TERESA McVEIGH HAS fond memories of summers spent as a child in the fields and hills of her family’s land in Lisnanorrus, Co Leitrim. An old fort halfway up the hill beside the family home where her mother Mary still lives today offered the most fun and the best views too.
“You could stand up in it and you can see the whole way out from Drumshanbo across to Cavan,” says Teresa. “You’d see the whole 360 degrees.”
All that is gone now, however, she says, as conifer plantations right beside her mother’s home and across the surrounding hills have grown tall, blocking the view.
Mary, who is approaching her 80th birthday, remembers the days fondly before the conifers came, looking forward to the summer evening sun hitting the hills. Now, she says, there is “no such thing” as the evening sun is blocked, as is her view of her neighbours’ homes. “It’s very lonely.”
The McVeighs are one of several families who spoke to Noteworthy about the experience of living beside conifer plantations in the county that has the highest level of forestry cover in the country.
Almost 19% of the county is covered in conifer-dominated plantations – the national average is 11% – largely as a result of decades of State-led planting since the late 1950s, followed by increasing private planting in the south in recent years.
The social and environmental impact of increased planting is a key concern of the community group Save Leitrim that recently started to appeal forestry licence decisions to the Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC).
The FAC is currently facing a backlog of cases that is, in part, holding up the flow of timber in the €2 billion sector as applications fall under heavier environmental scrutiny.
While those taking appeals have been accused of making vexatious and baseless complaints to block conifer plantations, an in-depth investigation carried out by Noteworthy shows that the cause of the current backlog is a much deeper problem.
Over the past three months, we pored over data on 30,000-plus afforestation and felling licence applications and hundreds of FAC decisions released through Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) requests.
We also spoke with the three main individuals and groups taking the majority of appeals against forestry licence decisions to gain an insight into why they feel the need to challenge the Irish forestry model.
We can reveal:
- An analysis of almost 170 decisions made on appeals against licences in 2020 reveals that unsatisfactory environmental assessments were carried out in many cases.
- The three main appellants, all of whom spoke to Noteworthy, are still not convinced with recent licensing changes made by the State, with several High Court cases impending.
- Forestry and farming groups are also growing frustrated with the Forest Service for failing to heed their warnings that a backlog was imminent over its environmental assessment process, according to lobbying records released to Noteworthy.
Yesterday, in the first part of this series, we revealed that licences are still being approved for planting on biodiversity-rich areas and sensitive peat soils and that ecologists and biodiversity experts have concerns over assessment of the potential environmental impacts of forestry operations. Read the article here.
Wednesday is licence day
The Forest Service, that sits under the Department of Agriculture (DAFM), is the consenting authority of all forestry licences in Ireland, including afforestation, felling, thinning and forestry road applications.
Applications are advertised on DAFM’s website every Wednesday, starting the 30-day public consultation period before a decision can be made, after which follows another 28-day window for any appeals to the FAC.
All licences must be issued in compliance with EU environmental law. The Forestry Programme also outlines the need to assess if afforestation and felling operations are compatible with conservation objectives for habitat and species in protected sites in the Natura 2000 network.
The first step is for the Forest Service to screen the application and to determine if a far more detailed and stringent Appropriate Assessment (AA) is required.
This involves examining any possible significant effects on protected sites within 15km of the proposed forestry operation, both alone or in-combination with other nearby projects such as wind farms or other forestry plantations.
We’ve created a searchable table showing a detailed breakdown of afforestation licence applications and if AA screening and full EIA assessment was carried out based on data received from the Forest Service. View this table here >>
Strict need for environmental assessment
In the past, the agency has screened out many applications, determining that there would be no significant environmental impacts, including, as documented in the first part of this series yesterday, applications for planting on sensitive peat soils and biodiversity-rich grasslands.
In a landmark report in 2007, the Bioforest Project – a six-year study involving several universities and Coillte – found “serious deficiencies” in assessments that it said was causing high biodiversity sites to be “put at risk of being damaged by afforestation”.
The Department of Agriculture has previously responded to findings in the report, stating that the evaluation of applications “comprises numerous checks and balances aimed at identifying and safeguarding protected species and habitats”.
Coillte told Noteworthy that it abides by all the guidelines and standards for the protection of biodiversity, soils and waters during its operations.
