THE largest landowner in Scotland is the organisation responsible for the vast areas of forest that cover the country, The Scotsman can reveal today.
Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) owns about 8.5 per cent of Scotland's entire land area, and is responsible for more than a third of the country's forests.
The government-funded body tops our list of the 20 biggest landowners in Scotland, which we have been revealing throughout this week.
They have ranged from traditional landowning families to charities, community ventures and foreigners.
Forestry Commission Scotland is currently embroiled in what is set to be one of the most contentious proposals of the year.
Michael Russell, the environment minister, has suggested including powers in the Scottish Climate Change Bill which would allow 25 per cent of the forest managed by FCS to be leased to a private company.
Under the proposal, 75-year leases would be sold for an estimated 2 million, probably to an international investment firm that would use the land for commercial forestry.
The SNP proposal has sparked uproar amongst opposition parties – who have accused the Scottish Government of wanting to "sell off the family silver" – and from conservation organisations.
Jonathan Hughes, head of policy at the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT), said: "The 'big lease' proposal by the Scottish Government is a cause of great concern to SWT. Governments of the member states of the European Union have generally supported and protected their national forest estates.
"We know of no cases of these governments passing control of national forests to private interests on this scale.
"Even the privatising government of Mrs Thatcher did not sell or lease off the Forestry Commission's forests.
"We expect the Scottish Government to safeguard the Scottish national forest estate in trust for the people of Scotland, now and in the future."
Critics of the idea have also raised concerns about the impact on public access to the forests.
They fear that economic considerations would become the overriding driver, at the expense of social benefits, safeguarding the biodiversity of the woodlands and protecting the jobs that depend on them.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats have launched a campaign to oppose the proposals, which the Scottish Labour Party is also fighting.
At a recent conference attended by forestry organisations, Mr Russell defended the proposals and urged people to keep an open mind about the possibilities for the forest estate.
"The national forest estate is the single largest land resource owned by the people of Scotland," he said. "I have a strong view that no part of that should be sold off, but I also have a strong view that a resource worth 850 million should be constantly re-evaluated."
He told The Scotsman only forests used for commercial purposes would be allowed to be leased out, rather than those widely used for recreation by members of the public. He emphasised that there would be no impact on public access.
"I would defy anybody to stand in the middle of the forest and know it was leased," he said.
"The only thing you might notice was that the noticeboard at the end of the track would say something different."
The money made from the lease would be spent on meeting targets for planting 10,000 hectares of new forest each year. Currently, only about 4,000 hectares of new forest are planted annually.
Creating 10,000 hectares of woodland each year would capture an additional 200,000 tonnes of carbon annually by 2020. A consultation into the proposals closes on 27 January.
Christmas trees and forest walks
The Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) owns 1,640,000 acres of land.
This makes it by far Scotland's biggest landowner.
About 1.1 million acres of its land is wooded, which means it owns 36 per cent of Scotland's forests.
The country is split into 14 districts for management purposes. They include some of Scotland's most famous forests, such as the huge Glenmore Forest Park near Aviemore and Tay Forest Park in Perthshire.
FCS is Scotland's biggest producer of timber and one the main providers of Christmas trees, this year selling 100,000.
It is also the country's biggest provider of outdoor activities, with 370 waymarked paths totalling almost 750 miles. It has created 130 cycle routes totalling just over 800 miles.
FCS was created in April 2003, after a mini-devolution settlement led to the breaking up of the UK-wide Forestry Commission.
FCS was in effect a directorate of the Scottish Government. It owns land in its own right but ministers can intervene over what it does with it.
1. Forestry Commission Scotland: 1,640,000 acres
2. Buccleuch Group: 270,000 acres
3. National Trust for Scotland: 192,000 acres
4. Scottish Government: 174,000 acres
5. Blair Castle Charitable Trust: 140,000 acres
6. Alcan: 135,000 acres
7. Capt. Alwyn Farquharson: 125,000 acres
8. RSPB: 124,172 acres
9. Duke of Westminster: 120,000 acres
10. Crown Estate Commission: 106,000 acres
11. South Uist Estate Ltd: 93,000 acres
12 > Donald Angus Cameron: 90,000 acres
12 > Countess of Sutherland: 90,000 acres
14: Children of the late Paul van Vlissengen: 87,000 acres
15. The Seafield Family: 84,500 acres
16. Scottish Natural Heritage: 84,000 acres
17. The Fleming family: 80,000 acres
18. Hon. Charles "Chas" Pearson: 77,000 acres
19. Lord Margadale: 73,000 acres
20. Malaysian businessman known as Mr Salleh: 71,000 acres