Where now for forestry in Northern Ireland
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However, there is now a genuine possibility that the private forestry and woodland development sectors could find themselves without any form of mainstream support beyond the end of this year.
Specifically the Forestry Expansion Scheme (FES) runs its course at the end of this year. The measure has been the main support plank for the private forestry sector since 2016.
Premier Woodlands’ managing director, John Hetherington, commented: “The final application round for FES will be opened later this year. This will take account of forestry development projects that are undertaken during the 2023/24 tree planting season. Beyond this, we are looking at a period of total uncertainty.
“A scheme to replace FES has yet to be finalised by Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.”
Hetherington continued: “We have been here before. Prior to the introduction of FES, the forestry sector was left for a planting season without access to any form of tree planting support at all.
“I would strongly advise all farmers and landowners thinking about any form of woodland development project to submit an application under the final tranche of FES.
“At the very least, this expression of interest will keep applicants in the loop, should there be a commitment on the part of Forest Service to introduce an enhanced planting grant scheme into the future.
“The 2023/24 FES application period should open this month.”
But many questions remain unanswered regarding the future of the support measures that will be made available to the forestry sector. John Hetherington is aware that Forest Service is actively gauging on this matter at the present time. He said: “It is vitally important that all relevant stakeholders are involved in this process.
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“It must not be a case of Forest Service foisting a way forward on the sector without there being proper engagement with all interest groups.
“And these proposals must start with a discussion on the most pressing question of all: can Forest Service agree a way forward, in any sense, if a functioning Stormont Executive is not in place?
“In other words, do we need a farm minister to sign off on whatever future support measures for forestry are put forward?
Hetherington continued: “There is also the issue of the real possibility of an under spend, relating to the current FES programme budget approved back in 2015/16. It is vitally important that these funds are retained to further develop forestry in Northern Ireland, rather than handing them back to Brussels.”
The Premier Woodlands’ representative is open minded regarding the future format of the support grant that is made available to the private forestry sector.
“First and foremost, we want schemes that directly address the fact that tree cover levels in Northern Ireland are amongst the lowest in Europe,” he said.
“The previous DAERA minister agreed a target of an additional 9000 hectares of new tree planting by 2030.
“This is around 900 hectares per year. This isn’t occurring, yet we enjoy the perfect climate, where the growing of trees is concerned.”
John concluded: “We also need schemes that actually encourage farmer anticipation: not discourage it.
“The current requirement to have all FES applicants pay their contractors in full prior to grant aid being made available is a case in point.
“Very few small landowners have the £10,000 or £20,000 required in bank accounts to make this happen.
“Moreover, other farm investment schemes, operated by the Department of Agriculture, were specifically amended to remove such a stipulation.”