Anne-Marie Trevelyan, MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed and Vice-Chair of the APPGF, said: “There are key areas we are looking to drive forward in terms of the opportunity to break down some of the silos which EU regulations have allowed Defra to follow without question.
“Defra has spent 40 years as an outpost of EU funding decisions. The message is that we need joined-up thinking - and ways of thinking we haven’t seen in the past.”
Chris Davies, MP for Brecon and Radnorshire and APPGF Chair, urged collaboration across the rural sector: “We only have this opportunity once after Brexit and we need the rural sector to come together and tell us what’s needed to mould that to support the [forestry and timber] industry in the years to come.
Stuart Goodall, Confor’s Chief Executive, briefed the APPGF on Confor’s latest report, A Thriving Forestry and Timber Sector in a post-Brexit World. He also updated members on major developments in the sector, saying that increased new planting and restocking was the crucial issue, irrespective of Brexit: “New planting is still disappointingly low. The Woodland Creation Planning Grant [part of the Forestry Innovation Fund] has opened up again in England and will hopefully bring more planting forward but we are still not hitting the targets we would like.” [The commitment to plant 11 million trees in the lifetime of the current UK Parliament needs over 1000 hectares of trees planted each year, but the latest annual figure is just 750ha].
The progress of the 354-hectare Doddington North scheme in Northumberland was very positive, said Mr Goodall and “on a completely different scale to anything we have seen in England in the last 20 years”. The applicants had consulted the local community and a wide range of interest groups and were taking “a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate what modern forestry planting schemes are all about”.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, whose constituency covers Doddington, said: “The scheme in itself is 5 per cent of existing planting targets. It is joining up water management plans with wildlife habitats and using marginal land to plant trees and deliver a long-term timber supply to local businesses. It is a really good, joined-up bit of planting.”
Chris Davies welcomed the Doddington scheme but said there was still an issue over public perception of large planting schemes: “We are all mindful of the issues around planting, not just the time it takes but also public perception. There is local disquiet in my constituency over a large planting scheme funded by an investor; it’s an issue about investment forestry and how it is portrayed.”
However, Mr Davies was very concerned about the apparent “void” in Wales, with almost no planting taking place. He added: “On the Natural Resources Wales website, you struggle to see that forestry exists. Yet there is a great opportunity in Wales to plant on poorer quality land which is not suitable for agriculture - but there is very little planting going on.”
Mr Davies asked Confor members and interest groups at the event which parts of the UK were doing best in terms of forestry policy. The general consensus was that Scotland was much more forward-looking, with a more flexible approach to grant schemes delivering greater re-planting than in England, which had a more rigid approach. Hamish Macleod of BSW said: “In Scotland, the Cabinet Secretary responsible for forestry has an economic brief and looks at an integrated rural economy rather than being an add-on to an environmental department."
Julian Ohlsen of Tilhill Forestry, said the challenge in England was all about process - and part of the problem was the Forestry Commission doing less stakeholder engagement work, due to budgetary pressures. This created a perception of “outside money” paying for engagement, which led to challenges even with very well-planned and high-quality schemes.
Mike Seville of the CLA thought that we could only “tinker around the edges” of new planting for the next couple of years, but that there was a major opportunity when Brexit decisions kicked in. He said: “We talk about the farming sector and the forestry sector but the truth is that most landowners do both, with typically around 10 per cent of the land given over to forestry. We need to look at models which allow landowners to make a choice - both cash-flow and investment models.
“Forestry delivers lots of non-market benefits which the public enjoys and expects, and there is a legitimate argument for society to pay for those benefits.
“We will make a strong argument for the CAP budget level to be retained but for it to be used for different things. Forestry should benefit from that and could take a bigger part of the post-CAP budget. Also, the potential for woodland creation to deliver on the government’s carbon mitigation targets in cost-effective way is very strong.”
Chris Davies urged all interested parties to give evidence to the EFRA inquiry intoforestry, which closes to submissions on October 18. “It’s been a long time coming and we want it to be as comprehensive as possible,” Mr Davies said.