“More recently, licence applications are accompanied by Natura Impact Statements where required which screen the potential impacts and cumulative effects of the proposed operations and propose measures to ensure no significant effects will arise,” it added.
Recent EU rulings emphasised the greater need for stricter assessment, as set out in a Department of Agriculture circular to foresters last May, with these rulings forming the backbone of an increasing number of cases brought before the appeals committee.
Based on an analysis of FAC case data released to Noteworthy, 76 licences have been cancelled following appeal, 151 upheld and 30 varied, with around 480 decisions still awaiting decision at the start of September.
It was acknowledged by DAFM in a recent briefing document on the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020 seen by Noteworthy that the FAC was “never designed to deal with these volumes”, taking an average of 44 weeks to issue a final decision.
“Therefore there is a developing backlog,” the document said, with 800,000 m3 of wood material under appeal – a little over one-fifth the size of the roundwood harvest of 3.69 million m3 in 2018, the highest level on record.
The delays have led the forestry sector to raise concern with the Department that the appeals process is allowing for “vexatious” complaints, according to lobbying records released to Noteworthy through AIE requests.
In a letter to the then-Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen in July, the forestry company Veon urged for “an appeals process… designed and resourced such that it can reach decisions within appropriate timeframes whilst being capable of weeding out those objections solely designed to frustrate the process”.
It also said that the lack of a fee to bring an appeal, together with the absence of a requirement that the appellant must demonstrate a connection with the lands, has resulted in “blanket, often generic submissions being made without any requirement that the appeal being made is substantive”.
As far back as November 2016, the Forest Sector grouping that includes Coillte and the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), told the Department it was concerned that the newly introduced FAC needed “appropriate checks and balances” and asked if there were “mechanisms for dealing with vexatious complainants”.
Coillte, the largest supplier of timber to the Irish market, told Noteworthy that there has been a “devastating impact on the forestry sector as a result of a small number of people lodging an incredibly large number of appeals”.
In IFA notes from a meeting in January 2019 with Colm Hayes, DAFM assistant secretary general with responsibility for forestry, it is stated that “Colm [Hayes] advised that the [licence] delays were as a result of the two coordinated campaigns”.
In an email to colleagues on 21 January, Hayes said that, while the notes represent “solely” the IFA’s interpretation of the discussion, “I would broadly agree with the general thrust of the comments”.
In reply to a request from Noteworthy to provide some context on this commentary by Mr Hayes, the Department of Agriculture said that it “has nothing to add”.
An analysis of FAC case files up to the start of September released to Noteworthy under AIE, reveals that there are in fact three core groups of appellants, including two individuals – Peter Sweetman (427 cases) and Neil Foulkes (205 cases) – and a group of Leitrim locals who have formed the Save Leitrim group (59 cases).
Noteworthy spoke with all three to gain an understanding of their motivations and analysed the results of their appeals that reveal, in many cases, their grounds for appeal were far from vexatious and highlight failings in the Forest Service’s environmental assessments.
The ‘serial environmental litigant’
The Mayo-based Peter Sweetman, who has brought the highest number of appeals cases to date, has been called a serial environmental litigant but told Noteworthy that he only takes cases where he has a serious chance of success and his record is solid.
He has had a number of landmark wins in the European courts that have heavily influenced recent changes to the Forest Service’s environmental assessment procedures.
In most of Sweetman’s appeals, he cites three of his own cases and another 2018 case taken by Irish individuals in which the European Court of Justice clarified that an Appropriate Assessment must dispel “all reasonable scientific doubt” concerning the effects on protected sites.
An analysis of FAC data from cases released to Noteworthy indicates that licences have been cancelled in 49 (31%) of Sweetman’s 158 cases decided by September.
Some of his cases have highlighted deficiencies in how applications have been assessed by the Forest Service, including one concerning a small afforestation licence granted for almost 3 hectares (ha) in Derrynaveagh, Co Clare in April 2019.
In this case, the FAC asked for an external environmental assessment to be carried out, with a planning consultant “not reassured” that a robust assessment was carried out by the Forest Service for potential significant impacts on two Natura 2000 sites hydrologically connected to the project site.
