During a visit to the charity’s Mount Stewart site, the Minister welcomed the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the heads of the Trust and DAERA’s Forest Service.
“This MOU will open up more opportunities for the Trust to further enhance the visitor experience not only at this wonderful 19th century house and garden set in these magnificent woodland surroundings in County Down, but in other Trust-owned sites where the forests are managed by my department.
“This will enable future development of the woodlands for peoples’ enjoyment and ensure a responsible and sympathetic approach to our natural environment," he said during a visit to the 97 acre site.
“Signing this MOU is a catalyst for change that can enrich people's lives and contribute to their health and wellbeing as well as benefiting our environment and tourism industry. We also share the vision of protecting, expanding and promoting sustainable woodlands,” Minister Poots added.
Signing the agreement Heather McLachlan, Director for the National Trust in Northern Ireland said: “The National Trust was founded in 1895 to care for places of historic interest or natural beauty and today our core purpose remains to 'look after special places, for everyone forever. I want to ensure that the woodlands in our care are accessible to everyone, enriching not only the quality of life, health and wellbeing of people, but also ensuring that these forests are protected and managed in a way that allows the plants and wildlife they sustain to thrive.
“These ambitions will be greatly facilitated by a partnership with the Forest Service and so I’m delighted to be signing this Memorandum of Understanding today. By planting trees and improving the land in our care, together we can help reduce carbon emissions, tackle climate change and improve habitats for the benefit of nature and people.”
The scope of the MoU covers lands owned and leased by the Forest Service and the conservation charity which includes woodlands at Florence Court, Castle Ward, Ballymoyer and Mount Stewart.
Chief Executive of Forest Service, John Joe O’Boyle said: “The protection and enhancement of the biodiversity of these important woodlands is at the heart of the MoU which will ensure their sustainability and enhance the social and recreational use of these outdoor spaces for the benefit of local communities.
“Here at Mount Stewart this will result in improved public access to the woodlands for more people to enjoy a wider range of outdoor activities and the forest environment. In turn this will create better opportunities for people to pursue their interests in the environment, woodland and habitat conservation, including for wildlife such as red squirrels.”
During his visit to Mount Stewart Minister Poots saw the work undertaken by the Trust in increasing public access to the woodland, and how they are managing the threats posed by muntjac deer, grey squirrels, and control of invasive species.
In 2015, in partnership with Forest Service, the Trust took on recreation management of the Florence Court Forest and opened up access to over 15km of walking and cycle trails. The £300,000 visitor centre was built by the Forest Service and acts as the gateway and focal point for visitors.