NORTHERN Ireland's failure to plant even 50 hectares of productive conifers has been called "serious" by forestry bosses. 

New figures reveal the nation put just 41 ha of commercially-focused species in the ground during the 2023/24 planting season amid another fall in its overall woodland-creation rates. 

With just 433 ha planted in total (down from 2022/23's 451 ha), it's the second year running the Northern Irish annual figure has fallen, raising alarm bells ahead of the release of UK-wide figures this month. 

“The 433 hectares of new forest and woodland plantings show that woodland creation in Northern Ireland continues to be below that required to meet the target of 9,000 hectares to be planted by 2030 which was set in 2020 by the Minister of Agriculture," James Hamilton Stubber, Northern Irish chair of industry body Confor, said. "Within these figures the situation for productive conifers at 41 hectares is even more serious. Confor is actively engaging with the Forest Service of Northern Ireland to find ways of redressing this decline in planting levels.”

Forestry officials in the country have blamed the latest annual fall (down from a recent peak of 540 ha in the 2021/22 planting season) on landowners not taking forward successful applications for grant funding. 

A Forest Services statement read: "Forest Service set a Business Plan Target for 600 hectares in each of the years 22/23 and 23/24. The total area planted by landowners, supported by grant aid from Forest Service in each of the years, against the 600 hectare target set was 451 hectares and 433 hectares, respectively. 

"As in previous years, we continue to see a significant proportion of forestry grant applications, which are successful in receiving offers of funding, not being taken forward by landowners. 

"Forest Service has ongoing engagement directly with forestry agents, and with representatives of the sector to help to determine how a higher rate of afforestation can be achieved within the context of highly competitive land use demands. 

"This stakeholder engagement remains of continued importance as we seek to deliver the afforestation targets in line with the forthcoming Climate Action Plan, currently under development by the Department."

While the UK government set an annual target of creating 30,000 ha of new woodland across all four nations, it has so far failed to hit the 15,000 ha mark in any year since 2019. All evidence suggests the latest planting figures - due out on June 20 - will show a further decline.