Achieving a target to have 12% of the NI land area covered with trees represents “a huge challenge” for the Forest Service, its chief executive, John Joe O’Boyle has acknowledged.

Briefing the Stormont Agriculture committee last Thursday, O’Boyle outlined how Forest Service, which is an agency within DAERA, currently has 75,000ha of land, of which 65,000ha is planted.

Across all of NI, there is 119,000ha of woodland, accounting for 8.6% of the land area.

The aim of the NI forestry strategy is to have 12% of land area in woodland by 2050, which is a target broadly in line with advice from the UK climate change committee (CCC) on how NI can achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by that date.

To get to 12% woodland cover by 2050, afforestation rates need to increase from their current annual figure of around 600ha, to 1,500ha each year by 2030 and 3,100ha annually by 2035 and beyond, O’Boyle told MLAs.

He suggested that the vast majority of this new land will have to come from private landowners taking land out of agricultural production, given that Forest Service has taken its own land “to the limit in terms of planting”.

While it does have 10,000ha not planted, most of this is moorland where trees are prohibited.

In addition, around half of Forest Service woodland is planted in peat soils, some of which will feature in “peatland restoration programmes”, added O’Boyle.

High cost

He acknowledged that the high cost of land generally limits the ability of Forest Service to buy-up farms, although purchasing is still an option, especially where land has “a strategic value” (such as joining up with other woodland).

“We have purchased three farms in the west area this year and there are one or two other bits we are in the process of purchasing. The business case needs to show a positive return to the taxpayer,” he said.

Attractive for farmers

Ultimately, if future targets are to be met, other landowners need to get on board.

“It has to be done through promotion, though increasing awareness of trees to society generally and at core of all of this is make it an attractive proposition for someone who owns the land,” said O’Boyle.

Feedback from current grant schemes is that while establishment grants might be suitable, the 10-year payment thereafter “might not be long enough”, he told MLAs.

He said that people often don’t realise trees have a significant value at harvesting stage and planting a piece of land could be a good option for someone looking to take a step back from farming, while passing on wealth to the next generation.

O’Boyle also acknowledged that certain types of land are not suitable, such as peatland and various designated sites.

“But there is still lower productivity agricultural land that is still very well eligible for planting,” he said.