A High Court challenge aimed at overturning licences for a forestry project on a site in Co Offaly has been taken on grounds including the potential impact on the endangered Hen Harrier.
The site is in the Slieve Bloom Special Protection Area (SPA) for birds and it is claimed the licences lack measures to avoid disturbance of the Hen Harrier, for which the area has been designated under the Habitats Directives, or of the Merlin, Ireland’s smallest raptor, as required under the Birds Directive.
Other grounds include the alleged lack of strategic environmental assessment and appropriate assessment of State-owned Coillte’s national forestry planning.
The action concerns licences granted to Coillte to fell 11.71 hectares of mainly Sitka Spruce trees on a site at Sheskin, Co Offaly, within the Clonaslee forest, about 2.5kms from Cadamstown village, and to replant the cleared land entirely with Sitka Spruce trees.
Mr Justice Charles Meenan was told the tree felling operation has been carried out, but the applicants have no precise date for the site replanting scheme.
He granted leave this week to James Devlin SC, for environmentalist Peter Sweetman, of Rossport South, Ballina, Co Mayo, and environmental consultant Neil Foulkes, of Miskaun, Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, to bring judicial review proceedings aimed at having the licences quashed.
The proceedings are against the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, who granted the licences in May 2020, and the Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC), which confirmed the Minister’s decision last January. Coillte Teo is a notice party.
The licences, issued under the Forestry Act 2014, gave Coillte until December 31st 2020 to fell the 11.71 hectares of existing Sitka Spruce and some broadleaf trees and plant the cleared land with Sitka Spruce trees within two years of the end of the harvesting operation.
In seeking leave, Mr Devlin said the site is located in a SPA for birds, but it appeared the respondents only considered historic records relating to Hen Harrier nests in the area and did not contact the National Parks and Wildlife Service about the current position. It appeared the position was taken, if the NPWS raised an issue, the respondents would do something about it which is not the correct approach, he said.
Other grounds of challenge allege failures in the screening and assessment process and the absence of a Natura Impact Statement, he outlined.
Because the FAC is appointed by and reports to the Minister, the applicants also claim they have not had an independent review of the merits of the licence decisions as required under EU law.
No Strategic Environmental Assessment
In an affidavit, Mr Foulkes said Mr Sweetman previously took proceedings to protect the Hen Harrier in the SPA and both applicants had participated in the appeals process concerning the licences.
Coillte manages about 331 state owned forests in Ireland, divided into six Business Area Units. (BAUs), he said. A strategic plan has been published for each BAU, but it seems no Strategic Environmental Assessment has ever been conducted on Coillte’s national forestry planning and no Appropriate Assessment has been made at the strategic planning level as per the Habitats Directive, he said.
The impacts on the environment of this project, in combination with other plans and projects in the same forest or nearby forests managed by Coillte and other forestry operators “have not been assessed properly at all”, he said.
A forestry inspector failed to give reasons for various findings, including the project area does not contain habitats or species listed as qualifying interests of the Special Area of Conservation in the absence of any site specific wildlife studies and when there is said to be a direct pathway to the SAC via streams or rivers, none of which have been investigated for the presence of otters, he said.