Meetings of the Woodland Expansion Advisory Group (WEAG) are currently taking place across the country with over 100 people attending the recent event in Perth.  Like many others, I was keen to see if this was a mechanism that might reconcile the problems between farming and forestry or if it was simply a means of making it look as if the Scottish Government were trying to address the issue.
Tree planting in Glen LyonWebIn a nutshell, the Scottish Government want to increase the woodland cover in Scotland to provide additional timber, diversify habitats and contribute to an overall carbon reduction strategy. The problem is that other land use activity must necessarily be displaced in order to do this, at least temporarily. The challenge is if this can be implemented in such a way that the outcome gives us a net increase in overall production and environmental quality in our countryside. In most cases, this should actually be possible.
I have to say that I was more encouraged than not. The ideas are there. My question is will they feed through to government and be taken forwards in an effective manner?

Trees Not Spreading
To address the issue, we need to address the problems. For a start, the fear among farmers that forestry is sweeping across the country is not borne out by events on the ground. Woodland planting over the past five years or so has been at historically low levels, barely touching 5000 ha in 2012, fifty percent of the target. When woodland removal for renewable energy projects, bog restoration and other reasons is taken in to account, the overall forest area is actually declining by several thousand hectares a year. The Government don’t tell us this. It is kept quiet. It is not convenient for us to know.
The good news for the Scottish Government is that money is not the main limiting factor in this. Indeed, planting grants are recognized by many as being a bribe to plant trees. It is just one that many people are not picking up.

What To Do
Firstly, the top levels of Forestry Commission staff must admit to the problems with the Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP) that lower levels and everyone else knows exist, but they are reluctant to do so. We need them to develop some backbone and make sure than SGRPID share their proportion of blame as well. There is no need to be afraid of the Cabinet secretary, I am sure. We can then move on and deal with matters and quickly provide a scheme that works better.

“... Twenty percent of Scotland carries a nature conservation designation, with a presumption against forestry, but much of this area of upland grassland and heath is secondary habitat that would quickly revert to woodland given half a chance....”

We need better ways of putting together collaborative projects across neighbouring units, something which the existing scheme has failed miserably in doing. There are now some ideas coming forwards about how this might be done.
We need to develop a variation of the Forestry Commission Land Leasing Scheme which allows areas of less than 30 hectares to be planted, or to find this area across a number of farms. Everyone is agreed that money is not the motivating factor for farmers, as long as their current businesses and subsidies are not threatened. If trees can be provided with minimum hassle, people will go for this. The land leasing scheme, disappointing to date, is definitely the right idea if a proportion of the SRDP budget should be switched across to it. It is just not quite there yet, and needs some final development.
Twenty percent of Scotland carries a nature conservation designation, with a presumption against forestry, but much of this area of upland grassland and heath is secondary habitat that would quickly revert to woodland given half a chance. The original selection of these sites thirty years ago was very arbitrary, and times have moved on. We need to reduce our designated area of land, and we will not lose anything of real value by doing this.

“... Most importantly, we have to accept that the EU rules are not to blame for everything, and that many of our problems stem from our own interpretation of those rules and the government can indeed do something about it. Yes, even the Scottish Government can. ...”

Contrary to the view of NFUS, we should trust farmers and landowners to plant good quality land on their units if they themselves judge that this will improve overall productivity. It is no business of anyone else if they choose to do so. Forestry Commission buying good land to plant is a different matter. That is not appropriate.
Likewise, if someone does choose to plant out a whole farm, we have to accept that this might happen in some places, and that we cannot micro-manage it. The timber industry which employs many thousands in rural Scotland does need sizeable uniform areas to plant. Small shelter belts are no good to them.
If we cannot start planting more trees, investment in sawmills will cease, and the wider rural economy will be the worse for that. Sawmills are already nervous. Reducing the previous planting targets to being “aspirational” may be politically attractive, but there will be a price to pay for this and we will regret it.
Most importantly, we have to accept that the EU rules are not to blame for everything, and that many of our problems stem from our own interpretation of those rules and the government can indeed do something about it. Yes, even the Scottish Government can.

Greater Priorities
The farming/ forestry problem is, in many ways, manufactured for political effect. Farmers in Perthshire are more concerned about fuel prices, CAP reform, the power of supermarkets, opportunities for young people, disease risk, the wider economy and jobs within the local area for their families. They are concerned about hospitals and education and law and order just like everyone else.  Trees don’t really come in to it, certainly not here.
Farmers are frustrated by the inability of government to deal with these bigger issues. Forestry is, then, a handy scapegoat, allowing them to let of steam. Satisfying for some maybe, but ultimately unproductive for everyone involved in the end.
The argument itself creates concern and uncertainty, and makes the situation worse.
If we really want to address the problem, we need to recognise this, stop telling other people their business and just lighten up a bit. And WEAG needs to take a sledgehammer to Richard Lochhead’s door and make sure that their key messages do indeed get through.


Victor Clements
The writer works as a woodland advisor and is based in Aberfeldy in Highland Perthshire
His picture above shows tree planting in Glen Lyon

 

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