Trust's fears for Northern Ireland tree cover

Woodlands, NI The Woodland Trust fears for the future of tree planting in NI

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Tree charity, the Woodland Trust, has accused the Northern Ireland Forestry Service of more than halving its annual planting targets.

The trust also said that election promises made by local politicians were already fading.

NI has just 6% tree cover, thought to be the lowest in Europe.

Its strategy is determined by the government-run Forestry Service. It said there would be a strategy review in the autumn.

They had set a target of doubling tree cover over the next 50 years. But so far it has not gone well.

The Woodland Trust said that the service cutting its present targets by more than half did not auger well for the future.

"I think it's a lack of ambition," said Patrick Cregg of the trust.

"I think what we really do need now is that our local politicians whom we elected instruct the government departments to actually deliver.

"The aspiration is to double woodland cover in 50 years. If we continue at the rate we are planting at the moment, it is going to take 400 years to actually achieve it."

The trust said that over the past three years the Forestry Service should have been planting 550 hectares a year.

But they have fallen short of that target so now they have set a new one of just 200 hectares for the coming year.

One of the problems is that farmers are not attracted by the grants on offer. The Forestry Service had been relying on farmers planting most of the trees on their own land.

But farming is on an "up" at the moment and trees do not make economic sense.

Wesley Aston who looks after farming policy at the Ulster Farmers Union said there were two reasons why farmers did not want to plant trees.

"The first one is the very long term nature of trees. It could be at least two generations or more, particularly for broadleaves, so it ties up agricultural land for some considerable time," he said.

"The second one is the relative profitability of agriculture at the minute".

Autumn review

Farming is going through something of a mini-boom and prices are rising steadily, even for sheep.

So why plant trees, mess up your farming plans, devalue land and lose the potential of European grants?

In a statement, the Forest Service said: "The Forestry Strategy has a long-term aim of doubling the area of woodland over the next 50 years and acknowledges the strong desire that farmers have to continuing farming.

"In the autumn, the minister will be reviewing the effectiveness of the strategy and the associated targets contained in the Business Plan."

It has been a bad year for trees in Northern Ireland. The tree disease P Ramorum has caused hundreds of hectares of Japanese larch trees to be felled.

Major gorse fires around Easter destroyed tens of thousands of trees. And, of course, many trees are felled as part of the commercial business of forestry.

In effect, the actual tree cover in Northern Ireland actually fell slightly in Northern Ireland in the past 12 months.

It is not the best way to double tree cover within 50 years.

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