One of Northern Ireland’s leading foresters has confirmed the positive potential of tree planting as a frontline response for agriculture, as the industry seeks to dramatically reduce its carbon footprint over the coming years.

Premier Woodlands’ managing director, John Hetherington was responding to the recent publication of the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL) second report, assessing the carbon intensity of all UK livestock production systems.

Northern Ireland’s Agri-Food and Biosciences’ Institute (AFBI) was heavily involved in the research and modelling studies are referenced in the report.

John Hetherington commented: “The potential for new woodland creation to increase carbon sequestration levels on farms across Northern Ireland is immense.

“I note the affirmation by AFBI staff that increasing areas of farmland will become available for tree planting purposes over the coming years.

“This prediction is set against the backdrop of overall food output levels being maintained at current levels while the efficiency of livestock production systems is ratcheted up in line with our climate change targets,” he added.

“I welcome the formal recognition by AFBI that enhanced rates of tree planting must be attained.

“But this will only be achieved if government fundamentally reviews its trees planting policies. The sad reality is that the current forestry and woodland development schemes are not fit for purpose.”

Tree planting in NI

According to the Premier Woodlands’ representative, Northern Ireland’s tree planting rates continue to fall behind the targets built into the current Forest Expansion and Small Woodland Grant schemes.

“This is not a new phenomenon,” he stressed.

“Over the past 40 years, most of the woodland development schemes introduced here have failed to meet their planting targets.

“As a consequence, Northern Ireland is now the least afforested region of Europe. And, yet, we have a very suitable climate and soils in which to grow trees.”

Looking to the future, John Hetherington believes that two fundamental decisions must be taken by government to ensure that tree planting is placed centre stage in the drive towards land use sustainability.

“First and foremost woodland development must be recognised as a mainstream land use option and supported accordingly,” he explained.

“Unfortunately, this issue is not referenced in any meaningful way within the future policy framework document, published by agriculture minister, Edwin Poots a number of months ago. This situation must be rectified as a matter of priority.

“In tandem with measures of this nature, we also need a Forest Service that is fit for purpose. We need an agency that is properly resourced. This is not the case at the moment.”

Hetherington stated that approximately 300ha of new tree planting was carried out in Northern Ireland last year.

“This figure would need to be trebled if the carbon sequestration role for trees now envisaged by organisations like AFBI is to be fulfilled,” he continued.

“Tree planting both broadleaf and conifer, will play a critically important role in the local farming sectors’ response to climate change. But fundamental steps must be taken by policy makers to ensure this becomes a reality.

“The current forestry and woodland development schemes are not working. Fundamentally new thinking must be brought to bear, where these matters are concerned. And the clock is ticking,” he concluded.