Premier Woodlands is celebrating its 30th year of business. Founded in June 1992, the company is now Northern Ireland’s foremost indigenous forestry development company.
Managing director John He-therington estimates that Premier Woodlands has planted out between 25 million and 30 million trees over the past three decades.
He said: “We have established forests throughout Northern Ire-land, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland across the widest possible range of landscapes and growing conditions.
“The potential to develop a private-sector forestry and wood-land development industry here in Northern Ireland remains immense.
“Trees tick every environmental, climate change and land man-agement related box imaginable.
“In addition, the climate that we enjoy in this part of the world is particularly conducive to the growing of trees.
“But we have a problem. After Premier Woodlands was established, annual afforestation tree planting rates within the private sector increased up to almost 1,000 ha per year.
“Today, the comparable annual figure is in the region of 200-300ha.
“Back in 1992 the level of tree cover in Northern Ireland was in the region of 4-5 per cent of Northern Ireland`s land area. Today that figure stands at around 7-8 per cent.
“So yes, we have made some progress, from a forest cover point of view. But, at the present time, the forestry sector is simply treading water.
“Looking ahead, DAERA Forest Policy target is to have 12 per cent forest cover in Northern Ireland by 2050, unfortunately even this percentage of forest cover keeps Northern Ireland remaining bot-tom of the forest cover table, having the lowest level of tree cover in the whole of Europe.
“However, we will never reach this 12 per cent target on the back of current planting levels.
“The Stormont Executive must urgently review its afforestation and tree planting strategies if woodland development is to take its rightful place as a mainstream agricultural land use option here.”
The Premier Woodlands’ man-aging director is quick to point to the climate change benefits that a proactive forestry development policy could deliver for Northern Ireland.
He said: “But we are working from a very inprecise base. Not enough scientifically robust work has been done yet to quantify the ability of forests, woodlands, hedgerows and soils to sequester carbon. I sense this figure is more than significant.
“And until we do get accurate figures, where these matters are concerned, the prospect of the Stormont Executive, or any other government coming up with meaningful climate change policies is remote.”
While the need to plant more trees is obvious, the need to re-plant land that has been deforested is equally clear, at least in the eyes of John Hetherington.
He explained: “A number of forests have been cleared recently in Northern Ireland to allow for the development of other commercial projects.
“Currently there is no re-quirement on developers to carry out equivalent tree planting activities at another site in order to make up for the loss in forest cover that occurs.
“This is only allowed in cases where afforested land`s deforestation has been consented by a government department.
“If this were to happen in Scotland, the developer would be mandated to ensure that the equivalent compensatory tree planting area took place.”
The Premier Woodlands’ re-presentative concluded:
“In my opinion, it is critically important for such measures to be introduced here in Northern Ireland with immediate effect.
“Our level of tree cover is already low enough without having government departments putting further pressure on this critically important resource.”
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