Skills shortage ‘threat’ to dynamic sector

30 October 2018

A shortage of skilled people could be a bigger threat to the success of the Scottish Forestry Strategy than the availability of land, according to the politician leading the sector in Scotland. 

Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy, was speaking at a breakfast seminar on the strategy organised by Confor and legal firm Anderson Strathern. 

Mr Ewing said the £1 billion forestry and wood processing sector was in a dynamic and confident place in Scotland and that he had "great optimism and ambition" for the industry and the 25,000-plus jobs it supports.  

He thought the Scottish Forestry Strategy provided a "clear framework for action" to meet the planting target of 10,000 hectares per annum, rising to 15,000 hectares by 2025. 

However, Mr Ewing highlighted skills as a specific challenge. "We have a new apprenticeship for machine operators and we [public and private sector] need to work collaboratively to tackle the skills issue - because it might be a bigger issue than the availability of land. 

"If you cannot get people to do the work, you cannot achieve your objectives." 

Mr Ewing said he was hopeful that the 10,000-hectare new planting target for 2018 would be hit and he recognised the need for the strategy to address the vital issue of a future consistent timber supply.  

Urging delegates to respond to the consultation on the strategy by November 29th, he said: "A strategy either flies or it is words on a page. I want people to feel this strategy has a purpose and they have a stake in it, so it is much more than words on a page."

Stuart Goodall, CEO of Confor, said the forestry sector was reaching a level of maturity and that the private sector was ready to step up to the mark and plant the trees needed to deliver multiple environmental, social and economic benefits. "We know that we have to strain every sinew to take carbon out of the atmosphere to meet climate change targets - and planting trees is a proven, low-cost way to do that."  

He added: "We need to link the Forestry Strategy very clearly into other policies, and it is vital to show - to the general public and rural communities - the multiple benefits forestry and wood can deliver." 

John Mitchell, Head of Land and Rural Business at Anderson Strathern, said it was significant that the forestry strategy was on a statutory footing for the first time. He thought sufficient land should be available to plant, based on the amount of land that was categorised as rough grazing. "Community engagement and consultation is of growing importance," he said. "Not all communities are supportive of commercial forestry." 

Charles Dundas, Scottish Public Affairs Manager for the Woodland Trust, said he thought the strategy needed more clear and specific actions - and that at the moment, it was more of a baseline position than a strategy.