Forests for our Future
My Department and I are committed to the protection and enhancement of Northern Ireland’s environment.
Our woodlands are a hugely valuable natural resource, benefiting us all by contributing to a healthy, quality environment, helping to capture carbon from the atmosphere as they grow and improve our landscape and biodiversity.
Each year in Northern Ireland our forests are visited around nine million times and contribute greatly to positive physical and mental health, helping people to connect with their environment and benefiting individuals, community and society as a whole.
Our forests also play another very important role – that of helping to mitigate climate change. Our climate change and environmental challenges are of a global and national scale and Northern Ireland is not immune to the severity of their impacts. Our forests are a vital tool in helping to alleviate the adverse effects of our changing climate. They do this by removing carbon from the atmosphere and improving the landscape and biodiversity - when a tree breathes, it inhales carbon dioxide and exhales oxygen.
The Climate Change Committee has called tree planting a “simple, low-cost option” to remove carbon from the atmosphere, which is why one of the first programmes I announced when I became Minister was the Forests for Our Future Programme, which sets out an ambitious target to plant 18 million trees equating to 9,000 ha of new woodland by 2030.
Forests for our Future is a foundation programme of the Executive’s multi-decade Green Growth Strategy, which DAERA is leading on. The Green Growth Strategy and associated Climate Action Plan will be the Executive’s multi-decade strategy to tackle climate change. It will map out the actions we must take to meet sector-specific greenhouse gas emission targets as part of our equitable contribution towards meeting the UK Net-Zero by 2050 target. The Green Growth approach will deliver a cleaner environment, more efficient use of our resources within a circular economy and green jobs.
I am pleased to say that so far, Forests for Our Future has delivered planting of 670,000 trees to create 335 hectares of new sustainable woodland, which includes 254 hectares comprising of native tree species. Support for Forests for Our Future includes a revised Forest Expansion Scheme, for new woodlands of three hectares and larger and a new online Small Woodlands Grant Scheme. This scheme, with a fund of £4million, was introduced to support farmers and other landowners in planting native trees in woodlands of 0.2 hectares and larger to complement their existing holdings and land management. Both schemes will support landowners to increase the rate of afforestation contributing to the ambitious target set by the Forests for Our Future programme and in the coming year, we propose to plant 600 hectares of new woodland through our various programmes.
My Department has established an Afforestation Forum, to identify sites on suitable council and public land and develop plans for woodland creation on suitable publically owned land. To date the forum has identified over 330 hectares of potential land for planting, across 126 sites with many of the sites being located close to where people live.
Planting more trees in this way will not only benefit communities, individuals and society as a whole by contributing to a healthy, quality environment, it will make a significant contribution to Northern Ireland’s sustainable economic growth. The forestry sector generates around £60 million per annum from timber production activity, sustaining approximately 1,000 rural jobs.
Our existing forests generate a further £60-£80 million in the local economy from forest-based recreation and tourism. My Department’s strategy is to further develop and improve this potential of our forests. This is achieved by working closely with partners such as local authorities and other organisations such as National Trust, ensuring that investments in forests deliver against regional recreation and tourism priorities.
In keeping with my Department’s vision of “Sustainability at the heart of a living, working, active landscape valued by everyone”, I am determined to do all I can to protect our most important natural asset – our environment. What we do and how we do it impacts on the lives and needs of our current and future generations. Long term planning is essential to influence and deliver the necessary protection and enhancement of our natural wealth and to ensure its long term future for those generations who will inherit it from us. I will continue to play a lead role in developing forests and creating a sustainable environment. As well as delivering significant carbon capture benefits, the new woodlands will provide further potential for tourism development, income from timber production, enhancement of the local biodiversity and landscape and help mitigate flood risk.
As we progress a Green Growth approach for Northern Ireland, with commitment, effort and working with others, we will significantly increase forest cover over the next decade. I aim to achieve this through a series of actions that will make a difference; improving our health and well-being, creating opportunities to develop our economy, recreation spaces and tourism industry and playing our part in Government’s commitment to achieve net zero carbon by 2050.