Sweetman also argues that the Forest Service is not adequately assessing the cumulative impact of proposed forestry operations and other developments in the area in its screening process.
He has had significant success on this point in challenges to licences for forestry roads - an important cog in forestry operations as they improve access for harvesting, as well as providing space for stacking timber.
In one recent case, the FAC cancelled a licence for a road in Co Leitrim after taking into account the potential for cumulative effects on the environment by allowing another forest road in an already heavily forested area.
Sweetman told Noteworthy that the idea that he is making baseless claims and is to blame for any shortage of licences is “pure hyperbolic”. He pointed to hundreds of applications that Coillte put in for felling licences on one day in early August to highlight that he is only targeting a small fraction of cases.
An analysis of data released by the Forest Service to Noteworthy on Coillte felling and thinning applications since 2010 indicates that it nearly always puts in hundreds of applications at a time, with most of them receiving positive decisions.
Coillte said that it processes and prepares a large number of felling and reforestation licences “in order to drive efficiencies”.
“Coillte’s licence application process is done in such a way to allow the Regulator [Forest Service] have an effective overview of any potential cumulative impacts that could arise. The Regulator may not be able to do so if the applications were all issued far apart.”
DAFM assistant secretary general Hayes has also outlined concern that forestry companies are not attending some FAC hearings in an undated spring 2020 letter to the trade body Forest Industries Ireland (FII).
He said that Departmental records showed that afforestation licences linked to ten positive FAC decisions were not yet used at the time. “In the interests of fairness to all this should be notified to the FAC in order for genuine appeals to be prioritised,” he said.
Hayes has also pointed to the general need to improve planting rates once afforestation licences are granted. In a letter to the IFA in February, he said that “existing conversion rates are completely unsustainable” with 4,000 hectares of approvals in the previous 18 months unplanted.
The Hedge Layer
Neil Foulkes, a seasoned hedge layer, has taken his 200-plus appeals for similar reasons as Sweetman. He told Noteworthy that, in his opinion, the environmental screening process is “completely flawed”, including failure to properly assess indirect and cumulative impacts.
Foulkes is based in Co Leitrim and is, in part, responsible for the county receiving the highest number of appeals at 126, followed by neighbouring Cavan with 58. The majority of his appeals are yet to be decided.
Much like Sweetman, he said that he only takes an appeal when there are “very distinct grounds for a case”. He has particular concern with the decision to screen out the need for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in licence applications.
This is important, he said, as, unlike Appropriate Assessment that is only for the Natura 2000 sites, EIA covers any location across the country and also looks at “social issues as well as environmental issues [such as] the volume of traffic or pollution impacting on the general population”.
In his appeals, he has also outlined his concern that the cumulative impact of forestry sites is not being taken into account in EIA screenings, pointing to 30,000ha planted in Leitrim without a single case being referred for full EIA to be carried out.
There is a 50ha threshold for a mandatory EIA assessment even though the average size of afforestation applications nationally in 2019 was 8ha.
Proposed plantation sites under 50ha must also be assessed where it is found that there may be a significant environmental impact from the project.
Foulkes stressed that assessments should be carried out for applications for smaller plantations as impacts can be felt at far lower than the 50ha threshold.
“Environmental protection from the Forest Service’s point of view is merely a paperwork exercise, it is not a genuine embracing of the legislation to make sure that the environment is protected,” Foulkes claimed.
Afforestation licence data released to Noteworthy under AIE reveals that no EIAs were carried out for afforestation licences in the county since 2010. DAFM confirmed to Noteworthy that it also has no record of an EIA for forestry in Leitrim prior to 2010.
The Department said that a cumulative assessment forms part of its screening process in line with the relevant legislation and that it “is satisfied that it is carrying out its [EIA screening] processes correctly”.
“In many cases where there is an environmental issue it can be resolved by other means e.g. Archaeology report, landscape report, Appropriate Assessment, ecology report, leading to additional specific conditions, reduced area or full refusal, without the requirement for an EIA,” it added.
The community group
This is also a key concern of Save Leitrim, according to one of the founding members, farmer and county councillor Justin Warnock, with concerns going back decades.
“There’s 155,000ha of land [in the county] and there’s over 30,000ha planted. We’ve never had an environmental impact assessment. Nobody knows the damage that has been done as a result of this,’ said Warnock.
