Forestry Bill 2013

I congratulate the Minister of State on bringing forward his first piece of legislation as Minister of State. I congratulate him not only on it being his first piece of legislation, but also on its contents. I acknowledge, as we all do today, the input into this legislation and the great background work of the former Minister of State, Shane McEntee, work that is being continued by the Minister of State. I wish the Minister of State many happy and fruitful years in that role.
I applaud the decision of the Government not to sell Coillte. It is among the myriad achievements of this Government in breaking free from the shackles of the initial bailout deal agreed by the previous Government. One of the most important ways in which we have broken free from the shackles of that deal was the decision not to sell Coillte. Our forestry and woodlands are a huge resource from tourism, recreational, quality of life, climate change and, notably, commercial perspectives. For many landowners, forestry is an attractive option, providing a steady annual income and from a practical point of view, making very good use of marginal land. That is the important issue.
Many farms have ten, 15 or 20 acres of marginal land which should be planted. That is happening to a greater extent than was previously the case. There are many young farmers in my constituency who work outside the farm and, for them, forestry is a cost-effective and less stressful way to continue farming than intensive cattle farming. It is worth noting that more than 19,000 farmers are private forest owners, covering 10% of Ireland in woodland. I congratulate the Minister of State and the Government on the fact we have managed, in the most straitened of circumstances, to preserve the forestry premia and the income of those farmers involved in private forestry. That is a great achievement that merits applause and I strongly recommend that this remains the case.
Approximately 12,000 people are employed either directly or indirectly through the forestry sector amounting to an annual return of €673 million to the Exchequer. This is an extraordinary contribution. We have a 5% share of the UK timber market and every indication shows that demand for timber is set to rise over the next ten years, especially as we are beginning to see a move towards renewable indigenous sources of energy such as biomass. Wood harvesting for energy purposes is driving the production end of forestry and this is a trend that can only increase as time goes on. Energy demand increases by approximately 5% per year in this country while we continue to import more than 90% of our energy. This cannot be a healthy balance and it is for that reason we must work on our forestry among other things. Wood energy is seen as a sustainable, carbon-neutral and secure source of heat, electricity and biofuel. We have excellent wood growing conditions in this country as our soil and climatic conditions are satisfactory.
This legislation is very welcome, especially in the context of the need to increase wood mobility and encourage future afforestation. The importance of forestry in the context of the climate change agenda cannot be emphasised enough. The fact that trees absorb carbon dioxide and are involved in the sequestration of, and are a sink for, carbon makes them critical infrastructure. Even if other countries offend in these areas, it is important that Ireland, which has always played a very important moral role at an international level, continues to perform at this level. That is an added attraction and achieves our objectives in terms of carbon emissions control from an economic perspective.
As it stands, 11% of our country is covered by forest, which is 24% short of the EU recommendation of 35%. We have great potential to develop this. This is also the first time in 67 years that the current forestry regulatory regime has been updated and reformed. We have come a long way from 1946 when the majority of our forests were under State ownership. There is an almost 50-50 split between privately owned forests and State-owned forests, and I am glad to see the legislation is responsive to this change. I know of many beautiful forests in my constituency which play their part in the generation of tourism related revenue. I invite Members of the House to visit any of these very beautiful and scenic places. We have Bellamont in Cootehill, which is a beautiful and historic location that contains many elements of our heritage, built and otherwise, in Bellamont Castle on the forest grounds around the lake. It is an extraordinarily beautiful place. We also have Dun a Rí in Kingscourt and Killykeen in west Cavan. In Bailieborough, where I live, we have the forest at Castle Lake which is a great resource for the quality of life of people and is extensively used by walkers. I commend the work done in recent years by Coillte in developing these forest areas, walks and amenities.
I urge the Minister of State to prioritise the continuing development of our forests for tourism because the modern tourist wants to walk, to have a healthy experience and to have the heritage experience. Invariably they are coming from an urban environment and want to get out into the wild.
For this reason, increasing the development of forest amenities, walks, seating around lakes, picnic areas, entryways to lakes and platforms for fishing is crucial. I hope that the Minister of State continues this important work, as it matters. The forests that I cited in my constituency, including a beautiful area in Virginia, attract a high volume of tourists and revenue to the county.
I welcome section 10 in Part 2, which ensures the proper regulation and monitoring of the management of forests. There will be rules for forest owners about harmful pests, diseases and invasive species. The Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, has been working hard to deal with the ash dieback disease. It is important that the wrong type of tree not be imported and placed alongside our trees to the detriment of our forests. In light of the lessons that we are learning as a result of our experience with ash dieback, it is important that we safeguard our existing and future forests.
This Part of the Bill introduces the concept of the farm management plan. It is a good principle. The Minister of State is connected to people and will understand what I am saying – we must not make this an administrative albatross around the necks of forest owners. The plan should contain simple objectives, for example, on when to fell, what will be done to maintain forests and what will be planted. It should not contain anything nasty. The last thing we need is a large, cumbersome form to be filled, a complex plan or the introduction of middle people, all of which will cost forest owners a great deal of money. I appeal to the Minister of State to keep these factors to a minimum and to ensure there are no difficulties, as they could act as a disincentive to afforestation. He is well aware of these issues and I hope that he will respond to them. I am sure that my concerns in this regard are shared by others.

