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11 September 2013
Into the woods

Into the woods

For a country with great swathes of rural landscape the tree is an important emblem of Scotland’s environment.

It was the reason why, when the spectre of Ash Dieback disease was seen to be killing trees across Europe, questions of ministers came thick and fast in the Scottish Parliament as to how Scotland’s forests could be protected.
And it was why, when on the first day after the parliamentary summer recess, Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse launched a three-month consultation as to whether there should be an official Scottish tree, to sit alongside the thistle and the unicorn as the country’s national symbols.

In fact the percentage of woodland across the country is far behind other parts of Europe. Of Scotland’s 7.9 million hectares, a total of 1.4 million hectares, about 18 per cent, is classed as woodland.

By comparison, the average across Europe, helped by large native forests in Eastern Europe, is about 37 per cent.

Now, repeated calls to increase planting have led to the agreement by the Scottish Government that 10,000 hectares of new woodland should be added each year up to and beyond 2027, estimated to cost in excess of £450m.

Two years ago, the Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead set up the Woodland Expansion Advisory Group, chaired by Andrew Barbour and made up of representatives of a cross-section of the rural sector, including the National Farmers’ Union and Scottish Natural Heritage.

It changed a previous target to increase the woodland cover in Scotland to 25 per cent, to one more acceptable to all sides, of planting 100,000 hectares of trees in 10 years.

Fail-safes were written into its recommendations, thanks to research from the James Hutton Institute, to ensure prime agricultural land – or land that could be used for other purposes – was not planted with trees.

According to the Scottish Government’s Second Report on Proposals and Policies, published in June, the tree-planting programme would mitigate 4.8 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2027, with further emissions savings throughout the lifetime of the woodland. Much of the financial support for this will come from the Scottish Rural Development Programme, although there will be additional planting on the national forest estate –which is managed by the Forestry Commission.

The report acknowledges this requires a “significant increase” in planting rates and more work will be needed to “remove barriers and ensure that new woodlands are appropriately sited and designed.”

It is a big task, new woodland creation between 2009/10 and 2010/11 went from 2,700 hectares and 5,100 hectares, then shot up to 9,000 hectares by 2011/12.

But it is only now that a solution appears to have been found to increase the level of woodland without raising fears that it could damage other vital Scottish industries, such as farming.

Deputy director of Forestry Commission Scotland, David Howat, said the ambition is to work towards “striking a sensible balance.”

“The intention is to try to get our woodland expansion in ways that produce more timber for the wood-processing industry, because we’ve got here an industry that employs something like 13,000 people and it’s important they have the raw materials to keep the sawmills going long into the future.

“At the same time, the mantra is always to plant the right trees in the right places so that you’re not adversely affecting other land use interests, whether it’s agriculture or conservation or whatever it might be.”

The current approach is a marked difference to a century ago when the newly-formed Forestry Commission approach was to plant trees suitable for the burgeoning timber industry.
In the 1970s, more than 30,000 new trees were being planted a year, mostly conifers –and good for felling and selling as timber.
And although the Scots Pine may be the front runner if there is to be a “national tree” in Scotland, the 126,000 hectares covered by them is a fraction of the 523,000 hectares of Sitka spruce.
Since then, the number of trees has dropped substantially, but a more diverse range of trees has been planted, with an increasing number of broadleaf rather than conifer trees.
This diversity of trees is seen as a protection against diseases which have so damaged forests elsewhere, with Dothistroma needle blight affecting pine; Phytophthora ramorum affecting the larch and Chalara dieback of ash. It also helps improve and sustain more diverse wildlife.
What the Woodland Trust Scotland wants to see is a doubling of indigenous trees being planted.
There is currently 398,000 hectares of native woodland – species such as the Scots Pine – about 5 per cent of Scotland’s land area, although a further survey into native tree cover is expected later this year.
Andrew Fairbairn, communications and development manager at Woodland Trust Scotland, said the number of native trees being planted needed to be 6,000 per year and welcomed the fact that in the last two years, it has been around this mark.
He said: “Back in the early 1900s, the total focus was we need more timber, so they picked species that were quick to grow and that’s where the production industry has come from.
“It really is in the last 20 years or so that people have realised the value of the native woodland that remains and that it’s an important thing to try and increase that area.
“Priorities have changed; the production of wood is not the be all and end all any more and we’re looking at what benefits to society woods can provide as well.”
However, he said there was still work needed to be done to ensure the 100,000 hectares in 10 years target is met, as tree planting is not yet up to 10,000 per year.
He said: “They know the Scottish Government needs to look at that and see how it can make up ground and make sure it doesn’t miss the 100,000 target at the end of 10 years.
“The Woodland Expansion Advisory Group report is measured and it’s balanced and everybody is comfortable with the approach. The difficulty is that it’s not being delivered at the moment.
“That’s the worry, everybody is fine with the target; everybody agrees with the bulk of the report, but actually, the problem we’ve got is that there doesn’t seem to be enough activity to achieve the ambitions the Scottish Government have set out.”
He added that Common Agricultural Policy reform, which is currently under way, meant that there had been a break in the provision of grants through the Scottish Rural Development Programme.
A Forestry Commission spokesman said: “The aim is to reach the 100,000 ha target over the next ten years, but this may not mean we hit 10,000 each year to achieve that.
“Hopefully, we can regain any shortfall over the next ten years.
“There are a number of reasons why the planting levels have not been as high as we would like, these include issues around land availability, Scottish Rural Development Programme administration and bad winter weather.
“The recommendations being worked on via the Woodland Expansion Advisory Group report are aiming to address some of these and there are improvements being made to the forestry scheme under the next SRDP.”

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