The research branch of the Forestry Commission recently held a very interesting and useful training course at the Forest of Ae in Dumfries (pictured), attended by over thirty FC Woodland Officers and staff from woodland firms and third sector organisations like ourselves - Scottish Native Woods.
There is a big focus on woodland creation at the moment, although current achievements are still very modest in an historical context and it is thought that technical know-how might be one contributing factor in that.

The Early Days
The Forestry Commission was set up in 1919 with a remit to increase our strategic reserve of timber. In the early days, cultivation techniques and equipment were very limited. Foresters became very adept at matching species to sites, by reading local changes in vegetation and soil types and planting species to suit. 
The outcome of this tended to be very diverse forests, well suited to their local micro-climate, and a generation of foresters who had an intimate knowledge of the ground and trees that they were working with.

The 1960s to 1980s
This remained the case up until the 1960’s when increased options for cultivation became available and an enthusiasm for fertilizing took hold. Sitka Spruce became the species of choice, and the emphasis of forestry changed dramatically. Out went the practice of matching species to site. Now, the site would be changed to accommodate the species. The upside of this was that greater areas could be forested more efficiently, and fertilizer and cultivation techniques targeted more closely so that differences in site quality could be apparently compensated for, and more uniform and productive forests could be established.
One downside of this was that the skill of matching species to site became less immediately useful and so gradually declined. The other downside was that many soils were planted which could not possibly sustain trees, with a belief that science would prevail dominating common sense to a very great extent.
Very many poorly grown forests on poor soils were planted at this time, many of which will never be worth harvesting or restocking. The extent of these is likely to become a political embarrassment at some time in the near future. For the moment, they are just sitting there quietly and not going away. They will likely extend to 100,000 hectares or much more, mostly on peat soils.
Even in the late 1980’s during my own forestry education, I can remember a lecturer saying it would be possible to grow trees at the top of Ben Nevis some day simply because science would find a way of doing it! He seemed to believe this.

The 1990s
In the 1990s many of these mistakes were recognized for what they were, and changes to the tax regime meant that planting areas suddenly decreased. Many people who planted trees adopted a more minimal approach, ceasing ground preparations altogether. The rapid growth of native woodland plantings started about this time, with a widespread belief that native trees did not need cultivation or technical input.
By this time, much of the skill required to match species to site had disappeared, and many foresters were left to learn by their own mistakes again. While many good schemes were developed during this period, it has to be said that many poor schemes were developed as well. The swing away from cultivation of any sort had went too far and the quality of many of our younger woodlands are testament to that.

Looking Forwards
These recent training courses recognise that there is a skills’ gap in Scottish forestry which needs to be addressed. We need to be able to match species to site, make use of cultivation in an appropriate and proportional manner where necessary and not just assume that we can bang in some trees and they will be OK.
To have productive, diverse and useful forests in the future, we have to learn from all that has went before, at the various times described over the past century. We have to learn from this and to pass it on.

Victor Clements
Scottish Native Woods



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