'All components in place' for forestry success in Scotland

25 January 2017

A constructive and wide-ranging debate on forestry in the Scottish Parliament has confirmed cross-party support for ambitious new planting targets to deliver benefits for Scotland’s economy, environment and communities.

"We are putting in place all the necessary components for success: funding, appetite, process, innovation, land, skills and political will,” Fergus Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity (REC), told the Holyrood chamber’s first forestry debate for nine years. 

Mr Ewing had a positive message on funding: "We intend to increase financial support available for tree planting and management from £36 million to £40 million in the current year, provided our budget is supported, and I will seek to take every opportunity, resources and future budgetary pressures allowing, to seek to invest more funding in planting."

Many speakers highlighted the annual £1 billion economic contribution of forestry and the 25,000 jobs it provides - including Mr Ewing, who said the statistics "emphasise the enormous importance of woods and forests to Scotland’s people, communities, economy and environment" and "explained  this Government's unequivocal commitment to forestry and to maintaining the national forest estate". That commitment, he said, was backed by ambition. 

Mr Ewing stressed the broad-ranging benefits of forestry: "As one of very few economic activities that absorb more carbon than they produce, and one that supplies low-carbon materials for building, forestry is crucial to our environmental objectives. Trees remove about 10 million tonnes of CO2 each year, and are home to more than 200 plant, bird and animal species, including some that are unique to Scotland."

He recognised some concern at the stepped increase in new planting targets from the current 10,000 hectares annually to 15,000ha by 2024-5. He said: “I fully acknowledge we have not yet managed to meet the previous annual target, but I consider the new target to be achievable.”

The new grant scheme in 2015 had seen planting increase, said Mr Ewing, with further streamlining to the process set to follow after the report by former Chief Planner Jim Mackinnon. He told parliament: "Forestry Commission Scotland’s plan to implement those [Mackinnon] recommendations will be published shortly. The plan will be key to delivering our new planting targets.

"The availability of land is also key. Scotland has only 18 per cent forest cover, compared with 37 per cent for the European Union as a whole and 31 per cent worldwide. A study has shown 30 per cent of our land is suitable for growing trees, without using prime agricultural land or planting on important conservation sites. There is clearly room for growth."

Mr Ewing reassured MSPs there would be no return to the monocultures of the 1970s and 80s: "Let me be clear. The Government will not oversee any return to the bad old days of blanket forest planting. Ours is a modern vision, in which woodland expansion must respect modern standards of sustainable management." 

He insisted farming and forestry could work well together when managed in an integrated way: "Scotland has plenty of land that is not prime agricultural land or valuable habitats for wildlife and where planting trees is absolutely the right thing to do. That will be our focus." 

This stance was supported by Peter Chapman MSP, the Scottish Conservative rural affairs spokesperson. He said: "We need a complete change of mindset in the farming community if we are to encourage more planting by farmers. Scottish farmers are not natural planters of trees and there is little history of farming and forestry being integrated in Scotland. The argument has often been that good sheep country has been used for planting trees on and that livelihoods have been lost, as a result. However, it is often the case that using such land for trees will provide just as many jobs and deliver more output per acre than when it is used to farm sheep.

"Perhaps the cabinet secretary will consider ways in which we could encourage the growth of farm woodland. That would assist in making farmers less dependent on volatile food prices by diversifying their businesses, and is vital if we are to deliver our tree-planting targets."

Two SNP MSPs picked up on this point. Graeme Dey MSP, who chairs the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform committee, said: "We need to get over the old mantra that planting trees on less productive agricultural land is a sign of farming failure. We must find a means of making it easier for tenant farmers to plant on their farms without suffering detriment."

And Stewart Stevenson, a former Environment Minister, said: "I agree with Peter Chapman that we need to find ways of showing farmers that there is an intrinsic value for them and their businesses in making some of their land available for forestry."

Mr Chapman's Conservative colleague Edward Mountain MSP, who chairs the Rural Economy and Connectivity committee, said more money was needed, beyond the budgetary increase currently proposed. He said: "An analysis of previous applications suggests that grants for costs for the establishment of forestry need to be in the region of £4,500 per hectare. Simple maths suggests that, to achieve a target of 13,000 hectares per annum [to hit historic planting targets], the budget should be in the region of £59 million. If the new target of 10,000 hectares per annum is accepted, the budget will need to be £45 million. The fact is that the figure that has been set aside for planting in the 2017-18 budget is £40 million."

Mr Mountain said the consultation processes for new planting schemes could be "soul-destroying". He added: "I still bear the scars from some that I have been involved in, in particular a scheme aimed at recreating 1,000 hectares of new Caledonian pine forest in the Cairngorms. Although I accept the need to protect the environment, that particular scheme seemed to tick all the boxes, but it still took 10 years to be approved and I cannot remember how many site meetings and consultation reports were required. It is no wonder that trees do not get planted."

He also highlighted the decline in timber supply due to the drop-off in planting over the last 20 years: "It is widely recognised that by 2035, we will not be producing enough timber to satisfy the needs of our timber processors, such as Gordon’s, Norbord and James Jones."

Labour spokesperson Rhoda Grant praised the Mackinnon report for "cutting through red tape", while Green MSP and land campaigner Andy Wightman called for "a new suite of statutory purposes for forestry policy in Scotland" in the new Forestry Act planned for this parliamentary session, "including climate change mitigation, supporting the rural economy, advancing land reform and environmental restoration, and promoting social policy in the fields of health and wellbeing". Mr Wightman urged the Scottish Government to address "concentrated pattern of private ownership” and to remove the monopoly of the Forestry Commission in managing the national forest estate, by offering opportunities to "community groups, environmental charities, co-operatives and local councils".

Mr Ewing had earlier said: "Currently, over 200 community groups all over Scotland are involved in managing woodlands and forests. I intend to ensure that many more are involved and included in the future. I want to add to the success of the 31 communities that already own over 10,000 acres transferred under the national forest land scheme. Forest Enterprise Scotland is developing a new community asset transfer scheme - a digital resource to provide more information and support to communities that are seeking to buy or lease parts of the national forest estate."

Conservative MSP Alexander Burnett said there was a real danger of skills shortages in the sector, with the number of Scottish students enrolling in forestry at university falling by 43 per cent since 2003. "We need to take a proactive approach to getting the next generation excited about Scotland’s forests," he added.

Confor Chief Executive Stuart Goodall said: "Fergus Ewing described the debate as one of the most positive and constructive in this session of parliament, and it is hard to disagree. It is great to see cross-party consensus on the wide-ranging benefits offered by modern forestry, backed up by a practical, evidence-based approach to delivering that through increased tree planting. 

"I was delighted to hear Confor mentioned many times in the debate and look forward to continuing to play a leading role in realising the opportunities and resolving the challenges ahead in a practical, collaborative way. Meaningful cooperation between all parties is the only way to ensure we have a modern forestry policy that really does deliver, both now and in the longer term, for our economy, environment and communities."