Tree planting across province remains low

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Forest Service is currently assessing the final applications for new woodland creation grants received under the Forestry Expansion Scheme. Some approvals have already been received by applicants.

The remainder of the applications assessment should be completed over the coming weeks, which will allow successful land owners to get on with ground preparation work in the run up-to Christmas. And all of this is good.

But what’s not so good is the likelihood of half the ground applied for this time around not being planted out at the end of the day. These circumstances will come about on the back of those applications not passed by Forest Service and the fact that a number of landowners, who did receive the green light to plant, not going ahead with the ventures for commercial reasons.

The first phase of the new scheme last year resulted in over 180 hectares of new woodland planting. But this only represented about 50% of the land area applied for by landowners and their agents.

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.

I note that, for its part, DAERA has taken steps to ensure that as high a percentage as possible of the applications received under Tier 1 of the new Farm Business Improvement Scheme (Capital Expenditure) are acted upon. This entails the applicant farmer submitting a letter from his/her bank confirming that the items to be purchased can – and will be – paid for.

So why can’t Forest Service take a similar approach, where the Forestry Expansion Scheme is concerned.

Meanwhile, the Ash Dieback (Chalara) situation continues to deteriorate. Surveyors have found c80-100 new infected sites over the recent last survey period and unfortunately there is now evidence that the disease is starting to impact on mature trees.

I am hearing rumours to the effect that Forest Service may soon stop arranging and paying for the removal of infected trees. This issue is to be discussed along with a policy review, hopefully sooner rather than later. Such a decision, if it were to materialise, would be extremely unfortunate and could be extremely penalising on affected landowners.

I am also concerned that Forest Service is only communicating with landowners – and not their agents – where Ash Dieback is confirmed. Again, this is another unfortunate set of circumstances, which must be addressed. It is my clear recollection that former farm minister Michelle O’Neill instructed Forest Service to include both landowners and agents in correspondence relating to all aspects of Chalara control at a press conference in Stormont several years ago. All agents wish to assist where possible.

Currently, ash is excluded from all new planting projects. This is a fundamentally flawed approach, as it is only by planting young ash now that we can hope to identify those plants that are naturally resistant to Chalara.