Scotsman Forestry Conference: Seeds for a growth industry

Speakers at the seminar included Scottish rural affairs minister Fergus Ewing. 
Pictures: Lisa Ferguson
Speakers at the seminar included Scottish rural affairs minister Fergus Ewing. Pictures: Lisa Ferguson
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As the consultation period on the forestry sector nears its end, The Scotsman’s seminar tackles the main themes

The £1 billion forestry and timber industry is hugely important to Scotland’s rural economy – and modernising and simplifying the way it is run can make it even more successful, a Scotsman Conferences’ seminar heard.

Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet secretary for rural economy and connectivity, outlined plans to complete the full devolution of forestry to Scotland with new legislation to replace the Forestry Act 1967.

“Forestry and wood processing makes an enormous contribution to rural Scotland, supporting 25,000 jobs. There is a hint of Cinderella in the way it is perceived, but it is really important and we are committed to realising its potential,” he said.

Stuart Goodall, chief executive of forestry trade body Confor, described how economic impact and job numbers in the forestry and timber industry had boomed since 2008, a period when many other industries had declined.

The event, The Future of Forestry in Scotland, was held to highlight the consultation on the subject, which ends next Wednesday.

The seminar heard that as well as supporting economic growth and employment, forestry was crucial in the effort to meet climate change targets and build more homes.

“Wood should take on the mighty brick and increase its use in construction,” said Ewing.

“Meeting tree planting targets of 10,000 hectares (or 100sq km) a year was vital to future success, he insisted: “We have a lot of work to do and will not achieve the targets overnight, but we can do it by working as a team.

“We need to do it because there is a big gap [in timber supply] emerging and we need to ensure we keep investment coming in.”

Goodall said the future looked much more hopeful thanks to Ewing’s commitment to meet planting targets and said “roller-coaster planting” in the past made it very hard for businesses to plan ahead.

This led to one tree nursery burning two million young trees earlier this year because there was no market for them.

Ewing said it was also important to tackle perceptions by highlighting not only forestry and timber’s £1bn economic contribution, but also the fact it is now an “incredibly sophisticated” and technologically advanced sector which should be attractive to new entrants.

Goodall said the majority of employees in forestry businesses came from the local area and would continue to do so – but seasonal work like planting needed some itinerant labour and it was important this would be available after Brexit.

Goodall said Brexit presented an opportunity to look more widely at land use after the focus on farming subsidy under the Common Agricultural Policy.

“My personal plea is not just to move current structures around but to look at all land uses equally with a view to making our rural areas successful,” he said

“Forestry needs to be part of much wider policy thinking and we need to engage communities much more.

“Local authorities can invest in forestry and get a good return and provide local community benefits at the same time. Without forestry, Scotland will not hit its greenhouse gas reduction targets.”

The full devolution of forestry was “a journey we need to travel on together”, said Ewing, adding: “I’m hoping we can have maximum consensus and not too much politics involved. We want to take people with us.”

Ewing said there was an important role for communities to play, with Jonny Hughes, chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, saying there were real opportunities to create “bottom-up” jobs at local level.

Hughes said he understood the economic benefits of proposed new legislation, but called for a stronger focus on the environmental and social benefits.

Liz Barron-Majerik of the Scottish School of Forestry at Inverness College UHI said Brexit and the Enterprise and Skills Review provided major challenges for the sector – and that it had to “make particularly clear how important it is in economic terms” to ensure it did not lose out.

Changes aim to deliver ‘fully accountable’ service

The proposal for the full devolution of forestry to Scotland includes bringing the functions of Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS), part of a UK-wide body, into a new forestry division of the Scottish Government.

The legislation will also create a body, Forestry and Land Scotland, replacing Forest Enterprise (FE), which currently manages the National Forest Estate of about 640,000 hectares (6,400sq km).

There will be continued cross-border co-operation with the UK Government over issues like plant health and disease and common codes and forestry standards.

Fergus Ewing said the changes were about delivering a “fully accountable” forestry service.

Adam Gillingham, a partner in legal firm Turcan Connell, said a large number of pieces of legislation had an impact on forestry.

He added: “We are in a somewhat confusing and arguably out-of-date situation whereby the National Forest Estate is funded by the Scottish Government and managed by Forestry Commission Scotland.”

He also thought there was confusion over the roles of FCS and FE.

Ewing said there would be a “resolute” focus on forestry, with the potential to examine other landholdings in future “if the Scottish Parliament so wished”.

He added that the plan was to present a new Forestry Bill by June 2017.

There were mixed views on the disappearance of the Forestry Commission name as part of the proposed changes.

Jonny Hughes thought people would be “disquieted” because it was a very strong brand, but there was also a sense that the FC could not be seen as “the be-all and end-all of forestry”.