Concern is growing that peatland restoration projects could lead to a significant reduction in the land dedicated to forestry development in Northern Ireland.

Premier Woodlands managing director John Hetherington told Agriland: “The impact of Forest Service’s current commitment to restore priority habitat within its own estate will greatly diminish the critical mass of Northern Ireland’s existing woodland base.

“The existing tree planting targets are challenging enough. However, if Forest Service commits to these rewetting projects, then the average tree planting targets will have to increase commensurately, possibly by as much as 100% from now to 2050.

“This is why we need to see the setting of clear woodland development targets over the coming months and a clear commitment on the part of all stakeholder groups to ensure that these are met in full,” he added.

Forestry in NI

Hetherington attended a recent stakeholder group meeting, involving a wide range of organisations involved in woodland development across Northern Ireland.

The event provided those involved with an opportunity to look at future developments in the context of climate change, the evolution of farm support policies and the need to generate higher levels of biodiversity.

“It has been agreed that a follow-up meeting should take place in about six months; time,” Hetherington said.

“This is a welcome development in its own right. We are way beyond the stage of simply talking about what could be done; the time for action is now.

“Everybody agrees that the need to dramatically increase the level of woodland creation achieved in Northern Ireland is crucially important.

“All the targets already in place confirm this reality.”

Herington said that the 10-year Forest of the Future initiative, launched by former agriculture minister Edwin Poots in 2020, specified a new woodland creation target of 9,000ha of land, between 2020 and 2030.

“This works out an annual tree planting rate of 900ha; we are nowhere near this level of planting at the present time,” he stated.

“Meanwhile, the overarching woodland and forestry creation target, officially agreed for Northern Ireland, seeks to increase tree cover levels to 12% by 2050.

“The current figure stands at just 8.7%. This represents the lowest level of woodland cover found in many other parts of the UK and across most of Europe.”

But it’s not all bad news as the Premier Woodlands representative confirmed that Northern Ireland’s Small Woodland Grant Scheme (SWGS) has the potential to work well.

“But many of the projects agreed this year may not well happen. This is a direct result of the fact that the young trees required cannot be physically sourced,” he explained.

“Nurseries in Great Britain and the Republic [of Ireland] are flat out trying to keep up with the demand for young trees in their respective regions at the present time.

“Given these circumstances, the need for a bespoke tree nursery to be established in Northern Ireland is obvious,” he said.

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Richard Halleron