The European Commission has reached out to the Irish government for more information regarding its proposed €1.3 billion forestry program for the years 2023 to 2027. Minister of State Pippa Hackett, who is responsible for Land Use and Biodiversity, informed the Seanad that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) had received written correspondence from the commission regarding the forestry program. Minister Hackett stated that DAFM is currently preparing a response to the commission’s latest communication, which was received on June 21.
Senator Victor Boyhan, a member of the agricultural panel in the Seanad, has called for transparency from the government in its dealings with the commission. He expressed concerns about the European Union’s criticism of the Irish forestry model proposed in the program, particularly the sitka spruce model and the Coillte-Gresham House deal. Senator Boyhan emphasized the need for more information and clarity for stakeholders regarding the current status of the government’s forestry program.
According to Senator Boyhan, the new forestry program is currently undergoing a strategic environmental assessment (SEA) by the European Commission. He mentioned that there are concerns about the impact of piecemeal forestry plantations on high-value farmland, which he believes the SEA report does not adequately address. Senator Boyhan also noted that the review process has effectively stalled the implementation of the new forestry program announced by the government in November 2022, as it is still awaiting formal state aid approval from the European Commission.
In response to Senator Boyhan’s concerns, Minister Hackett assured him that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is actively engaging with the commission to secure state aid approval as soon as possible. She stated that the commission is currently reviewing the notification in detail to determine if the proposed forestry program complies with EU state aid rules. Minister Hackett also mentioned that bilateral discussions took place with executive vice President Timmermans and Commissioner Sinkevièius last month, where the importance of the forestry program to Ireland’s climate change and environmental targets was emphasized.
Minister Hackett informed the Seanad that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine had engaged with the commission in December to establish interim solutions. This led to the introduction of interim afforestation, forest road, and ash dieback reconstitution and underplanting schemes. As of 2023, 1,575 felling licenses have been issued for 18,386 hectares, and 288 applications have been approved under the interim afforestation scheme, representing 1,752 hectares. Planting has been completed on almost 1,195 hectares, with the remaining 261 hectares to be planted.
According to data published by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, 133 hectares have been afforested so far in 2023. Nine afforestation licenses have been issued this year, and under the government’s Climate Action Plan 2023, annual afforestation rates are expected to increase from approximately 2,000 hectares per year in 2022 to 8,000 hectares per year from 2023 onwards.
As of the end of June 2023, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has approved the construction of 27 kilometers of forestry roads and the felling of 18,386 hectares of forests. So far this year, 1,575 felling licenses and 72 road licenses have been issued. The department has received 1,211 applications for felling licenses and 251 applications for road licenses.