The Forestry Commission recently made a change to woodland grants, capping the area on which farmland premium would be paid to 50 ha for native woodland schemes. The rationale given was that it would encourage people to plant more conifers instead.
What is this all about?  When I was a student in the 1980’s, it was conifers that were planted everywhere, mostly Sitka Spruce. This is what forestry was supposed to be about. If you showed any interest in native species, you were considered something of a crank, or at least viewed with suspicion. It was a potential sign that you did not have a business mind, that you could not be trusted to advise landowners with long term financial decisions.
At that time, most planting schemes had an obligatory 5% broadleaves, usually planted grudgingly. Often, they were planted badly and never maintained.
A generation later in 2012, 65% of all woods planted in Scotland are native woodland, with a further 16% of mixed woodland, half of which will likely be native species. This  does not include an area of conifers that will probably be native Scots Pine. One way or another, 80% of trees being planted are native species. The timber industry is concerned that lack of conifer planting will deter people from investing in sawmills, but why are people now planting native woods, and will the change in grant rates alter this?

Learning from Experience
Native woodland regenerationWebThe reasons are many and complex. Over the time period concerned, the message about the value of native species has got through. Many small or medium sized spruce plantations were ready to fell in the late 1990s when prices were poor, and the “jam tomorrow” promised by many land agents never materialized. The cost of road repairs often wiped any profit out. Many landowners came to realise that supposed high productivity was not everything. In many cases, it would have been better to settle for something that grew a bit more slowly, but gave a better range of products and other objectives.
Mixed and broadleaved woods tended to be more stable, were better for wildlife, amenity and landscape, and added more value to property as a whole. It would also be easier to integrate other activities into them or around them. Single species plantations grew up in a uniform cloak and if the first opportunity to thin them was lost, as it invariably was, then you would have a wood that could only be clearfelled and then replanted, perhaps at cost. Native broadleaves and mixed woods gave more and better options, and more versatility. Disappointed spruce growers were quick to tell neighbours of their experiences.
Very few farmers and landowners are motivated by producing timber for somebody else in a faraway sawmill in forty years’ time. They are motivated by other objectives (above), and native and mixed woodlands invariably fulfil those objectives better. It is not difficult to persuade people of this. This essentially is the reason they are planted.

Existing Conifer Woods
The area of existing conifer plantation is coming under pressure from several directions as well. Many owners take the opportunity to restructure and increase the proportion of native broadleaves when it comes to felling time. The restocking grants massively favour broadleaves. The EU dissuades you from restocking with spruce. Many isolated conifer blocks cause problems when accessing the timber, and are replaced with broadleaves to ensure that a future harvesting operation on the same magnitude is not needed again.
Many owners now opt for a system of continuous cover forestry, where they progressively thin a stand of conifers and encourage regeneration underneath. Invariably, the regeneration turns out to be native woodland species, with the woodland slowly turning from one type into another. Restoring Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS) very often results in conifers being cleared, or a long term thinning regime being established which gradually increases the native component over many years, slowly but surely.
Conifers are retained, but the regime favours fewer, bigger trees. Valuable, yes, but less suited to many modern mills. There are 55,000 ha of such plantations in Scotland, and many owners have now started a process of increasing the component of native species, and decreasing the conifer element, at least to some degree.

Other Sources of Conifer Loss
There is a very significant area of conifers removed every year for renewable energy projects in the uplands. Conifer removal for bog restoration is very significant as well. Perhaps most chillingly, there are several hundred thousand hectares of conifers in Scotland on deep peat sites that should really never be replanted again once, or if, they can ever be felled. This could very easily cancel out any increase in woodland area from new planting.
A future government will just have to bite their lip and deal with this. It will be a big issue, both politically and financially. It is not the fault of any one government or party, just something that is quietly sneaking up on us over many years.
The recent changes to grant rates are unlikely to make much difference to the area of native species being planted. People planting trees at a larger scale are not really motivated by the money, as long as it broadly stacks up. A few pounds more or less is neither here nor there.

Highland Perthshire
If you look at the trees planted in Highland Perthshire over the last twenty years or so, they are nearly all native or mixed woodlands, as are the ones in the pipeline at present. Almost without exception, people are planting them because they are convinced by the arguments. Most sizeable woods are actually planted to provide future shelter for deer.
People are not convinced by the so called “commercial” conifer plantings, many of which have cost their neighbours money in the recent past, and which offer less in the way of flexibility.
Increasing prices for woodfuel and firewood have stimulated a market for timber from native species, and this is likely to endure, providing a demand for small lots of timber at a local level.
The tables have most certainly turned, and are unlikely to revert to the situation we had thirty years ago. For many people, planting native woods has turned out to be the better long term financial option after all, and those of us advocating this were never cranks really. It is now the spruce farmers who appear a little odd.

Victor Clements
The writer works as a woodland adviser in Aberfeldy in Highland Perthshire.  His picture above shows native woodland regeneration in an area cleared of conifers.



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