Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for this opportunity to talk to the House about a new programme of afforestation. I trust that it will have widespread agreement across the House and there will be a little less conflict. Who knows? We will be up for it if there is some.
As Minister, I have asked for sustainability to be placed at the heart of everything that my Department does. That includes the sustainable management of the trees and woodlands of Northern Ireland, which are one of our key natural assets, with an estimated 100,000 kilometres of tree-lined hedgerows and 113,000 hectares of woodland within which approximately 2,000 kilometres of forest tracks and paths are available for public access and broader health benefits.
It is clear how much people value our forests, and I share that appreciation. There are around five million visits to the Department’s forest parks each year. However, the level of forest cover in Northern Ireland is currently 8% of land, compared with 13% in the UK, 11% in the Republic of Ireland and 43% in the European Union. They are ahead of us on that. There is a clear case for expanding forest cover here to support a thriving environment, strong economy and healthy, active communities. This will not be without its challenges. It will require partnership working across the Executive and wider public sector and, importantly, the support of rural landowners and communities. However, that does not mean that it should not be done. It will need to be achieved through a coherent policy framework within which agricultural, environmental and afforestation policies clearly complement one another. This will be a key focus of the Department over the coming months.
Planting more trees and increasing forest cover would bring a number of benefits to Northern Ireland society. There is clear evidence to show that tree planting contributes to a healthy, quality environment. It can help to mitigate climate change by removing carbon from the atmosphere. On average, one hectare of woodland captures 1,200 tons of carbon dioxide in its lifetime. It would also improve the landscape and biodiversity, and it would enable more people to improve their health, well-being and life chances through their enjoyment of this quality, natural resource. Furthermore, it would make a significant contribution to Northern Ireland’s sustainable and inclusive economic growth. The gross value added by the forestry sector is around £60 million per annum from timber production activity, sustaining approximately 1,000 rural jobs. A further £60 million to £80 million is generated in the local economy from forest-based recreation and tourism.
To date, the forestry strategy has been delivered mainly through successive rural development programmes encouraging private landowners to convert agricultural land to forestry. This has resulted in the creation of small, predominately broad-leaved woodlands providing health benefits for the woodland owner, low levels of carbon sequestration potential and biodiversity benefits. The current rates of afforestation, if projected, represent only a modest rate of woodland creation — short of 1% by the middle of the century. The Committee on Climate Change called tree planting a "simple, low-cost option" to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Its 'Reducing Emissions in Northern Ireland' report noted that the current 200 hectares of tree planting falls "well short" of the Committee’s recommendation of 900 hectares of woodland a year.
The UK Government are committed to achieving net zero carbon by 2050. Climate change is a significant challenge, not only for the UK but globally. Northern Ireland can make a significant contribution to addressing these challenges at a local level through a number of innovative environmental policies, including increased afforestation that is managed sustainably and better integrated with other land uses. Increasing afforestation at the rate necessary to make a meaningful impact on carbon capture will require a strong partnership approach and the support of my Executive colleagues and Members of the House. Existing publicly owned land, including local government land, has the greatest potential for woodland creation in the short term. I have written to ministerial colleagues and to the chief executives of councils, seeking their support and commitment to make public land available for tree planting and to provide an initial assessment of the scale and extent of land that may be available.
The quality, accessibility and environmental sensitivity of the land will be key considerations in the sustainability of tree planting. I plan to establish an afforestation forum to work collectively across the public sector to coordinate the assessment of available public land and develop an action plan for increasing afforestation. I will oversee this work personally, and the forum will report to me regularly. As Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, I am committed to leading by example. I take this opportunity to advise Members of an afforestation event on 9 March at which 1,000 trees will be planted by local children on my Department’s land at Loughry College, Cookstown. Similar legacy events will follow. I will continue to play a lead role in increasing afforestation and creating a sustainable environment. Importantly, this enhanced afforestation programme must encourage tree planting and create opportunities to incorporate trees and woodlands into farms and other businesses in a realistic and viable way, with the necessary reskilling programmes to enable landowners to refocus their land use.
With the leadership, commitment, skills and willingness available to us, we should seek to increase forest cover significantly over the next decade. Over the next 10 years, my Department will lead a programme of afforestation called Forests for our Future. By 2030, it will have planted 18 million trees to create 9,000 hectares of new woodland, which is equivalent to 10 trees per person in Northern Ireland. The programme will improve the resilience of Northern Ireland's forests and woodlands and increase their contribution to a sustainable, healthy environment; increase the contribution of forests and woodlands to Northern Ireland's sustainable and inclusive economic growth; and increase the use of Northern Ireland's forest resources to enable more people to improve their health, well-being and life chances.
The purpose of the statement is to set out my intentions to increase afforestation to support climate change and maximise individual, community and societal benefits for the citizens of today and for generations to come. I hope that it sets out the direction of travel and receives the support of Members, because, as I have previously said, we must seek to achieve those benefits together.