In April this year, Save Leitim members had success in one case with an 8ha afforestation licence in an area of Lugmeeltan with over 60% forest cover overturned by the FAC.
In its decision letter, it noted that, although there is “significant amounts of existing forest in the townland and vicinity”, the Forest Service “did not provide details of other plans or projects that were considered in their assessment”.
This issue was highlighted in two other successful cases taken by the group in 2020 for afforestation licences within 0.5km of Boleybrack Mountain SAC in Dergvone and another in Drumarigna.
Through the Dergvone appeal, it was revealed that Leitrim County Council told the Forest Service that new afforestation in the already heavily forested area is “strongly discouraged”. The FAC found that the screening made no reference to projects considered for potential in-combination impacts.
The Drumarigna appeal also concerned plans to plant in an already heavily forested area. The FAC concluded that the screening was not satisfactorily carried out, with “no assessment of relevant Natura 2000 sites or any assessment of in-combination effects with other plans and projects”.
Warnock told Noteworthy that the group will continue to take appeals to halt what it sees as inappropriate planting, with a High Court case recently lodged against the granting of a licence for a 13ha site in Dromahair.
As well as environmental concerns, Warnock said that social and cultural impacts of forestry is a major concern for people in the county.
“People who live next to a forest, there’s certain times of the day when the sun never even shines on the house, and it becomes lonely and you become isolated and it has a mental effect as well,” he said.
Mary McVeigh, who is not affiliated with the group, attests to this. She told Noteworthy that the conifer plantations beside her home “blocks out the sun in the morning and early afternoon”.
In the wintertime, she says, there is “frost for the best part of the day”, a sea change from the light that would hit the house when she moved there decades ago and the garden would be full of bird song and the grass turned for hay.
Now, she said, the grass is mossy with briars. “It totally changes the scenery. Where we could look out and see so much road frontage or hills, all you can see now is bushes, bushes and more bushes.”
Warnock is also fearful about the impact of forestry on community connection in the already widely dispersed rural county. “We won’t have communities, we won’t have people left in the townlands,” he said, although he added that concern over planting has brought together a diverse group of individuals under Save Leitrim.
“You would never get us all at the one football match, at the one church, you would never get us all in one room, because we’re totally different. The one thing we have is this passion to stop the coniferisation of County Leitrim,” he said.
Living next door to forestry
This includes musicians Natalia Beylis and Willie Stewart who said that they are hemmed in on three sides by plantations, with scheduled felling work ongoing behind their home when Noteworthy interviewed them earlier this month.
The forestry beside their home is owned by Irish Forestry Unit Trust (IForUT), a company that invests in forestry on behalf of Irish institutional pension and charity funds.
Stewart told Noteworthy that the conifers on one side of their property went “right up against our borders” and in September 2018 he emailed IForUT to remove trees that he said were impeding onto their land and also causing issues with power lines.
In October, the company informed Stewart and Beylis that felling would commence in a few weeks, however, once operations commenced in mid-December 2018, Stewart said the couple were still surprised as they were woken up very early in the morning by the works. It was a “panic-inducing” experience, according to Stewart.
“There’s lights coming in our bedroom window. There’s the sound of the beep reversing on those machines. It was like just waking up in the middle of the M50 but there was a crash,” he said.
The couple contacted IForUT about the operations and the contractors were informed not to start before 8am for the rest of the felling works. In a statement, IForUT said that it “takes care to consult with directly affected stakeholders before operations commence and we actively engage with them on any concerns they may have”.
“There are some legacy issues with forests that were planted before guidelines existed, in particular in regards to trees close to homes,” it said. “Over time, these issues will be resolved as the forests are harvested and enter the next cycle where we can implement setbacks and better planning.”
The company has now implemented setbacks from Stewart and Beylis’ property at the replanting stage following clearfell.
Beylis said that the couple’s experience of living so close to several forestry plots and seeing clearfelling firsthand has meant that they have learned a lot about the difference between a plantation and a forest or woodland.
“Forests are places that are long-term, that clean the air, that sequester carbon permanently… Forestry is what you see behind [our house] that gets planted and taken away every 30 years.”
