The Social, Economic Environmental Forestry Association of Ireland (SEEFA) has expressed its concern over the latest forestry dashboard figures, calling them an “embarrassingly low point, marking a new rock bottom”. This comes after Minister of State with responsibility for forestry, Pippa Hackett, announced a review of the Ash Dieback RUS scheme. SEEFA has criticized the move, stating that it is “effectively kicking a dead can down the road until September”.
According to the figures published by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), seven afforestation licenses have been issued so far in 2023, with 55 applications received. The total area afforested this year is 119ha. The government’s Climate Action Plan 2023 aims to increase annual afforestation rates from around 2,000ha/yr in 2021 and 2022 to 8,000ha/yr from 2023 onwards. However, an area of 2,154ha would need to be planted over the next six months to equal last year’s total of 2,273ha, and a further 7,745ha would be needed to reach the yearly target of 8,000ha.
The number of applications received for the De Minimis scheme has risen to 284, with 1,402 felling and 63 road licenses issued so far this year. The number of applications received for felling and road licenses currently stands at 1,153 and 215, respectively. Up until the end of May 2023, the DAFM approved the construction of 23km of forestry roads and the felling of 16,073ha of forests. However, the area of forests approved for felling this year is lower compared to the same time period last year, at 20,203ha, according to DAFM figures.
The lack of forestry is also causing concern for Ireland’s sawmills, which create 12,000 jobs and contribute €2.3 billion to the economy. Industry experts have warned that planting trees has hit an all-time low, and the Forestry Service “is not delivering any forestry”. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture has expressed its concern over the current low levels of annual afforestation, which it claims pose a major threat to the long-term prospects of the sawmilling sector. Members of the committee toured Murray’s sawmill in Ballygar, Co. Galway, on Tuesday, June 13, to discuss the precarious status of the sector.
In response to the concerns, Minister Hackett announced the establishment of an independent review group to carry out a review of the DAFM ash dieback support scheme. The group will comprise three members of the board currently overseeing the implementation of Project Woodland: Jo O’Hara, former chief executive of the Scottish Forestry Commission; Jerry Grant, former managing director of Irish Water; and Matt Crowe, former director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The group will be tasked with reviewing the existing and previous supports available to landowners with ash plantations funded under the National Forestry Programme infected with Chalara or ash dieback disease.
SEEFA has called for urgent action to address the low levels of afforestation, stating that the government’s Climate Action Plan 2023 is at risk of failure. The association has also criticized the lack of delivery on the part of the Forestry Service and has called for greater support for landowners affected by ash dieback disease.
The current situation has also led to a shortage of timber, which has resulted in higher prices for sawmills and consumers. This has had a knock-on effect on the construction industry, which relies heavily on timber for building and infrastructure projects.
The Irish government has acknowledged the importance of afforestation and the need to address the current situation. Minister Hackett has stated that the government is committed to increasing afforestation rates and has announced measures to support landowners affected by ash dieback disease. However, more needs to be done to address the underlying issues and ensure that the forestry sector can play its part in meeting Ireland’s climate targets and supporting the economy.