Guest blog by Jonathan Bell, RSPB NI Head of Land and Sea Policy

The Department of Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) Minister Edwin Poots recently announced an ambitious tree planting pledge in Northern Ireland. The DAERA ‘Forests for our Future’ Programme proposes to plant 18 million trees in Northern Ireland over the next 10 years. The intent reflects the wider political imperative across the UK to expand tree cover in response to climate change. It could equate to approximately 900 hectares of new trees per year, which aligns with the 900 hectare per annum planting target proposed for Northern Ireland by the UK Committee on Climate Change (2020). 

In principle the ambition should be welcomed. An expansion of native tree and woodland coverage can make a positive contribution to addressing the climate and nature crisis and the UK target to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. Forests for our Future presents a huge opportunity for new woodlands and tree rich landscapes to deliver multiple benefits and win-win outcomes for climate, nature and people in Northern Ireland.

In addition to the climate and health and well-being benefits, the Minister’s announcement emphasised the economic potential of the new initiative: “planting more trees will make a significant contribution to Northern Ireland’s sustainable economic growth - the forestry sector generates about £60 million per annum from timber production activity, sustaining approximately 1,000 rural jobs. A further £60-£80 million is generated in the local economy from forest based recreation and tourism. I want to further enhance that through this programme”

However, an underpinning socio-economic emphasis or a careless ‘dash for carbon’ approach could represent ‘false economy’ in the longer-term. Commercial forestry has typically involved planting fast-growing non-native tree species at high-densities, which requires intensive soil preparation, pesticide and fertilizer use and are typically poor for biodiversity.  A short-term socio-economic driven approach will not deliver the desired long-term benefits for nature and the climate.  

As Northern Ireland embarks on a new wave of woodland expansion, several important questions emerge:

  • What species will be planted?
  • Where will they be located?
  • What are the wider land use implications of allocating more land for tree planting?
  • How can any unintended negative consequences be avoided?
  • How can tree planting more effectively support biodiversity?
  • Does sufficient data exist to ensure planting is undertaken without damaging particular species and priority habitats?

The ‘Woodlands for Climate and Nature’ report published by the RSPB this week is a timely intervention that will help address some of these questions. The report provides much needed guidance and direction to help ensure that the UK’s tree planting ambitions deliver the greatest benefits for both climate and nature.  

We must learn from past tree-planting activities in the wrong places (such as on peatland,or on/adjacent to designated open habitat) which has harmed important wildlife habitats and species and undermined effective climate action.  Future woodland expansion will require a strategic approach that promotes appropriately sited native species to drive nature recovery. These sentiments are supported by the evidence reviewed in ‘Woodlands for Climate and Nature’ report:

Delivering the greatest possible biodiversity and climate enhancements through woodland expansion will require a strategic, mapping-based approach, co-ordinated with other land use strategies and based on accurate mapping of existing priority habitats and other land use data.

In order to ensure the positive intentions of the programme are realised, it is crucial that the right approach is adopted in practice. A more ecological approach is needed which prioritises the planting of native species to deliver biodiversity enhancement and provide a secure and more long-term carbon storage benefit.

The ‘Woodlands for Climate and Nature’ review, which looked specifically at the evidence for the climate and biodiversity impacts of woodland creation on mineral soils, deep and shallow peats, makes a number of other recommendations. These should be considered when designing approaches to tree planting in Northern Ireland and include:

  • Peatland protection and restoration should continue alongside woodland expansion, as a long-term carbon store and biodiversity rich habitat. This should be supported through strategic land use planning.
  • Instead of a rotational forestry model, focus could be placed on nature-based solutions to climate change. This could include native woodlands and priority open habitats such as peatlands, to store carbon whilst also helping to address the ecological crisis.
  • Soil type and existing land use has a significant influence on the carbon balance and biodiversity impacts of woodland creation. The greatest climate and biodiversity benefits stem from woodland creation on arable and improved grassland. Woodland planting on deep peat must be avoided, and previously afforested blanket bog should be restored to maximise the long-term security of the stored carbon.
  • Native woodland and other nature-based solutions to climate change potentially offer a more certain route to long-term carbon storage 

The full report and summary can be viewed here

In conclusion, it is important to recognise that tree planting is not a panacea. Woodland expansion should be matched by equally ambitious efforts to restore peatlands and other habitats and incentivise more sustainable land management. With the initial emphasis of Forests for Our Future being on tree planting on publicly owned land, it presents an excellent opportunity for the Northern Ireland government (both local and central) to deliver an exemplar approach to woodland expansion. 

Finally, approaches to protecting, managing and restoring our natural environment should not be pursued in a piecemeal fashion.  A Northern Ireland Environment Strategy is required to establish a vision and overarching direction of travel, with binding targets. This should guide future investment in nature-based climate solutions and ensure that land use policy decisions are taken in a strategic and integrated manner. 

Photo (top): Areas of wet woodland and some encroaching scrub on a cut over lowland raised bog at Montiaghs Moss SAC, Co Antrim. Pic by Amy Burns/RSPB NI