Lack of transparency
Fintan Kelly, a Birdwatch Ireland policy officer specialising in forestry policy, is also concerned about the current system for notifying the public of licence applications that he said lacks transparency and increases the likelihood that a decision will be appealed.
“The information [on the Department’s website] is that there’s an active licence application within a particular timeline, within a particular county and covers a particular amount of area,” he said. “How can you possibly be informed about what the potential impacts are on the environment?”
The Department recently recognised in a briefing for a Government memo in July 2020 released to Noteworthy that “very basic information on an application is provided in the published lists”. The document adds that the need for citizens to make requests for supporting documents also “creates an administrative burden” for the Department.
According to Neil Foulkes, you need to constantly check the website for applications and then send an email requesting supporting documents. While records for afforestation and road applications are usually received within a day, Foulkes said that this is often not the case with felling applications.
When he spoke to Noteworthy in September, he said that he was still waiting for documents 14 days into a 28-day period for appealing a felling licence. On 15 September, Noteworthy requested records on six licences for which Foulkes had also requested documents, two each for afforestation, felling and roads.
While records for the afforestation and roads applications were received the same day, records related to the felling applications were only released on 24 September.
The Department told Noteworthy that it has experienced a “large increase in information requests over the last year” and that it “strives to answer queries as quickly as possible”.
It is currently developing an online Forestry Licence Viewer similar to the planning system that will provide details of site location, townland and county, size and the site boundaries, as well as give access to supporting documents such as maps and environmental assessments.
Room for improvement
Even the information received by statutory consultees in the forestry licensing process such as An Taisce is often poor, according to ecologist Elaine McGoff who examines hundreds of licence applications for the environmental group.
“The quality of the maps can be really bad resolution [and] we’re often sent documentation and it’s missing the essential parts like a bio-area map and table to show how they’re calculating areas set aside for biodiversity,” she said.
“The decision letter will almost always just say something like all forestry conditions will apply. It’s literally two or three bullet points saying standard forestry conditions will apply so you have no idea if what we said has been taken on board.”
The Department of Tourism, Gaeltacht, Culture, Media and Sport – under which the National Parks and Wildlife Service sat until recently – told Noteworthy that “on occasion referrals to NPWS could benefit from additional information and detail of the proposal and in such circumstances responding in a precise and detailed way can be challenging”.
“NPWS have however met with the Forestry Service in the past and there has been agreement of the need for a review of the referral process,” it added.
In a statement, DAFM said that it is “continually seeking and improving the quality of applications for forestry licences, and in the quantity of information provided”.
Recent examples, it said, include circulars issued to foresters and other forestry stakeholders in 2019 on biodiversity mapping standards and the need for detailed mapping with harvest plans. In 2020, it also issued circulars with templates for AA pre-screening reports and guidance on completing a Natura Impact Statement (NIS).
It said that “DAFM and NPWS meet regularly on various issues, and refinements to the referral process can be considered at such forums”.
Lack of ecologists another concern
The lack of trained ecologists within the Forest Service – it only had one ecologist directly employed between 2010 and 2019 – is another reason why the current licensing system is “not fit for purpose” and why there are delays with licences, according to Birdwatch’s Fintan Kelly.
This issue was raised in the 2007 Bioforest report that stated: “The employment of an ecologist by the Forest Service was a welcome development, although more than one ecologist is needed.”
A reply to a recent AIE request from An Taisce seen by Noteworthy gives an insight into the workload of the ecologist, with 206 afforestation licence applications on their worklist in mid-December 2019.
A lack of expertise, Kelly said, leaves the Forest Service open to “making poor licensing decisions that may be in breach of the law” and risks for the sector “underpinned 100% by Irish taxpayers money and contingent on cross compliance at an EU level”.
In 2019, just under €90 million was spent by the State on forest activities including afforestation, maintenance grants, annual premium payments and grants for forest road infrastructure
The Department of Agriculture said that extra staff are being appointed including 13 additional full-time ecologists, as well as forestry inspectors and new administrative staff.
The forestry industry had warned of these problems as far back as December 2018 when Mark MacAuley of Forest Industries Ireland (FII) told DAFM that a “historical lack of a co-ordinated approach to addressing approvals” was leading to lower planting rates.
FII, whose members include some of the largest forestry players in the country, recommended bringing in more inspectors and ecologists to address the “ecological bottleneck”.
