Woodland Trust Northern Ireland is set to release a new policy paper titled “Trees and Woods: at the heart of nature recovery in Northern Ireland” in the coming weeks. The organization was recently represented at the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) annual conference in Belfast. According to Paul Armstrong of the Woodland Trust, the decline of wildlife in Northern Ireland, including woodland inhabitants, has been well-documented. The response to this decline will depend on government plans and funding decisions.
Armstrong highlights that ancient woodlands make up only 0.04% of Northern Ireland’s land area. The Woodland Trust is working closely with farmers to encourage the establishment of new woodlands. However, not all soils are suitable for tree planting, especially those with high levels of peat. In such cases, planting trees could cause more carbon to escape from the soil than the trees themselves could sequester from the atmosphere.
The Woodland Trust’s new policy document calls for a £102 million trees and woodland funding project over seven years. This includes £41.5 million in government grants, £39.5 million to support farm incomes, and a £21 million ancient woodland restoration fund. The Trust also aims to increase Northern Ireland’s tree cover to 14% by 2050, up from the current figure of just under 10%.
Meanwhile, there are concerns that a shortage of young trees for planting could hinder the future growth of the private woodland and forestry development sectors in Northern Ireland. John Hetherington, Managing Director of Premier Woodlands, explains that it is already challenging to source the required stock of young trees to meet current demand. He cites the paperwork associated with the Windsor Framework as a barrier for forest tree nurseries in Great Britain. Furthermore, the exclusion of four key species from all importations of young trees into Northern Ireland due to European Union biosecurity grounds is hampering planting operations. Hetherington believes that establishing a large-scale commercial forest tree nursery would address these challenges and meet the needs of the forestry and woodland sectors in Northern Ireland.
Looking ahead, there is uncertainty surrounding the availability of forestry and woodland support schemes in Northern Ireland. The current Forestry Expansion and Small Woodland Grant Schemes have run their course, but there has been no clarification on what will replace them. At a recent seminar hosted by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), three main courses of action were discussed to address carbon targets for the next decade: reducing cattle numbers, implementing bespoke diets for ruminant animals to reduce methane emissions, and planting an additional 3,000-4,000 hectares of trees annually across Northern Ireland. However, Hetherington emphasizes that setting targets means nothing without the necessary budgets in place. The funding of these measures will need to be resolved by a future Stormont Executive.
Hetherington concludes that over the years, numerous targets have been set to expand forest cover in Northern Ireland, but none have been met due to a lack of long-term government funding. He emphasizes the crucial role that forestry and woodland development play in helping Northern Ireland meet its climate change targets.