Among the North East’s wealth of land-based industries, forestry remains crucial to the region’s economy.
It is estimated that more than 1,500 people here are employed within the sector, currently worth around £40m - a figure that is set to grow given the Government’s commitment to the Renewable Heat Incentive and the increasing number of people turning to biomass.
The question now is how best to protect such a valuable enterprise and, on the face of it, a recent announcement from the Forestry Commission and Defra that an interim grant will be made available to bridge the gap between the end of the old English Woodland Grant Scheme and the new Countryside Stewardship incentive will be taken by many woodland owners as a positive first step.
As Mike Dyke, H&H Land and Property’s forestry specialist, explained: “For many woodland owners it is concerning that as yet, few details have been released regarding the start of CS and the benefits to woodland owners this may bring, but we do know that to be eligible for any woodland grants a Woodland Management Plan will be required to support all applications.
“Therefore, we are urging all woodland owners who may have interest in future woodland grants under Countryside Stewardship to make use of the preliminary grant offer to create a woodland management plan.
“This will ensure that they have sufficient evidence to support their eligibility for a woodland grant through CS as soon as the window opens.”
Established under the previous Rural Development Programme, the English Woodland Grant Scheme, which came to an end last year, has assisted numerous landowners with the management of woodlands, the creation of new woodlands, the installation of infrastructure and re-stocking after felling.
Later this year, however, the system will be replaced by CS, a combined scheme drawing together what were previously the Environmental Stewardship and Catchment Sensitive Farming initiatives.
The preliminary grant concept was drawn up after fears the time gap between old and new would be detrimental to the industry - especially for those responding to Statutory Plant Health Notices, due to the likes of Phytophtora ramorum disease outbreaks, and those wishing to establish new woodland.
Angus Collingwood-Cameron, lead consultant for The Northern Farmers & Landowners Group (NFLG), also recognised the plus points.
“Defra and the Forestry Commission should be applauded for pushing ahead with a scheme, which will enable new planting to take place next winter,” he said.
“I know that many in the industry were concerned about the impact on their businesses if there were no incentives in place.
“The nature of the grant is a major change as it moves from an area-based payment to a standard cost basis, plus maintenance costs, with the same money being available for conifers and broadleaves.”
He pointed out, however, that the scheme would likely be limited in what it could achieve.
So far - although details are yet to be finalised - the Forestry Commission has suggested applications will be considered for three purposes: woodland creation, woodland improvement for plant health issues and the creation of a Woodland Management Plan.
“That may sound good initially, but it is a competitive scheme and the scoring system is heavily rigged against productive woodland,” Mr Cameron-Collingwood said.
“It appears that a proposed woodland with more than 50% of the area to be planted with conifers would be very unlikely to receive grant funding.
“That is pretty demoralising for the productive forestry industry, which is so important here in the North East.”
He added that another “real kick in the teeth for growers” came with the news that there will be no grant funding available for replanting woodland after felling.
“This small but vital support has been available for nearly 30 years and has helped with the cost of replanting,” he said.
“Growing timber is a long term, high-risk business without a great reward.
“It remains to be seen what effect this change has on the industry.”
Dave Robson, area manager for the Northumberland-based Egger Forest Management, who was present at a stakeholder announcement on the new grant scheme, likewise gave it a cautious welcome.
Egger, which manufactures chip board products at factories in Hexham and Ayrshire, launched the new strand to its business last year to enable landowners across Northern England and South Scotland to generate greater income from their woodland assets.
“At first sight, I see this Preliminary Grant in an overall positive light – primarily as it fills the void left by the withdrawal of the EWGS last year, and provides some financial incentives to better manage our woodlands,” Mr Robson said.
“The grant appears to be aimed at encouraging sound planning for future custodianship of our woodland cover, with potentially very attractive incentives for expansion of the existing resource – including elements for tree protection and maintenance over a 10-year period.
“I was pleased to see no general distinction in the rates between conifers and broadleaves, although they would normally have different stocking densities and it could be argued that conifers lose out to a certain extent.”
The grant, he added, created opportunities for forest managers to engage with landowners, and was “sensibly timed” to allow potential plans to be identified before the full scheme was rolled out.
The acceptance of previously approved plans, within a certain timescale, was another demonstration of a rational approach.
However, Mr Robson added: “Restocking for plant health – along with active control of rhododendron, another potential plant health issue – seems sensible in light of the increased damaging agents we’re experiencing within the UK, and it also brings to the forefront the subject of species selection, which is necessarily an evolving process.
“The loss of restocking grant is unfortunate, even though we all knew it was coming.
“But within the larger picture I think impacts are limited – a loss of revenue of about 3% of final timber value at roughly the current market value.
“The figure is less when restructuring, as one would tend to plant less of the land with trees - and remember the UK was almost the only European country to retain this in recent years.
“This may signal a move towards lower-impact sylvicultural systems, particularly in the lower elevations, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
“However a significant expansion of production forest will be necessary to mitigate against lower production from this type of forest.
“I think the real test will be when we look at the uptake of the Preliminary Grant during the next few months – and much of the new electronic system for administering the scheme doesn’t sound like it’s quite there yet.
“But compare where we are now with December 2014, and the picture definitely looks brighter.”
CLA North East chairman Andrew Martell, a landowner based near Consett, meanwhile, stressed the “real need” to increase the volume of new woodland planting, while the organisation’s forestry advisor Mike Seville said: “The new grant of up to £6200 per hectare and the 10-year maintenance grant of £200 per hectare will be welcomed by some owners who want to plant woodland and provide some continuity for hard pressed forest nurseries, but we are concerned it may be too restrictive for some.”
A Forestry Commssion spokesman said: “Details of the interim forestry support scheme, and of the forestry support which will be available under the new Countryside Stewardship Scheme, are still being finalised and will be available within the coming weeks.
“The interim scheme will prioritise support for new woodland creation, creation of Woodland Management Plans, and responses to tree health issues.
“The Countryside Stewardship Scheme will support the forestry sector to create new woodlands, bring more woodlands into management, improve responses to tree health issues, restore habitats, manage flood risk better, and improve water quality.”