The industry has not been satisfied with the speed of change, with MacAuley expressing concern to the then-Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed in May 2020 that there is “little indication that the Department shares the sense of urgency of the industry”.
Speaking to Noteworthy, MacAuley said that it “was clear very quickly that it was going to take quite a lot of time” for DAFM to develop the new process for environmental assessments and that it was “never willing to give us any commitment in terms of dates, timelines, or deadlines”.
He said that the sector received “vague reassurances” that licences would be processed in a timely manner but that very quickly there was a “downward spiral” and the volume of licences went down.
“As it transpired, it basically took them a year to get the system up and running and that’s where the big, big, big backlog came from,” he said.
Dermot Houlihan of the Association of Irish Forestry Consultants (AIFC) also told Noteworthy that the Forest Service was warned of the coming issues. “Now it’s come to the stage of ‘Oh, well, it’s this Sweetman guy who stopped it’ – nah, it’s not, not at all.”
“It’s not the appeals process that is the problem. It’s how the thing is administered is the problem. The appeals process is only just the most recent chapter.”
He said that the backlog was now “stopping everything”, including thinning and broadleaf licence applications. One client, a farmer waiting over two years for a licence to plant 30ha of broadleaves was recently told that he now needs to carry out a Natura Impact Statement (NIS) to speed up the licence process, Houlihan said.
Voting with their feet
If a project is screened-in for AA, the Department may request the submission of a Natura Impact Statement (NIS) or prepare an in-house Appropriate Assessment Report, in which case, Houlihan said, “you’re going to be waiting an awfully long time for your project to be licenced”.
Producing an NIS, he said, however, is very costly, especially for farmers who want to plant on their land. “If you’re selling a clearfell, then the NIS cost can be absorbed into the revenue. With afforestation and thinning, this is a real problem because there’s no significant revenues there. So you have a complete breakdown in the system.”
The problem was also raised by the IFA’s farm forestry executive Geraldine O’Sullivan to DAFM assistant secretary general Hayes in an email in February 2020 released to Noteworthy.
“This is hugely damaging to the sector and will result in farmers abandoning the management or being forced/inclined to sell their forest asset,” she said. “If there is a continued requirement on farmers to undertake a NIS to get a licence, the future of farm forestry is very questionable.”
This issue was recognised by the Forest Service in a recent presentation on environmental assessments, outlining “inherent difficulties” with the NIS model including delays, cost, applicants unfamiliarity with the process and variability in quality of statements received.
Due to these ongoing delays and administrative issues, Houlihan, who has planted since he was a student, told Noteworthy that he has not planted trees now for over two years and that other contractors are leaving the sector.
“People are voting with their feet and looking for other jobs,” he said, adding that “forestry is now toxic for landowners”.
The Department of Agriculture told Noteworthy that it “acknowledges the frustration in the sector” and that ecologists, administrative staff and forestry inspectors are being recruited as part of a project plan to deal with the backlog.
“Legislative changes have been introduced to create further efficiencies,” it added.
New appeals legislation
Earlier this month, the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020 was signed into law and will see fees introduced for forestry applications, submissions and appeals. It allows the FAC to determine appeals without an oral hearing and to sit in divisions of itself.
It also provides the Minister with responsibility for forestry, currently the Green Party’s Pippa Hackett, with the power to make regulations on specific procedures in relation to appointments to the FAC and other FAC matters.
Neil Foulkes told Noteworthy that he is concerned that the introduction of fees is in contravention of international conventions and EU law that public participation in environmental matters should not be prohibitively expensive.
“What happens if you live on a route with all the haulage traffic, you could be impacted by 20, 30, 40, 50 licences every year… you would have to pay a fee each time to appeal if you didn’t think that your rights were being considered in the process,” he said.
Despite the addition of fees, Justin Warnock said that Save Leitrim will continue to battle on, so long as what it sees as inappropriate licences continue to be issued in the county.
“It’s our county, at the end of the day, it’s our heritage, our culture and a future for our youngsters. We need a future… It’s a David and Goliath battle, but we’ll get there.”
*Names have been changed due to requested anonymity
This investigation was carried out by Niall Sargent of Noteworthy. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers.
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