Forest Service has confirmed that applications covering c.380ha of land have been received for the 2017 Forest Expansion Scheme.
Back in January of this year, a similar level of interest was expressed by farmers and landowners with regard to the 2016 version of what is now the front line measure to encourage the development of the private forestry sector in Northern Ireland. But, as it turned out, only half of the area submitted for consideration was actually planted out.
By far the biggest stumbling block, when it comes to the actual implementation of the Forest Expansion Scheme, is the necessity for applicants to have paid all outstanding costs prior to the payment of grant by Forest Service. Surely this requirement can be looked at again.
I noted that Farm Minister Michelle McIlveen has introduced a stipulation to the effect that farmers applying for the soon to be introduced farm capital grant schemes will require a letter of endorsement from their banks, confirming that full payment of the items purchased under the measure will be paid for in full. This will then open the door for grant aid to be paid by DAERA. So I see no reason why a similar approach cannot be taken, where the Forest Expansion Scheme is concerned. After all, successful applicants will receive establishment grants, covering 100% of all relevant costs.
As a means of pump priming the new support measure, Forest Service should undertake to have all applications reviewed and plantings approvals issued before Christmas. And, at the very least, a commitment should be given to review the stipulation requiring the upfront payment of all establishment costs on the part of applicants within the same time frame.
The new measure was introduced with funding to facilitate the establishment of c.1,800ha of new woodland up to 2021.
The reality is that an annual planting rate of only 180ha means that Forest Service will significantly undershoot this target. And this will be bad news, indeed, for the private forestry sector here in Northern Ireland.
The new scheme also includes a provision for the payment of annual premia for a period of 10 years post planting. But we now know that the current basic payments are only guaranteed up to 2020. Given these circumstances, I think it is important for the farm minister to clarify the future funding arrangements that will be put in place for forestry, once Brexit becomes a reality.
The continuing delay in the introduction of the environmental schemes encompassed by the new rural development programme is disappointing. This includes the new Countryside Management Scheme, which will provide for new tree planting on application areas of land which are less than 5ha in size. But, of even more concern, is the prospect of the new measure being restricted to active farmers only. If this is the case, then it will rule out significant numbers of very small landowners who would, otherwise, be keen to avail of the grants on-offer.