Two separate grant schemes for establishing forestry in NI are currently open for applications until 31 August 2022.
Both schemes are administered by DAERA and allow an initial grant for woodland establishment, as well as annual payments to compensate for lost income from farming.
The Forest Expansion Scheme incentivises the establishment of native woodland, mixed woodland or commercial conifer forest on areas of land 3ha or more in size.
There is no set payment rate for planting woodland under the scheme. Instead, all establishment costs associated with each successful application are covered by grant funding.
Projected costs for a proposed plantation must be set out in the application. This includes costs associated with the initial creation of the woodland, as well as planned maintenance costs over the first five years.
Examples of eligible costs are site preparation, fencing and gates, plant supply, tree guards, planting costs and vegetation management.
When selecting trees to plant, scheme rules state that either 10% of the area must be broadleaf trees or else the plantation must be made up of at least three different varieties, with the least abundant tree making up 10% of the total area.
Payment rates for the annual grant to cover lost income from farming are pre-set by DAERA. These payments are available for 10 years after the woodland is established and annual claims are made through the Single Application Form.
The annual payment rates for lost farming income vary between lowland, disadvantaged, or severely disadvantaged area land types. The rates also depend on whether the land is defined as improved or unimproved.
In general, most farmland that previously received lime or fertiliser is classified as improved land, although exact definitions are set out in scheme guidance from DAERA. The annual payment rates for each classification of land are outlined in Table 1.
Despite annual payments lasting for 10 years, some scheme requirements remain in place beyond this period. The main one is that the woodland must not be cut down for at least 20 years after the first payment.
However, the woodland can be thinned out and nurse trees, which are used to shelter slower growing trees, are allowed to be removed during the 20-year period.
Basic Payment Scheme
It should also be noted that agricultural land planted under the Forest Expansion Scheme remains eligible for Basic Payment for the duration of the scheme. The current plan for future agricultural policy in NI indicates that woodland will be eligible for the main replacement to the current Basic Payment Scheme, which is to be rolled out from 2024 onwards.
The proposals state that the new Farm Sustainability Payment will be able to be claimed off all types of land, except for hard features such as roads and buildings.
Scheme for planting smaller woodland areas
The second forestry scheme which is currently available in NI is designed to incentivise smaller areas of woodland plantation. The Small Woodland Grant Scheme is for new native woodlands of 0.2ha and larger.
The payment structure differs from the Forest Expansion Scheme, in that the initial grant for woodland creation is a flat rate payment of £2,925/ha.
This grant is designed to cover site preparation, tree supply, labour, weeding, maintenance, monitoring, and protection. For successful applicants, 80% of the money is claimed in the first year of the scheme, and the remaining 20% is claimed in year five.
An annual payment is available under the Small Woodland Grant Scheme to cover lost income from farming. This is a flat rate payment of £350/ha for 10 years, regardless of land type. A separate grant for stockproof fencing is also available under the scheme. It allows £6/m for new fencing with 100% of this payment claimed in year one.
Similar to the Forest Expansion Scheme, agricultural land which is planted under the Small Woodland Grant Scheme is still eligible for Basic Payment for the duration of the scheme. The woodland must not be felled for 20 years after the first payment.
The area of new woodland established in NI each year is at its highest level in 14 years, according to official figures from DAERA.
In the 2021/2022 financial year, 422ha was planted in NI. This total is made up of 92ha of conifer and 330ha of broadleaf trees.
It marks a sharp increase on the 284ha which was planted in 2020/2021 and is more than the double the total for 2019/2020, when 202ha were planted.
As Figure 1 shows, last year’s tree planting rate is the highest recorded since 2007/2008, when 552ha of woodland was established. However, the 2007/08 total included 275ha of short rotation coppice, which is mainly used as an energy crop for biomass heating.
In March 2020, DAERA launched its ‘Forests for Our Future’ programme, which pledged to plant 18m trees by 2030 and create 9,000ha of woodland. This equates to an ambitious planting rate of 900ha each year, which is more than double the current rate.
However, it should be noted that the department has said it wants to help meet these targets by planting public land, and not just privately owned land.