Forest industry tells government how sector can be saved

Some forest owners are waiting four years for licences
Forest industry tells government how sector can be saved

Tim Mc Carthy Chairman of Forest Owners Co-operative Society (FOCS) and forest owner who is currently waiting on a felling licence. Pic; Larry Cummins

Jobs are being lost, some farmers are selling their plantations on to multinationals, machinery is parked up, and contractors are left paying big bills to the banks.

These are just some of the knock-on impacts of the Irish forestry licence logjam which will be raised today by industry leaders meeting with former Scottish Forestry chief executive Jo O’Hara, appointed by the government to advise it on the forestry approval process.

Only 2,700 forest planting, felling, or road licences were approved and issued last year, and industry experts say 5,000 or 6,000 licences are needed at the very least, to keep things running smoothly.

With some forest owners waiting four years for licences, they live in fear of storm damage to their maturing forests.

One such owner is Forest Owners Co-operative Society chairman Tim McCarthy, waiting for the last 12 months for a felling licence.

In the meantime, part of his forest has been windblow damaged.

He first planted in 1988, and the forest is now ready for clear-felling.

“Some of my forest is windblown, and some of it is due for thinning,” he told the Irish Examiner.

“If it’s not thinned out in the required time, it goes beyond the stage of thinning. If it’s not felled, the timber gets too heavy.

“‘Tis a bit like sending cattle to the factory, if the animal gets overfat, the price is less.”

He said growers also fear the tree disease risk posed by timber imports.

Mr McCarthy said the lack of felling licences and the timber shortage now evident across Ireland are connected.

Tim McCarthy has mature sitka spruce that was planted in 1987/88 and is now ready for felling.

Tim McCarthy has mature sitka spruce that was planted in 1987/88 and is now ready for felling.

“There are thousands of tonnes of timber being imported, and the danger of importing timber is the likelihood of bringing in disease.”

“There are sawmills across Ireland letting staff go, selling off their machines, and the smaller contractors are gone out of business because of the timber shortage.

“The situation is so bad now that if it keeps going like this and felling licences are not issued, the forestry industry in this country will not recover.

“A lot of forest owners are now selling their plantations because they have had enough.

“It’s the big crop companies and multinationals that are buying up the plantations, and Coillte is also buying up forestry and land.”

“We have ash dieback now, and that is the end of ash in this country. There will never be an ash tree planted in this country again.”

Organisations such as the IFA and Forest Industries Ireland (FII) have also called on minister of state with responsibility for forestry, Pippa Hackett, to address the forest licensing situation “if there is to be any hope of revitalising farmer interest in forestry”.

There are currently more than 4,000 licences awaiting approval in the Department of Agriculture.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, FII director Mark McAuley said increased demand for imported timber is a direct result of the lack of licences being issued here.

“Licences are not being issued for planting. and they are not being issued for felling and so the demand for imported timber has increased.”

“It’s a very challenging situation that Ireland now finds itself in, and it’s ongoing.

“It’s a national fiasco really, and it’s happening because of new environmental rules and regulations implemented by the EU.

“Nobody in the industry has any issues with the rules, or with the industry being regulated from an environmental perspective, we just need to see the whole process running smoothly and get the licences that are needed issued.

“Contractors, in particular, are stuck, they can’t import timber and are continuing to pay big bills to the bank every month for the leases on the big machines.

“The sawmills are operating well below capacity, they can’t get the logs in that they need to supply their customers, and all of this is undermining the industry, and undermining the relationship with customers in Ireland and the UK.

“There is also a lot of financial hardship on individual foresters.

“Ireland planted a lot of trees back in the 1980s and 1990s.

“All of those forests have matured now, and there is actually an increase in the number of trees available here for the market.

“We should actually be on an upward curve in the industry, but we are not.”

Mr McAuley says there is hope though, despite the difficulties.

“I do think we will get back on track, but at the moment the whole thing is being undermined by this licencing fiasco.

“Ireland planted just 2,000 hectares of forest last year, and the programme for government talks about planting 8,000 hectares per annum, that is another problem.”

Today, industry experts will meet with Jo O’Hara, appointed to advise the government on implementation of the Mackinnon Report.

The Mackinnon Report, published in November, 2019, reviewed Ireland’s forestry processes and procedures.

Its implementation is a key action in the programme for government.

Industry leaders say if the Mackinnon Report is fully implemented and backed by political will, the forestry crisis in Ireland will abate.

They want all licences issued in a timely manner; introduction of a cost-based planning support grant, as referenced in the Mackinnon Report; a full-time project manager to implement the report’s recommendations; licence applications accompanied by a natura impact statement to be dealt with within eight weeks; and removal of management operations such as road construction and thinning from the licencing system.

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