Deputy Tom Hayes: I will.

Deputy Joe O’Reilly: I thank the Minister of State. I understand that issues pertaining to section 24 in Part 5 have arisen. Under this Part, the Minister of the day has the power to charge and recover fees for licensing approval and registration purposes. My understanding is that this is only a declaration in principle, in that, while it can happen, the Minister has no plans to make it happen in the short term. A ministerial reassurance on the record of the House would help the industry. It is important that the Minister be able to do what is necessary in the interests of forestry policy, but it should not be a disincentive to converting land into forestry, particularly for smaller producers, as that would be a worst case scenario and would impact on our EU target of 35% afforestation. There is no charge currently and the Minister has explained that it will not be done, but that merits repeating.
In terms of felling licences, a vital exemption clause is built into section 18. Landowners and-or farmers will be allowed to use up to 15 cu. m of wood deemed to be outside of forest or historical fort per year for personal use. It is important that farmers be allowed to do this. In my experience, which I suspect is also the Minister of State’s experience, farmers generally do the right thing, be it with their livestock or forestry, and have a great sense of responsibility and ownership and a consciousness of the fact that they are preserving something important for future generations. Those who do the wrong thing are rare, sad exceptions who sometimes cause the need for unnecessary legislation.
The wood that farmers may use for personal purposes can be used for fencing and the maintenance of the natural landscape. Where there is evidence that illegal felling has occurred, it is important that the Minister of the day have the power necessary to impose an order on the offender. Section 25 in Part 6 gives the Minister the power to compel such a forest owner to replant the area or an equivalent area within his or her ownership and makes it an offence if the offender fails to do so. In extreme situations, the fines range up to a maximum of €1 million or imprisonment of five years. This type of penalty may seem excessive at first glance. From a conservation point of view, however, I have no doubt but that it will be a dissuasive and necessary inclusion. A minority make such measures necessary.
We need to strike a balance between promoting afforestation, ensuring that we reap the financial benefits generated and maintaining our collective responsibility for environmental protection. It is a tough balance to strike, but I am convinced that the Minister of State has introduced comprehensive and responsive legislation to the House. It ensures that the heritage of which we are proud is protected for future generations. The multifaceted benefit of our forests to the tourism industry, climate change, health and quality of life is incalculable. Their potential commercial value is also incalculable, given the fact that the sector’s output is already €673 million per year.
All in all, this is an important element of Irish life and the economy and a vital debate. I am honoured to be a part of it. I wish the Minister of State and the legislation well. I hope that we will look back on this as a good day’s work.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website