Tree planting 'must triple to hit environment aims'

By Louise Cullen
BBC NI Agriculture & Environment Correspondent

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Image caption,
UK industry body Confor calls on a new executive to prioritise a forestry strategy

Tree planting in Northern Ireland needs to at least triple to meet official targets, according to a UK forestry industry body.

Confor has called on any new administration to prioritise an updated forestry strategy.

This should include incentives and targets to boost wood production and support jobs, as well as help reach net zero.

The Department for Agriculture said it was committed to planting more trees.

Confor chief executive Stuart Goodall said growing wood locally can cut emissions.

"It means that the benefits of that tree planting are kept local as well," he said.

"Planting productive forests creates additional employment and, because of the strength of the market for wood, we're seeing timber prices increasing significantly.

"That's an opportunity for the farming community to gain some value from marginal land, as well as the jobs associated downstream."

Media caption,
Confor chief executive Stuart Goodall says growing wood locally can cut emissions

It is two years since the Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots announced a target of planting 18 million trees by 2030.

That requires an average of 900 hectares a year to be planted.

But figures show just 200 to 300 hectares are currently being afforested each year.

"We have lots of spare land that isn't producing and isn't being used productively, and that could be used for forests," said Brian Murphy, chief executive of timber business Balcas.

"Each hectare is perhaps absorbing 12 to 20 tonnes of carbon every year over the life of that and you can imagine that it is a lot of CO2 taken out of the atmosphere.

"That will help Northern Ireland achieve some of its climate targets, and we have a lot to achieve."

'Need to triple what we're doing'

Confor members are calling for more commercial planting as well planting for environmental purposes, which usually includes slower-growing native species like oak and ash.

"Northern Ireland's typical land use is agriculture, forestry is a very good alternative land use but it's changing the perception and the mindset," said Ross Jamieson, of RJ Woodland Services Ltd.

"We really need to triple what we're doing at the moment.

"The ideal balance would be if we could maybe get about 75% commercial and 25% environmental, within every woodland.

"Obviously every site has differences, and we need to be site specific, but that would be an ideal balance, and that would allow us to have our environmental, our native woodland that will grow on and remain for a long time and then we can also have our commercial element which will be on a shorter rotation."

Image caption,
Ross Jamieson, of RJ Woodland Services Ltd, says NI has the capacity to grow more timber than is used here

Those commercial trees are species like conifers and sitka spruce.

"Northern Ireland has the capability of growing much more timber that can be used in this country," Mr Jamieson said.

"All you have to do is look around your own home or your farm and you'll see how much timber is used, from toilet paper to writing paper to fence posts, garden sheds.

"The ground we really want to plant in Northern Ireland is the marginal, the upland ground that's not just completely environmentally sensitive but it's not the prime agricultural ground either.

"We want to be hitting the middle ground and the financial incentive on that sort of ground is not as good as it could be."

A Department of Agriculture spokesman said: "The minister remains completely committed to increasing forest cover in Northern Ireland in line with our long-term forestry strategy, to achieve 12% cover by 2050 and any suggestion otherwise is misleading.

"The minister brought an urgent focus to realising this over the next decade, though the Forests for our Future programme in 2020, where he committed to 9,000 hectares of new woodland over the 10 year period, in line with UK Committee for Climate Change recommendations.

"Since 2020, we've tripled the amount of new woodland meeting our targets in the first two years and are on track to achieving 95% of the target this year.

"We will set future years' targets in collaboration with delivering agricultural and environmental policies to help us achieve our ambitious long-term goals, and will continue to work alongside public sector organisations in order to maximise our forest cover."