Is it time to sell off publicly owned forests?

A leading forester has called on agriculture minister Michelle O’Neill to sell off those commercial conifer afforested areas, which are managed by Forest Service on behalf of the state. In so doing, she could boost the Stormont Executive’s finances by hundreds of millions of pounds.

“This is already happening in all the other of regions of the UK and Ireland, courtesy of the activities now being undertaken by the Forest Commission in GB and Coillte in Republic of Ireland respectively,” said Premier Woodlands’ managing director John Hetherington.

“It makes no sense, whatsoever, to have commercial conifer forests in the ownership of the public sector.”

He made it very clear, however, that he was not calling for the sell-off of the Forest Parks or other high environmental or amenity woodlands that are currently managed by Forest Service,

“The reality is that the total area managed by Forest Service extends to circa. 60 thousand hectares, circa.90% of which is commercial forestry,” he said.

“It is this latter proportion of the estate which should be sold to the private sector. Its sale could realise very large sums of money for the public purse.”

He points out that a significant number of investors would vie strongly to secure these commercial conifer forestry options.

“The market for freehold land parcels of this nature is very strong at this moment in time. What’s more, private sector organisations may well find additional ways of adding value to these valuable land-based resources.

“We may never get a win:win scenario of this nature falling into place again.”

Turning to the private forestry sector in Northern Ireland, he said that he has received a large number of enquiries of late regarding the feasibility of thinning conifer plantations, many of which were established some 20 to 30 years ago.

“In the vast bulk of these cases, the very straightforward answer is “no”, as there is no economic reason to thin commercial conifer woodland

“We have worked through the options and our projections clearly show that the best case scenario financially is to allow these conifer plantations to grow-on until such times as they can be clear felled. And, in many cases, this is only a few years away.

“However, the management options for broadleaf plantations will be very different depending on landowners objectives and tree species planted and can be discussed another time.”