which is licensed for afforestation planted.
“In other words, if 8,000ha is what is needed to be planted, that requires 9,000ha of approvals, for example, in a year.
“The days of the speculative application are gone, given all of the difficulties involved in approving a licence.”
He said there is an issue with the low conversion rate from approvals to planting, which does not happen when licenses are approved for felling and forest roads.
Afforestation licences are valid for three years, and Mr Hayes revealed DAFM figures show that just under 5,000ha are already licensed for afforestation, and not subject to appeal.
He also welcomed the recent initiative by Aldi, which wants to plant 1m native trees in partnership with the DAFM, through the woodland environmental fund.
And Bord na Móna and Coillte are collaborating on a potentially very significant native woodland project to plant native woodlands on former cutaway bogs, pending results of an environmental impact assessment.
Meanwhile, there were 4,436 licences on hand in the Department for processing, of which 2,705 are for felling, 691 for roads, and 1,040 for afforestation.
“The figure was 4,700 back in October.
“We have issued 1,200 licences since then, but these are replaced by some 900 new applications.
“In October, we had 4,700 licences on hand, and we have since issued 1,200 licences in four months approximately, so that would mean 3,600 licences in a year. Working off those figures, that means 3,600 of the 4,700 licences will be gone by this October,” predicted Mr Hayes.
He revealed that of the 2,700 felling licences on hand, 123 were applied for in 2018.
Asked about the possibility of an amnesty to wipe out the licence backlog, he believed it would not be legally possible under EU environmental regulations.
Department officials also told the Oireachtas joint committee the forestry appeals committee has dealt with appeals against 1,000 licences, since it was established in 2018.
“Of those, some 700 are closed, and we now have 339 licences to be dealt with”, said an official.
Following last autumn’s new legislation, there are now four committees dealing with 60 licence hearings every month.
There have been only 50 appeals since the new legislation was enacted.
Also last week, Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue encouraged afforestation licence holders to plant.
He said: “I fully recognise and appreciate the impact the current forestry licencing delays are having on the sector, and that afforestation rates are not currently at the level needed to meet the ambitious 8,000ha target as set out in the Climate Action Plan 2019.”