Re-opening Expansion Scheme is welcome

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I welcome this week’s decision by farm minister Michelle McIlveen to re-open the Forest Expansion Scheme.

The closing date for applications is September 30th. This means that potential applicants have around ten weeks to get the all the information they need fully collated and submitted according to the requirements laid out for the scheme. All of this compares very favourably with the relatively small number of days provided for in the 2015/16 application period.

I am intrigued by the c.190ha actually planted from the initial running of this new scheme. Up to this point, I had been led to believe that c.250ha of land had been approved for planting, from an initial c.360ha of applications. This means that almost 50% of the projects submitted for planting, and subsequently green-lighted by Forest Service, were not brought through to completion: so the question is why?

If this is the case, then I think there is an onus on Forest Service to find out why such a high proportion of the proposed planting projects fell by the way side. The reality is that the area planted out in trees across Northern Ireland remains precariously low. It is certainly well below the level required to get us anywhere near the tree cover target established for Northern Ireland by former farm minister Michelle O’Neill.

My own view is that the current requirement to have all costs paid in full before grant aid is paid out represents one step too far for quite a number of landowners interested in new woodland creation. My other concern relates to the potential underspend that will accrue, should significant numbers of planting projects authorised under the Forest Expansion scheme fail to materialise.

Forestry is a good news story for farmers in Northern Ireland. The costs of new planting are completely covered under the new support arrangements; annual payments are available for up to 10 years and plantations above 3 ha in size automatically ensure owners’ official recognition as ‘active farmers’ under the new Pillar 1 CAP support measures, allowing continued receipt of entitlement payments for as long as they last.

But the Forestry Expansion Scheme is only one of the measures put in place to encourage new tree planting within the private sector. The new Woodland Option, which comes under the Countryside Management Scheme, will provide support for new native broadleaf planting in areas that are less than 5 ha in size. DAERA gave an initial commitment that the measure would be rolled out for the first time during the summer of 2016. This timetable has now been revised until late autumn/early winter. Hopefully this will not be postponed again.

The jury is still out on the implications of a Brexit on the forestry sector. However, the initial indications are positive. A weaker Sterling makes forestry timber exports from the UK better value for money while, at the same time, making imports more expensive. This all underpins the increasing value of our home-grown timber products, and let’s not forget the tax free nature of commercial timber sales.