A fast-developing skills shortage within the Northern Ireland forestry sector has been identified by a leading industry representative.

According to Premier Woodlands director, John Hetherington, there is a currently a large shortfall in the number of suitably qualified people with the skills needed to establish management, and maintain existing and new woodland plantations.

“For those wishing to follow a career in forestry management at degree-level, it’s currently a case of looking at university options in England, Wales, Scotland or the Republic of Ireland.

“However, the scope for organisations such as the College of Agriculture Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) to provide forestry development courses for young people that complement other land use skills is immense.

“The starting point for all of this is creating the training opportunities that relate to the current need, and then marketing them in the most effective manner,” Hetherington said.

He is working on the basis that the current forestry support measures (the Forestry Expansion Scheme and the Small Woodland Grant Schemes) will be extended for another 12 months.

If this is the case, then applications for both support measures would be accepted next year, covering the 2024/25 planting season.

“This is only speculation. By its very nature, forestry is an industry that is developed around long-term planning decisions. The lifespan of all woodlands extends into the decades.

“Trying to plan ahead on the basis of conjecture does not represent a sustainable way forward for this crucially important land use sector.”

Forestry development has been identified by many groups, including the UK’s Climate Change Committee, as a critically important component to help alleviate the challenge of climate change.

Forestry schemes

According to Hetherington, it is hard to discern if this principle has been accepted by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA):

“Recent weeks have seen leading DAERA officials explaining the detail of the new agri-support measures at farmer meetings.

“However, the future role of forestry has not been discussed at these events. As things stand, we are at a cliff edge. Both the current Forest Expansion Scheme (FES) and the Small Woodland Grant Scheme (SWGS), have run longer than their intended course, largely without revision or indexation.

“We have absolutely no sense as to what measures will replace them. The possibility of rolling-over both schemes is an option, but this approach is akin to papering over cracks. We need to see the private forestry sector put on to a sustainable footing for the future. The clock is ticking.”

Meanwhile, those landowners who did submit an FES application this year are still waiting for news on which projects will get the green light.

“It is expected to be December before the applications are fully processed.

“As a result, it will be January 2024, at the earliest, before any significant planting work can take place.

“This means that half of the current planting season will have passed before any meaningful volume of trees can be put into the ground.

“Future forestry support measures must allow for the planting of trees throughout the entire autumn/winter period.”