Costing The Earth delivers positive forestry message

24 May 2017

"Woodlands are to be used, not just admired." That was the positive conclusion about the value of modern, mixed forestry from presenter Tom Heap at the end of Radio 4's Costing The Earth programme on Future Forests.

Confor Chief Executive Stuart Goodall was interviewed for the programme (listen here) and featured extensively, describing the need to drive up productive tree planting across the UK to avoid a potentially devastating effect on future jobs and investment. 

He told Tom Heap: "We were planting a lot of trees until the 1980s and then it almost completely stopped overnight. All those mature forests are coming through for harvesting in the next 20-25 years, and then there is a complete falling away. 

"We expect investment in saw milling and the number of jobs supported by the industry will suffer unless we start planting more trees immediately." 

Davey Rodger, who manages Glennon Brothers' Windymains Sawmill in East Lothian, told the programme: "The raw material is a concern for us. If we invest a lot of money in the sawmill, which we intend to do, we need guaranteed supplies. In 20 years' time, there are not enough logs, simple as that." 

The programme also visited Jerah, near Dunblane, the largest modern planting scheme in the UK, and examined how mixed, modern forestry can deliver multiple benefits for the environment and society as well as the economy. 

Andrew Vaughan, of Tilhill Forestry, which planted 1.2 million trees on the site in 2015, was asked by Tom Heap: "When you combine all these things - flood alleviation, access, appearance, species diversity - it must cost a lot more to set up and yield less return. So why do you do it?" 

Mr Vaughan explained that improved Sitka spruce (planted on only 38 per cent of the Jerah site, which has a mixture of 16 different species, including five main broadleaves) would deliver the same amount of saw logs from a smaller area than a forest planted in the 1970s or 80s. 

He continued: "By generating public access, amenity, landscape [value] and wildlife benefits, that is the cost of getting approval - but it is also the right thing to do. It's improved the site and I want to be proud of it and for people to enjoy it." 

Tom Heap noted that although Jerah was held up as a "beacon of good practice", it had needed 19 different versions of the planting application before it was approved. 

Stuart Goodall discussed the different approaches to planting approvals across the UK, and said having a single body in charge, which considered input from all other agencies, was the best approach. 

He repeated Confor's call for the messy three-agency system in England to end, and for the Forestry Commission to take charge of approvals, funding and planting targets - to try to drive up the pitiful 525 hectares planted in the year to March 31, 2017, described by Tom Heap as "a 45-year low". 

Mr Goodall said: "The scheme for encouraging planting in England is just not attractive. It's taking a long time to get approvals if we want to plant a large area and there does not seem to be anyone taking forward responsibility for planting in England." 

Andy Howard, project manager for the largest productive forest application in England for 20 years, at Doddington in Northumberland, said: "The biggest fundamental issue for me with the whole process is the presumption that planting a tree is a bad thing.  

"The whole process is looking at it from completely the wrong side, rather than saying how do we take this positive thing forward... which protects the environment, provides economic benefit, carbon benefit. 

"The current way is that this is going to be a bad idea." 

Tom Heap also examined the decline in woodland culture, and the fact that this culture very much involved making a living from the woodland. And he concluded that modern, mixed forestry - which recognises the importance of the historic woodland culture - was starting to take hold: "The new emphasis is on what we can get from the trees; recreation, habitat, health, carbon storage - and timber. 

"Woodlands are to be used - and not just admired."