Tree Planting: 2030 Target

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 22 April 2024.

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Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:45, 22 April 2024

3. Ms Hunter asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs what quantifiable steps his Department has taken to achieve its target of planting 18 million trees by 2030. (AQO 311/22-27)

Photo of Sorcha Eastwood Sorcha Eastwood Alliance

6. Ms Eastwood asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs what plans he has to increase afforestation. (AQO 314/22-27)

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton Independent

8. Mr Easton asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for an update on his Department’s pledge to plant 18 million trees. (AQO 316/22-27)

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

9. Mr Frew asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs what targets he has set regarding native tree planting for the next three years. (AQO 317/22-27)

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 3, 6, 8 and 9 together. Trees are a very popular topic today, which is good to see.

My Department has done a number of things to achieve its target of planting 18 million trees by 2030. It has revised its forest expansion grant scheme by lowering the minimum area threshold for eligibility to the scheme. In addition, it introduced a new small woodland grant scheme in December 2020, aimed particularly at attracting native woodland projects for a wide range of applicants, including smaller landowners. The Department also supports the forest expansion grant scheme and the small woodland grant scheme with around £3 million annually in grant payments.

The Department continues to work in collaboration with a number of councils and public bodies, such as Northern Ireland Water, to encourage the afforestation of available publicly owned land. The Department has commenced a programme of stakeholder engagement with the forest industry and landowner representatives to jointly consider measures that can be taken to further increase afforestation. The Department is considering a number of policy options aimed at increasing the level of afforestation. Those include new grant mechanisms to incentivise landowners to plant woodland for carbon capture; sustainable timber production, which contributes to jobs and our economy; water quality protection; environmental and habitat enhancement; and public access for health and well-being.

The Department's farm support and development programme includes a farming with nature package, which is under development. It is anticipated that that package will offer support to farmers to plant small areas of trees and to plant trees in existing and new hedgerows. The Department's plans to increase the rate of afforestation are being prepared and will be included in Northern Ireland's climate action plan.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his answer. Recently, I visited Broighter Gold, a farm in Limavady in my constituency that is working with nature and protecting biodiversity; we know that our farmers play a key role in that. I want to ask about incentives for farmers to protect biodiversity and plant more trees. You touched on a number of key things, but are you and your Department exploring anything else to incentivise our farmers?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Member for her question. There are many good examples of that in Northern Ireland, which are fantastic to see. The future farm support programme will be a key element. I want to work with farmers to see what we can do in this area. It will be difficult for some farmers, while it will be attractive to others. We need to deal with generational issues, and how we can facilitate farmers who want to hand on their land to younger family members. Those are key issues. The farming community are the custodians of the countryside, and we need to work with them to achieve our targets in this area.

Photo of Sorcha Eastwood Sorcha Eastwood Alliance

I thank the Minister for his answer. I welcome the work that he has done to tackle the issue of afforestation. In Lagan Valley and Lisburn and Castlereagh, we have one of the least-wooded areas in the North. Will he outline what additional steps the planting of trees contributes in nature recovery?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Member for her question. I am very conscious that Northern Ireland is one of the least-forested regions in the whole of Europe, but there are real opportunities to address that. Northern Ireland's woodland cover is low compared with other UK countries, and it includes many small native woodlands that are remnants of much more extensive past tree cover. Whilst all woodlands are important for biodiversity and protecting them is integral to efforts to mitigate climate change and promote nature recovery, tree planting to increase the size of existing woodlands and their connectivity through the landscape will contribute to their resilience and provide new habitats to support wildlife.

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton Independent 3:00, 22 April 2024

I thank the Minister for his answers. Will he outline which areas of North Down might be included in this tree plantation? Will he also outline the benefits to schools that might want to partake in helping to plant trees?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Member for his question. The participation of schools is a fantastic opportunity, and I am very keen to work with the Minister of Education on that. In North Down, there are many areas of opportunity. Only two weeks ago, I was in Hunts Park in Donaghadee, where a community orchard has been planted. That is an example of a community actively stepping forward and wanting to see tree planting. There are many opportunities here, and we need to incentivise and encourage people to undertake tree planting.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Native tree planting assists in the enhancement of wildlife compared with the forests of evergreen trees for timber production, which basically kill everything underneath them. Has the Minister got the balance right?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

In environmental policy in Northern Ireland, getting the balance right is absolutely key and is something that I am very conscious of. I am also conscious of my obligations on afforestation under climate change legislation. We need to balance that and work with people, and I will not be found wanting in striking a correct balance on these issues. We will also be clear on our targets.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

Will the Minister detail how his Department came to the figure of 18 million trees?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Member for his question. I will write back in more detail on where the evidence came from for that figure, but I am conscious that, in the climate change legislation, there are key targets to which tree cover is fundamental.