THE ongoing post-Brexit fiasco in which GB-grown plants, soil and compost cannot be exported to Northern Ireland (NI) is starting to impact in a big way on forestry and arboriculture.

In a major setback for tree-planting programmes in NI, buyers have been forced to cancel orders for 100,000 trees from suppliers in Great Britain due to post-Brexit rules and regulations relating to planting material, soil and compost mixtures. This includes an order for 22,000 trees placed by the Woodland Trust in NI destined for schools and communities as part of a nationwide greening project.

“It’s a disaster. They’re just stopping any exports from mainland UK over to Northern Ireland. We can’t get any trees over from any of the nurseries that we would usually deal with over there,” Gregor Fulton, an estate and outreach manager at the Woodland Trust, told The Guardian.

The article reported how Scotland-based supplier Alba Trees, which sells around 250,000 trees annually to Northern Ireland, says it has also been affected. “At a stroke, Brexit has taken away a huge chunk of our business,” said Craig Turner, the chief executive. “We turned down an order for 70,000 oak trees couple of weeks ago because we can’t ship them.”

Belfast City Council, which is in the midst of an ambitious tree-planting programme involving one million plants, confirmed it had a delivery of “300 large specimen trees” from an English supplier “delayed due to new rules about the movement of plants”. 

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“We thought it would be teething problems that would be resolved quickly. It just seems ludicrous really,” Fulton said. “The irony is that I can now get a tree easier from Latvia than I can from GB, which totally undermines all the work on biosecurity,” he added, referring to the risk of importing pests and pathogens.

At the core of the problem is a ban on soil from GB being moved into NI. Fulton said he had been told to wash all the soil off roots as a solution. “That’s just not practical. We got an order in last year of 56,000 trees in one go. You can’t wash 56,000 trees’ roots. It would be too big a cost and the nurseries are just not going to do that,” he said.

Soil may well be the single biggest factor causing current problems, but there is also another layer of obstacles. That is the EU’s list of species prohibited or highly restricted for import from third countries – which now include England, Scotland and Wales. That list includes just about every mainstream tree species which is native or naturalised within the British Isles.

Ironically, these severe restrictions on the entry of tree-planting material, soil and compost mixtures from GB into NI emerged just as Gordon Lyons, NI’s environment minister, launched a campaign reminding farmers they had only weeks left to apply for funding to plant native woodlands. The deadline for the £4 million Small Woodland Grant Scheme was Sunday, 28 February.

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