James Fenton: Price of new woods culturally costly

Wide-open, bleak, windswept moors, bogs and hills have shaped the culture and history of the Highlands and shaped the people
Wide-open, bleak, windswept moors, bogs and hills have shaped the culture and history of the Highlands and shaped the people
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I was out in the hills with a group last week when I mentioned that the government has a policy of covering a quarter of Scotland with trees.

They were surprised. ‘Why?’ was the immediate question. I suppose the immediate answer is that both the forestry industry, for understandable reasons, and the environmental NGOs have been pushing for more trees in Scotland, a policy articulated in the 2006 Scottish Forestry Strategy.

In practice a policy of 25 per cent of Scotland under trees will play out very differently in different parts of the country: the agricultural lowlands will remain largely as farmland, the peatlands of Caithness will remain as open flows, the high hill tops as summit heath and rock.

So the trees will have to go on to the moorland and the lower slopes of the hills, with considerably more than 25 per cent coverage needed to meet the national average: most of the Highlands will have to become like the heavily forested Argyll and Galloway Forest Parks of today.

But is this what we really want? And why are we so anxious to lose our ancient landscapes? To make Scotland more like the rest of Europe? Interestingly one argument put forward for more woodland cover is that Scotland contains less than the European average. But surely this is specious? You could equally argue, for example, that Italy has lower than the average cover of heather moorland. Should Italy be promoting heather moorland?

It is the wide-open, bleak, windswept moors, bogs and hills which over the centuries have shaped the culture and history of the Highlands, that have shaped the people. It is a dramatic but unforgiving landscape, infertile, wet, cloudy and very different to the softer, fertile farmland of the Lowlands.

But it would seem that we want to transform it, ensuring that it fulfils a decent economic role that, like the Lowlands, it is tamed to play its part in the Protestant work ethic, contributing to the economic wealth of the nation.

But what of the cultural wealth? Are we not in danger of losing that? Of losing a key element of Scottishness? Why have we allowed European and southern perspectives to persuade us that in some way our open landscapes are ‘wrong’?

Everyone is in favour of more trees in the abstract, perhaps because we are almost brainwashed into believing that they are a global panacea, promoting biodiversity, preventing climate change, stopping floods, benefiting recreation and adding to the aesthetics of the landscape – all laudable, although questionable, aims. Research shows, for example, that in northern latitudes increased woodland cover could actually warm the planet through greater absorption of heat.

Let’s at least have a debate, so that if we do decide to cover Scotland with trees, it is with our eyes open. So that, as humans are wont to do, we do not end up realising how much we valued something until there is not much of it left – by which time it is too late.

Dr James Fenton was the National Trust for Scotland’s first ecologist, and worked on landscape policy with Scottish Natural Heritage. He is a former CEO of Falklands Conservation and an ecology consultant. He lives in Oban