Stuart Goodall: Why Holyrood must get new forestry framework right

Scotland's largest modern-day tree planting site, Jerah (between Menstrie and Dunblane)
Scotland's largest modern-day tree planting site, Jerah (between Menstrie and Dunblane)
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Forestry has come a very, very long way in the last 50 years. In 1967, forest cover in Scotland was about half what it is today. The government’s focus was solely on producing wood, while the businesses who would eventually use that wood, including sawmills, were still in their infancy.

Fast forward to 2017, and forests cover 18 per cent of Scotland, employ more than 25,000 people and contribute £1 billion to the economy, while also providing homes for wildlife and places for people to walk and cycle.

In 1967, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and The Beatles topped the charts. Now we measure the popularity of songs in downloads and streaming, not vinyl sales – while records may sound better than any digital format, I can now carry my music collection around with me.

The last 50 years has also seen the process of devolution, with Scotland taking responsibility for how it supports and regulates forestry.

Until now, the legislative framework for that role has been a 1967 Act. It’s not surprising, therefore, that we now have draft legislation at Holyrood designed to provide a new framework for forestry.

While this particular legislation may not last 50 years, it is vital that Parliament gets it right. Forestry is a long-term business, and needs as much certainty about the future as it can get.

I have highlighted Parliament, and not the Scottish Government, quite deliberately. The SNP does not have a majority at Holyrood and therefore relies on the support of at least one other party to pass legislation. There is, however, a bigger prize on offer here – a cross-party consensus on forestry.

Complete cross-party consensus on any issue is not easy to achieve, but if it was possible, it would provide a truly meaningful, long-term framework for forestry in Scotland.

In their deliberations on the Bill, I would also highlight to MSPs the importance of looking at how forestry can deliver for Scotland, and not just at how forestry can be used to serve individual objectives. That may seem like playing with words, but the principle is important.

Forestry is perhaps unique in its ability to provide jobs, income to Scotland, homes for people and wildlife, carbon sequestration and places for people to enjoy – all at the same time and in the same forest. In Scotland we deliver that by adhering to standards for “sustainable forest management”. That term is at the heart of the new legislation.

It is easy, however, for single interest groups to look at forestry and to want it to focus solely on meeting their particular interest.

For example, they want a forest to only produce wood for businesses, or to simply be a place for wildlife, or just a playground for people. That is not sustainable forestry.

True sustainable forest management – active management that caters for economic, environmental and societal interests together – is the way that forestry will flourish and provide enduring benefits for people and wildlife.

The same principle applies to the creation of new forests. Planting more trees is hugely important in tackling climate change, and a certain area of new forest is also required to fill a temporary gap in wood supply from around 2040-2070. Tree planting can also help sheep farmers to maintain levels of production while saving money, diversifying their businesses, and promoting animal welfare. These are classic win-win outcomes.

At the moment, the Bill does not have a clause placing a duty on ministers to expand forestry in Scotland – unlike the 1967 Act. A commitment to plant trees should surely be at the centre of any new forestry legislation? Alongside the Bill there will be the creation of a forestry division within the Scottish Government, putting forestry at the heart of future rural policy and action on climate change – which is vital given the challenges and opportunities presented by Brexit.

Alongside this, it is important to maintain an emphasis on retaining the expertise of forestry professionals in Government. The forestry sector is becoming the modern-day engine-room of the Scottish rural economy, and Scotland is the powerhouse of the UK forestry sector. The sector needs forestry expertise in regulation and support, championing the sector from within government.

For a successful Scotland and successful sector, forestry needs to be at the heart of decision-making; forestry at arms’ length is forestry forgotten.

Stuart Goodall is Chief Executive of Confor: promoting forestry and wood, which represents more than 1500 forestry and wood-using businesses. www.confor.org.uk