The target of issuing 4,500 forestry planting licences this year will not be met.

The secretary general of the Department of Agriculture, Brendan Gleeson, has conceded that the number of licences issued in 2021 would not meet the original target but could total 4,000 and has the potential to reach 5,000 next year.

However, addressing the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee this week, he refused to speculate on the area of forestry that is likely to be planted in 2022, although he admitted that the 8,000ha target for this year will not be met.

Forestry companies have forecast that the area planted this year is unlikely to exceed 2,500ha due to major delays in the issuing of licences for both planting and clear-felling.

Gleeson and senior officials from the Department’s forestry section, Colm Hayes and Seamus Dunne, were subjected to stinging criticism from TDs and senators for the severe difficulties being experienced by the sector.

Michael Fitzmaurice TD told the committee hearing that forestry contractors who had struggled to secure work for the last year, because licences for felling and planting had not been issued, were now struggling to undertake work because they had lost their staff in the interim.

He said the poor standing of forestry as a potential enterprise for landowners was evidenced by the recent collapse in planting applications.

He also pointed out that forestry planting applications had collapsed from 1,409 in 2017 to just 330 so far this year.

A recent improvement in the Department’s performance in relation to the processing of licences, which has resulted in 200 being issued over the last fortnight, was also questioned by committee chair, Jackie Cahill TD, Matt Carty TD and others.

Deputy Cahill asked if the lift in licence approvals was in some way related to the appearance of Gleeson and his senior staff.

However, this assertion was rejected by Gleeson. He said if it was possible to “turn on the tap” of licence approvals that easily then his Department would “just keep the tap on all the time”.

Gleeson acknowledged the “concerns expressed recently at the pace at which afforestation licences are issuing”, and that the Department needed to “up our game”, but he insisted that there was no simple solution to the difficulties.

He said plans to rectify the licensing problems included the addition of 10 ecologists working specifically on afforestation licences.

Gleeson also expressed confidence that 100 planting licences would continue to be issued each week.

After the meeting, a Department spokesperson told the Irish Farmers Journal that up to 7m cubic metres of felling licences would be issued by year end (Table 1).

So far this year, 1,570 licences were issued; 794 to private growers and 776 to Coillte amounting to 4.8m cubic metres. He was unable to provide data by volume.