The coming weeks will mark the launch of an important new policy paper from the Woodland Trust Northern Ireland.

It is entitled ‘Trees and Woods: at the heart of nature recovery in Northern Ireland’.

The Trust was represented at the recent Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) annual conference in Belfast.

According to the organisation’s Paul Armstrong, the decline of Northern Ireland’s wildlife, including the animal and plants that inhabit woodlands, has been well documented.

Government plans and funding decisions will determine how this decline is addressed.

“Ancient woodlands account for only 0.04% of Northern Ireland’s total land area. Staff members from the Trust are working closely with farmers to encourage the establishment of new woodlands,” Armstrong said.

Land for woodland

While trees and hedgerows are recognised for their ability to sequester large tonnages of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, Armstrong points out that not all soils are suited to the planting of trees.

“This is very much the case with soils containing high levels of peat. In these cases, the active planting of trees will cause more carbon to escape from the soils than the trees themselves could ever sequester form the atmosphere.”

The Trust’s new policy document is calling for the launch of a £102 million trees and woodland funding project over seven years.

This will comprise £41.5 million, delivered through government grants; £39.5 million to support farm incomes and a £21 million ancient woodland restoration fund.

The Trust also wants to see Northern Ireland’s total tree cover increased to 14% by 2050; the current figure is just short of 10%.

Future growth

Meanwhile, it has been claimed that a shortage of young trees for planting will prevent future growth of the private woodland and forestry development sectors in Northern Ireland.

Premier Woodlands managing director, John Hetherington, points to the difficulties that already exist in sourcing the stock of young trees required to meet current demand, not to mention underpinning future plans to grow the level of tree cover in Northern Ireland.

“In the short-term, we are finding it difficult to source the trees that we need for current projects from forest tree nurseries in Great Britain,” Hetherington said.

“Put simply, many of these forest tree nurseries view the paperwork associated with the Windsor Framework as being much too cumbersome and excessive.”

Hetherington explained that to his knowledge, very few if any, nurseries have, as yet, registered for the trusted trader scheme.

“In addition, the exclusion of four key species from all importations of young trees into Northern Ireland on European Union biosecurity grounds is already hampering our current planting operations,” Hetherington added.

“The excluded species are: Hawthorne; Crab Apple; Rowan; and Cherry. The EU ban has been introduced on the back of the trees’ potential predisposition to the disease: Fire Blight.

“But the reality is that the Fire Blight is already here in Northern Ireland.

“We can and are importing young trees from forest tree nurseries in southern Ireland, but demand often exceeds availability.”

Hetherington believes that the real solution is the establishment of a large-scale commercial forest tree nursery that will meet the bespoke needs of the forestry and woodland sectors in Northern Ireland.

“This is one of the areas that needs encouragement and Northern Ireland Forest Service to show leadership on this matter,” he continued.

“In the not too distant past, the Forest Service had its own nurseries, which were all closed.”

Looking ahead, the Premier Woodlands representative has claimed that there is total uncertainty regarding the future availability of forestry and woodland support schemes in Northern Ireland.

“The current Forestry Expansion and Small Woodland Grant Schemes have run their course. However, there has been no clarification from Forest Service as to what support measures, if any, will replace them,” he said.

“I attended a recent seminar, held to discuss the setting of Northern Ireland’s carbon targets for the next decade. The event was hosted by the DAERA [Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs] at AFBI [Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute] Hillsborough.

“Three main courses of action are on the table, where these matters are concerned – the cutting of cattle numbers, feeding ruminant animals bespoke diets that will reduce methane emission levels, and the planting of an additional 3,000-4,000ha of trees across Northern Ireland on an annual basis.”

fast-growing conifers forest in NI tree planting forestry carbon sequestration
Premier Woodlands managing director, John Hetherington

But according to John Hetherington, the setting of targets means nothing, if the required budgets to make it all work are not put in place.

“When asked about the funding of these measures, DAERA officials indicated that the matter could only be resolved by a future Stormont Executive,” he commented.

“So, essentially, everything is on hold and we have been here before.

“Over the past number of years numerous targets have been set to expand the level of forest cover in Northern Ireland. But none of these commitments have ever been met, due to a lack of sufficient long-term funding on the part of our government.

“Forestry and woodland development have key roles to play in allowing Northern Ireland to meet its climate change targets,” he added.