Tree planting for FES projects will soon be due for completion

Premier Woodlands' John Hetherington
Premier Woodlands' John Hetherington

The coming weeks will see the completion of tree planting for the projects initially authorised under the new Forestry Expansion Scheme, or FES. All completed claims must be submitted to Forest Service by the end of May. The new measure commits applicants to plant out at least 5ha of land in trees.

I am aware that a number of the projects submitted – and which subsequently received approval – did not go ahead, for whatever reason. But, given these circumstances it is imperative for Forest Service to confirm as quickly as possible how much actual grant funding was made available, courtesy of the current planting round. This will clearly show what amount of future funding can be made available from the total committed for tree planting within the private sector here in Northern Ireland.

Looking ahead, Forest Service must also clarify the FES arrangements that will be put in place for the next planting season. Landowners need as much notice of this decision as possible, in order to plan effectively ahead. This year’s arrangements were very truncated. In part, this reflected the need for Forest Service to put in place an adjudication process at very short notice. But this should not be the case in 2016/17.

The summer months should be marked by the rolling out of the new Woodland Expansion Scheme WES, measures for new planting in areas that are less than 5ha in size. A commitment to this effect was given some time ago. It is, therefore, imperative for Forest Service to follow through on this issue within the time scale previously agreed.

Forestry is a good news story for farmers in Northern Ireland. The costs of new planting are completely covered under the new support arrangements; annual payments are available for up to 10 years and plantations above 3 ha in size automatically ensure owners’ official recognition as ‘active farmers’ under the new Pillar 1 CAP support measures.

But the challenge remains of securing the commitment of Northern Ireland’s farm minister and Forest Service to significantly higher rates of tree planting. Outgoing minister, Michelle O’Neill, recognised the need to make this happen. So let’s hope her successor follows through on this principle.

I noticed that at least one of the local political parties has highlighted the mitigating role that forestry can play in areas that are prone to flooding. And this is correct.

Trees act to significantly extend the period of time that it takes water to pass through soil. In addition, trees have the ability to push back large quantities of water vapour back out into, the atmosphere courtesy of a process of evapotranspiration from their leaves.

Studies carried out in the Unites States twenty years ago confirmed that 1 hectare of poplar trees will produce a total leaf area 40 times this size. I heartily agree that tree planting in riparian zones should be included as part of Northern Ireland’s overall flood defence strategy. Again, Michelle O’Neill eluded to this point while in office. It would be appropriate for her successor to follow up on this issue in a proactive manner.

John Hetherington can be contacted on (028) 7963 4236.