The new Northern Ireland Rural Development Programme was formally approved by the European Commission at the end of August 2015 and it is hoped that support measures for forestry will be announced this autumn. The key headline is the switch to a focus on larger scale commercial planting on ground of limited agricultural productivity. Support will remain for smaller broadleaved woodlands such as those supported in the last programme and these environmentally focussed woodlands will be grant aided thought the new agri environment scheme. The private forestry sector in Northern Ireland are optimistic that the new support structure will give a much needed boost to new afforestation as the amount of woodland established over recent years has dwindled to a level of about 200ha per annum.
Key to increasing forest cover will be the availability of land. With many land uses competing for a finite resource it is the effect on a landowners annual income that will be the critical factor in determining whether forestry is an option. Primarily it is the ability to retain farm subsidies that will decide whether the aspiration to plant will be converted to an actual project on the ground. As many landowners in Northern Ireland are no longer classed as active farmers, and will lose their eligibility to claim the Basic Payment Scheme (what was the Single Farm Payment), we could lose a significant amount of potential planting ground unless we can find a way for them to regain These entitlements. It is this area that has exercised much of CONFORs efforts, with some way still to go. A significant proportion of land in Northern Ireland is not farmed by the owner; to lose the opportunity to be able to claim forestry grants on this ground is undoubtedly going to have a large impact on the potential area we could plant. However, there are positive changes to the new Rural Development Regulation which make forestry more attractive to land owners whose non agricultural income resulted in a cap being applied to annual premia payments. This could be a significant boost to land managed under a short term letting system known in Ireland as ‘conacre’ which accounts for about 30% of agricultural land in Northern Ireland.
The other key hurdle has been convincing the agricultural lobby that forestry is not a threat to the production of food, this work has been largely successful and we look forward to support from the 2 key farming bodies in Northern Ireland. They now accept forestry as a legitimate alternative to livestock production on land that is naturally constrained. Unfortunately this ground is currently subject to an annual top up payment that will be lost if it is planted, a review of this area based scheme in 2017 will hopefully lead to this barrier being removed. One area that could play into our hands will be the requisite to maintain ground in Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC) in order to retain area based payments. If, as a consequence of planting, this burden (particularly on ageing farmers) is reduced we could see forestry further incentivised.
The main grant under the new forestry measures is to be known as the Forest Expansion Scheme (FES). This could see up to 100% of establishment costs funded for projects over 5ha. Primarily intended to encourage commercial coniferous forestry it does not exclude the planting of any woodland type. In addition to supporting all reasonable establishment costs (including access, fencing and ground preparation) it will give 10 years of ‘income foregone’ payments at a rate yet to be announced, but expected to be slightly higher than the previous rate that averaged about £250 per ha per year. Eligible landowners will retain Basic Payment Scheme entitlements on the land they plant under FES.
The Native Woodland Tree Planting option under the new Agri Environment Scheme (Environmental Farming Scheme) is aimed at creating new native woodland and can support projects from 0.15 ha up to 5ha. It will focus on broadleaved woodland with more of a biodiversity, wildlife, environmental or aesthetic aim and will be a standard grant payment This grant will not be administered by the NI Forest Service, rather by the farm inspectors from the Countryside Management Branch as part of the agri-environmental measures within the RDP. Whilst we are optimistic that having more advocates on the ground in terms of inspectors could offer a greater opportunity to extol the virtues of woodland, we worry that agricultural staff will initially have limited forestry experience and may be reluctant to promote tree planting as a good option. CONFOR will continue to work with the Department of Agriculture and farmers to maximise uptake. This grant will probably not see any stems in the ground until the 2016/2017 planting season.
Other grants include the Woodland Investment Grant (WIG) for improving woodland resilience and environmental value (restocking, restructuring, invasive species control and public amenity access). The Forest Protection Scheme (FPS) for prevention or restoration, before or following disease or catastrophic events. And a Forestry Competitiveness Scheme (FCS) aimed at bringing smaller forests into economic management. This should see support for infrastructure that aids harvesting and management access.
The private forest industry in Northern Ireland welcome the opening the new Forestry Grant Schemes, particularly since there has been no real planting since the spring of 2014. The delay in getting new grants open has been frustrating; however, the new programme seems to offer the real prospect of reinvigorating commercial forestry after a number of years in the doldrums.