Political support for Confor Manifesto

Confor received widespread political support for its manifesto calling for the Scottish Government to meet its planting targets at a major forestry and timber conference in Edinburgh.

Confor received widespread political support for its manifesto calling for the Scottish Government to meet its planting targets at a major forestry and timber conference in Edinburgh.

Forestry and Timber: Scotland's Hidden Success Story heard two repeated themes - the sector must communicate its positive story more effectively and Scotland must hit its planting targets if it is to deliver a wide range of economic, environmental and social benefits and secure the future of a £1 billion industry.

Michael Russell MSP, who has covered the forestry brief as Minister for Environment in the Scottish Government, said: "It is a very valuable sector and employs lots of people - but things are not happening that need to happen, especially planting. If we can achieve that, forestry is on an upward trajectory in Scotland."

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon reaffirmed the Scottish Government's commitment to plant 100,000 hectares of new woodland over a decade to 2022 in a major speech in late 2015. However, Confor's election manifesto Growing a resilient Scotland calculated that the original annual contribution of 10,000 hectares (ha) for ten years needs to rise to 13,000ha per year to meet the target.

Mr Russell accepted that the targets had to be met and during a political panel discussion, praised the Confor manifesto for its "simplicity and directness", saying its five main points effectively summed up the challenges facing the industry. The five action points Confor wants the next Scottish Government to deliver are:

* Hit the planting target of 100,000ha of new woodland in the decade to 2022, with 60,000ha of productive softwood;

* Improve the forestry applications system to encourage, not discourage, planting applications;

* Stimulate markets for wood and timber;

* Restock all our forests;

* Continue to support timber transport 

Michael Russell said a range of approaches - including greater community ownership but also large-scale commercial planting in new areas - would be needed to hit the planting targets. Other politicians on the panel, including Labour's Claudia Beamish and Green candidate and land campaigner Andy Wightman, agreed significant commercial planting was needed to hit the targets.

Mr Russell thought "reducing bureaucracy to an enormous degree" was also vital to increase planting. Raymond Henderson, a Partner with Bidwells, told the conference an over-bureaucratic and dysfunctional grants system was the biggest barrier and that "obtaining permission for significant new areas of woodland creation is on the whole extremely difficult."

Andrew Vaughan of Tilhill Forestry outlined the bureaucratic challenge of creating Jerah, Scotland's largest new planting scheme of recent years, on a former hill sheep farm above Menstrie, Clackmannanshire. There were 19 versions of the Forest Plan before Jerah went ahead as a "multi-benefit site, with timber production as the primary objective"; 1.3 million trees of 16 different species were planted on almost 600ha of the site.

However, the environmental impact statement for Jerah was more than 77,000 words with another 57,000 in annexes - and statements are even longer for ongoing schemes. Mr Vaughan called for a reduction in the "length, complexity, cost and stress" of documents but also recognised the need to "engage with communities, not just consult and inform".

Andrew Heald, Technical Director of Confor, said the sector had to work better with everyone all of the time: "It's up to us to create a woodland culture by getting involved in social media, going into local schools or organising open days or site visits. Getting people on site and explaining what we do makes a real difference. None of this is easy. It takes time and investment but we need to do it."

Conference chair Muriel Gray, a self-confessed tree addict, said: "Forestry and timber in Scotland is vibrant, thriving and exciting and we should focus on making it grow and creating the industry it deserves to be."

Confor's Chief Executive Stuart Goodall, who stressed that the priorities of the forestry and timber sector were "communication, communication, communication", launched Confor's new short film, Animating Forestry at the conference.

Its release follows the video Our Forests, Our People and a series of publications ahead of the manifesto in an extremely busy start to 2016.

Mr Goodall said after the conference, which was sponsored by Confor along with Bidwells, Scottish Woodlands, Tilhill Forestry and Anderson Strathern: "Confor is leading the way in taking the positive messages about forestry and timber to a wider audience. The conference reinforced the need to do that - and to do it better - but it also showed that we are making real progress.

"It was very gratifying to hear Michael Russell MSP praise our manifesto for its clear, simple messages - and to hear a broad consensus from the panel of politicians that tree planting must increase, including large-scale commercial schemes. There was also an understanding that we must cut back the bureaucracy and complexity around the applications process.

"Overall, the conference showed that forestry and timber in Scotland is a confident sector that understands its past and has a clear direction for its future. I'd like to thank all the sponsors and speakers, as well as the near-150 delegates who attended a very high quality and good-humoured event, which created a real buzz and laid down a blueprint for the future."

* A more detailed conference report will appear as a pull-out in The Scotsman tomorrow (Thursday 24th March) and on this site later in the week.