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Forestry crisis deepens as mills seek new supply

Talks with new ministers on licensing logjam fail to produce a resolution

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'One of the biggest sawmills in Munster has in recent days abandoned plans to charter a ship to bring in semi-processed wood from Europe' (stock photo)

'One of the biggest sawmills in Munster has in recent days abandoned plans to charter a ship to bring in semi-processed wood from Europe' (stock photo)

'One of the biggest sawmills in Munster has in recent days abandoned plans to charter a ship to bring in semi-processed wood from Europe' (stock photo)

The owners of the country's major sawmills have begun warning trade union officials of imminent extensive job losses because of chronic licensing and planning hold-ups which are bringing tree-felling to a standstill.

Thousands of jobs could be wiped out in the industry by Christmas because of a shortage of wood for the sawmills to process, according to Mark McAuley, director of Ibec body Forest Industries Ireland.

Talks last week between the forestry industry and new Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary and Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity Pippa Hackett failed to produce a resolution.

"The new ministers are just in the door and I think they are very genuine in their concern to fix this but the question remains, how are we going to keep the sawmills supplied with timber this year?" said Mr McAuley.

"Some of the mills will be able to maybe muddle through to the end of the year, reduce output, maybe put their people on short time. But some of the mills will be in real trouble and could be flat out of timber by autumn. They will have to close their doors by October or November."

One of the biggest sawmills in Munster has in recent days abandoned plans to charter a ship to bring in semi-processed wood from Europe because it had failed to source a suitable supply on the continent owing to a shortage of sawmill capacity there, he said.

"Some of the mills were hoping that this would at least allow them to keep customers here even if they might not make any money on it. But they have not been able to get the material," he said.

The Sunday Independent reported in April that at least 2,000 forestry jobs were under direct threat - with many workers at that point already on short time or furloughed - because of a licensing and appeals logjam which threatened to bring the entire sector to a halt.

Planning appeals are also tying up even routine forestry work in red tape and McAuley said the situation has since worsened further with no resolution in sight.

In 2019, the Department of Agriculture issued 4,180 felling licences but a new more stringent licensing system introduced to authorise essential work such as planting, felling and thinning has led to major delays and current approval rates suggest total felling licences issued for 2020 will be as low as 1,500.

Afforestation rates, also impacted by the new regulatory system and a new appeals process, have dropped from 6,500 hectares per annum (ha) in 2016 to 3,550ha in 2019. McAuley said that afforestation rates in 2020 will potentially be as low as 2,500ha.

"The Government's own climate change plan seeks to raise this number to 8,000ha. We've a real problem here and we don't know whether we're going to have any logs to saw by the end of the year. As well as the jobs, there could be shortages of pallets for food exporters and of timber for housebuilding and hardware supply," he said.

Sunday Indo Business