New survey shows public understanding of forestry benefits rising rapidly

2 August 2021

A regular flow of positive stories about forestry and wood has had a significant impact on public opinion towards forestry in Scotland, including highlighting its economic benefits. This is in contrast to England where the economic benefits of woodland are given lesser emphasis, and in Wales where public opinion was more mixed.

Forest Research’s Public Opinion of Forestry 2021 in Scotland survey found that the general public strongly support forestry and tree planting, and recognise that this delivers economic, environmental and social benefits.

Those who believe “a lot more trees should be planted” rose from 80% in 2011 and 88% in 2017 (the last Scottish-specific survey of this kind) to 92% in 2021. The figure was 82% in England, slightly down on the last survey in 2019. 

The percentage of people who had read about forestry in the media increased significantly in Scotland since 2017, with a very steep rise over the decade from 2011. 

In 2011, just 19% of people recalled reading or hearing about tree planting in the media. This was up to 26% in 2017, but shot up to 49% in 2021. 

Similarly, 42% of respondents recalled reading or hearing about how forests and woods helped tackle climate change in 2021 - up from 18% in 2017 and just 12% in 2011. 

Those who remembered reading or hearing about at least one topic relating to forestry and wood was up to 71% in 2021, from 54% in 2017 and 48% in 2011. Forest Research described this as a “statistically significant increase”. 

Confor Chief Executive Stuart Goodall said: “These figures make very positive reading and show that the general public have a much broader understanding of the value of forests and woods in Scotland – from an economic perspective as well as places to visit and habitats for wildlife. 

“It is very heartening to see that the hard work of Confor and others to share the benefits of our industry, over a long period of time, is really cutting through.” 

He added: “There have recently been negative stories in the media from some pressure groups and vocal individuals who appear to downplay the benefit of producing more wood and supporting investment in local economies, but this survey shows that the general public recognises the important role the industry plays.” 

Asked about reasons to support forestry with public money, those who said this should be done to to provide timber for sawmills and wood processing increased from 25% in 2011 and 37% in 2017 to an impressive 72% in 2021 - and those who thought public money should be spent so that Scotland can buy less wood products from abroad went up from 29% in 2011 and 45% in 2017 to 81% in 2021. 

Support for public money to tackle climate change doubled, from 46 to 92% from 2011 to 2021 - and those who said it should be done to support the economy in rural areas increased from 40% to 86% over the same period. This is a very positive context for a forestry and wood processing industry that is creating more rural jobs and producing more wood to help reduce carbon in the atmosphere. 

Asked if using wood for building was better for climate change than using materials such as concrete, steel and plastics, 64% said yes, up from 57% in 2017 and 50% in 2011. 

“These are all key points have all been at the heart of Confor’s messages for many years - providing wood to support our sawmills and create jobs in rural areas and substituting wood for more climate-heavy materials,” said Mr Goodall. “It is great to see them really making an impact.” 

The survey also revealed that people feel it is a good use of public money for forestry to provide places for wildlife to live (93%).

“Another thing we have continually stressed in our media work is forestry can deliver for our environment, economy - and for people and communities,” said Mr Goodall.

“During the pandemic, we have seen how important forests and woods are to people - but their value for recreation, wildlife and people’s well-being can go alongside what they deliver for rural economies and climate change. These are not either-or choices.” 

86% of respondents have visited forests or woodlands in the last 12 months, with 35% reporting an increase in the number of visits they made.  Almost two thirds of respondents (63%) would like to see more woodland in their part of Scotland. 

On management of forests, those who agreed with the statement “No action is needed, Let nature take its course” dropped from 18% in 2017 to 16% in 2021. 

However, the percentage of people agreeing with the same statement was up in England, from 26% to 30%. There was also increasing support in the Forest Research survey for not cutting down trees under any circumstances, even if they were replaced, up from 30% in 2019 to 37% in 2021. 

Recognition of the value of forests to the local economy in England was also slightly down from last survey in 2019, but still sat at just under 60%. 

Mr Goodall said: “The different public attitudes in England and Scotland are interesting and Confor is aware that there is a lot of work to be done in getting across the message that productive forestry and using more wood must play a big part in future climate change and economic policy, especially in England. There are still some who wish to promote out-dated views of the forestry sector in England.

“However, what these figures say to me is that where there is more productive planting - and where we clearly demonstrate its wide-ranging benefits - the public is supportive. They understand why we need to plant, and to harvest, trees. More planting in Scotland is leading to broader understanding - and it is vital that we continue to communicate that message in all parts of the UK.

“Confor will strengthen its work to promote understanding of the sector, in a positive way, based on evidence. Where critics of modern forestry rely on outdated perceptions, rather than hard facts, we will call them out.”

In response to the Scottish survey, the minister responsible for forestry, Màiri McAllan MSP, said: “Scotland’s forests and woodlands are some of our most treasured natural assets. They are helping us tackle climate change, providing recreation for people and special places for nature to thrive – all whilst generating around £1 billion to our economy each year.

The results from the survey are very positive and reflect the multiple benefits that forests and woodlands bring to Scotland. Given our ambition to become Net Zero by 2045, it is especially good to see such strong support for tree planting as a means to tackling climate change.”

The survey for Wales provides limited insight to public perceptions of the industry as, like the England survey, questions are heavily focused on environmental and access questions, with little to say about local jobs and the green economy.