All the support schemes available to forestry in Northern Ireland have been ended. That’s according to John Hetherington, the managing director of Premier Woodlands.

The measures include the: Forestry Expansion Scheme (FES); the Small Woodland Grant Scheme (SWGS); and the Woodland Improvement Grant (replanting).

“The private forestry sector is now left in limbo, not knowing what the future holds,” Hetherington told Agriland.

“We were aware of the uncertainty that had been associated with the future of the FES and the SWGS measures.

“But the very recent decision to terminate the replanting grant is probably the biggest blow of all, certainly in the short-term.”

Northern Ireland has the lowest levels of forest and woodland cover in Europe. The figure stands at around 8% of the available land area.

Up to this point, replanting grants had been used to ensure that ground, previously clear felled of trees, would again be used for the creation of new forestry and woodland development projects.

Loss of tree cover

John Hetherington said that he is now very concerned that Northern Ireland’s tree cover figure could start to decline.

“This will be a direct result of land not being planted out in trees again plus the new policy of Forest Service to restore Forest-to-Bog parts of its own estate, previously planted out in trees,” he continued.

“This is one of Northern Ireland’s envisaged responses to climate change. However, the end result will be a reduction in tree cover levels.”

Hetherington is quick to endorse the principle that all tree-planting initiatives – broadleaf and conifer related – will deliver a significant reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.

Second rotation spruce growing in Co. Fermanagh. Image - Richard Halleron
Second rotation spruce growing in Co. Fermanagh

There had been speculation of late that commercial conifer planting, particularly on peaty spoils, will not deliver carbon footprint reductions across the areas on which they are established.

“This is not the case,” Hetherington stressed.

“The latest GB Forest Research report clearly shows that the likes of spruce plantations with a Yield Class of 8 or above will deliver significant atmospheric carbon dioxide reductions.

“The reality is that most spruce woodlands established in Ireland can deliver yields that are at least twice this production threshold.

“And the continuing availability of improved plant genetics will help to boost these performance levels still further. So, yes, there is a continuing need for conifer planting to be taking place at the very heart of Ireland’s forestry sector.”

Brexit and forestry

The years since Brexit have seen Northern Ireland’s private forestry sector surviving on an almost hand-to-mouth basis, according to the forestry company director said.

“There has been no consistency in the way that Forest Service, which is an agency within the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs [DAERA], has managed FES and the SWGS,” he continued.

“Private forestry sector stakeholders had expected these schemes to be implemented in a way that provided those involved in actual tree planting with a degree of certainty from one year to the next.

“In practical terms this would have meant opening the schemes at the beginning of the summer period and closing applications at the end of August.

“This would then have allowed Forest Service to inspect the proposed planting locations in the autumn period with approvals issued before Christmas which would then have allowed planting to take place in the early New Year,” he added.

But according to Hetherington, this timetable was not adhered to last season, and claimed that there was poor communication on the part of the Forest Service.

“The 2023/2024 planting season is a case in point. Approvals for FES and SWGS were not issued until late March and early April of this year,” he stated.

“By this stage the planting season was almost over. Yes, Forest Service did agree to allow FES planting to be deferred, but not SWGS. So few 2023/2024 FES and very few SWGS approved sites were planted.

“Some FES were deferred to the end of December this year, and no deferment of SWGS was allowed, meaning SWGS applicants will have to begin the process of applying all over again.

“But this is not the point. The complexities created by Brexit and the current Windsor Agreement mean that tree nurseries in Great Britain, which have the genetics that we want, need confirmed orders by the end of September,” he added.

The forestry expert explained that if orders are left until later in the winter or early spring, when planting approvals come through, in most cases,  the young trees needed will not be available.

“This is particularly the case where broadleaves are concerned. We then end up sourcing young trees from mainland Europe, which are not genetically suited to an Irish climate,” he said.

“But the real impact of the delays in planting authorisations was felt within SWGS. Many farmers and landowners with applications submitted got totally frustrated with all the hold ups.

“At the end of the day, they walked away from the scheme and it’s very doubtful that they will ever come on board again, assuming SWGS reopens or a new small woodland creation measure is agreed at some stage in the future.”

Creating new forestry

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s agriculture minister, Andrew Muir has confirmed his commitment to enhanced tree planting measures over the coming years.

Oak remains a key species within all broadleaf plantations. John Hetherington, Premier Woodlands

Under current targets, DAERA is to coordinate the planting of an additional 18 million trees by 2030.

However, the Stormont Executive had previously agreed back in 2011, to target a doubling of Northern Ireland’s forest cover by 2050.

According to John Hetherington, making this happen will require annual tree planting activity in the region of 4,000ha to 5,000ha per year.

“During the period of FES and the SWGS, total tree planting levels actually averaged 350ha to 500ha per annum,” he explained.

“So, something pretty radical will have to be agreed by the Stormont Executive now if its 2050 tree cover target is to be achieved.”

The knee-jerk reaction to this unfolding situation could well centre on the throwing of additional money at new tree planting support measures.

But this is not entirely the case according to Hetherington. “Yes we need new forestry support schemes, which must be adequately funded. But above all else, the private woodland and forestry development sectors need a degree of security for the future.

“There is talk that the FES and SWGS measures will be rolled over for another year so as to cover the 2024/2025 planting season. But this is not good enough. We need a new five-year programme that will allow farmers and landowners to plan for the future.”

According to the Premier Woodlands representative, all future forestry and woodland support measures must be inflation linked.

“That was not the case when it came to the implementation of the FES and SWGS measures,” he explained.

“Under the aegis of the previous Rural Development Plan for Northern Ireland, Forest Service had the opportunity to increase the grant rates specified for all the tree-planting schemes at the halfway point of that specific EU programme. This was not done.

“Subsequent to this, all planting costs increased dramatically in the wake of Russia invading Ukraine. As a consequence, the real cost to farmers and landowners of establishing all new woodland areas increased accordingly.”

Support from Stormont

The need for a clear and consistent message from Minister Muir and Forest Service, where future forestry and woodland policy development are concerned, is critically important according to stakeholders.

“Forest Service must also double up on its commitment to communicate more effectively with stakeholder organisations within the private forestry sector. And the same principle holds, where farmers and landowners are concerned,” Hetherington added.

“But tree planting is only the start of a process. It is also incumbent on Forest Service to introduce effective and meaningful forestry management grants. Only in this way will the full potential of new plantations be fully realised.

“Management grants were available in the past. So, I see no reason why they can’t be re-introduced as part of a commitment to breathe new life into Northern Ireland’s forestry sector,” he concluded.