We must plant a rural community revival

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LAST weekend, as I was heading into the hills, I walked through what can only be described as a devastated landscape more reminiscent of a scene from the trenches of Flanders or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road than the Scottish countryside in the 21st century.

Deep muddy tracks scoured the hillside where heavy harvesting machines had methodically felled vast swathes of conifer plantation. Broken stumps pierced the skyline and a few pathetic birch trees had been left as some kind of token.

Welcome to the world of modern Scottish forestry. My mind turned to wondering who owned this devastated terrain. It turns out that the 1,600-acre forest is part of an expanding landholding owned by the Corrour Property Company Ltd, owned by Tetra Pak heiress Lisbet Rausing and her husband Peter Baldwin, who bought it in 2009 for more than £2 million. The land used to belong to the British Aluminium Company and previous owners have included Schroder Nominees Ltd and BICC (Balfour Beatty) Group Pension Trust.

And in this brief inquiry is revealed something of the untold story of Scotland’s forests. Forests are about much more than trees. Forestry is a land use with huge potential for revitalising rural economies, providing livelihoods, employment, shelter, tourism and woodland culture. How Scotland’s forests are owned and who owns them has a significant impact on whether these potential benefits are realised, and by whom.

It is a fact that the ownership of Scotland’s expanding forest cover has become dominated by owners who live far away from the land they own and whose motivations are limited solely to the financial and tax advantages associated with ownership. Perhaps that is considered a good thing by some, but what should not be forgotten is that we as a society have choices and we could decide to do things differently. Indeed, under Scotland’s existing devolution settlement Scotland has almost unfettered political freedom to make such choices.

Any inquiry into Scotland’s forest ownership pattern is not helped by the fact that the government collects no statistics on forest ownership. I was astounded when I asked the Forestry Commission about the source of ownership data they had submitted to a UN Economic Commission for Europe study on forests in 2011, to be told that it was based upon “estimates” which, in turn, are derived from a 1977 UK-wide survey.

Unlike most other European countries (which not only consider the ownership of forests to matter a great deal but collect and publish data on the subject), the Scottish Government and Forestry Commission collect minimal information on forest holdings and publish nothing. But what we now know is that Scotland stands at the extreme end of countries in Europe with the most concentrated pattern of private ownership. More than 44 per cent of forest holdings in Scotland are over 100 hectares in extent (accounting for 94 per cent of the total area of private forest). The European average is 0.7 per cent.

I studied forestry at Aberdeen University in the 1980s. At the time, there was an almighty fuss about the likes of Terry Wogan and Shirley Porter receiving substantial tax breaks for planting trees in the peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland. When the director of the company responsible for promoting these developments came to talk to us as students, I asked what was a naive question. “Why”, I asked, “is the government cutting the tax bills of wealthy individuals in London when it could instead award the same amount of money in grants to the landowners and farmers in Caithness and Sutherland who already live there?” That was when I realised that trees were political.

But it was when I first travelled to Europe that I realised that land use in Scotland was distinctly odd. Not only did many more people own land in France, Switzerland and Italy, but children had legal rights to inherit it. Farmers were also foresters. There were no big estates with tenants. And all over western Europe there is a highly localised pattern of government – communes with substantial political power.

In France, for example, there are 11,000 forest communes – 30 per cent of all communes in the country – and they own around 3 million hectares of forest or around 20 per cent of the total forest area of France. A friend of mine recently returned from a visit to Romania, where post-communist land reform has returned land to families and to communities. In the Apuseni mountains, she learnt how every individual is entitled from birth to five cubic metres of wood from the commune forests per year. Every young couple getting married is given 20-30 cubic metres to build a house. It’s hard to envisage this in the Pentlands or in the Cairngorms.

Across Scandinavia, towns and workplaces empty during holidays as people head out to the woods. There, they will pick berries, relax in the sunshine and go swimming in the lake. But it’s not just playtime. One community wood I visited in Norway last year generated £500,000 annual income and supported two sawmills and a high-quality timber house factory. Imagine a Scotland of small-scale forestry, of farm forestry, of small-scale rural businesses, of community forests.

This is not a romantic dream – it’s the reality in France and Finland – but it is a million miles from the nihilistic, corporatist model we have developed in Scotland, where celebrities and wealthy individuals from the UK and abroad are given free rein to exploit the public funds provided to expand Scotland’s forests as a source of personal tax-free aggrandisement.

A cursory look at current Scottish Government policy might suggest a green vision of expanding forest cover helping to mitigate climate change and there’s little doubting the ambitious goals that have been set. Forest cover is set to increase by 650,000 hectares from 17 per cent of the land to 25 per cent by 2050. Funding of £36m per year has been earmarked over the next four years – around £500m by 2025. That’s a lot of money. How do we ensure more us benefit from this largesse?

One way, of course would be to ask the Forestry Commission to do the job. In recent years, it has developed the national forest estate for a wide range of new uses, including moutain-biking centres, outdoor learning and community forestry. But this is unlikely and, in any case, does nothing to help diversify ownership or increase genuine local control of land use. The state at the end of the day is not always a good arbiter of the public interest as the stushie over English public forests has proved.

Another way would simply be to wave the money around and see who turns up. That’s essentially what is happening right now. One of the biggest new forestry projects in recent years was at Westwater in Dumfriesshire, where a wealthy individual from Surrey bought 530 hectares of land and the Scottish Government promptly awarded him a grant of more than £1m to plant it over the first five years. A forest is created but who benefits? Why is it thought appropriate to enrich an absentee owner to the tune of £1m?

This is money that could have been spent on an enterprising scheme to create farm forestry co-operatives or to invest in a network of community forests supporting jobs, outdoor learning, tourism, wood crafts etc. We chose otherwise.

Last week, Stewart Stevenson, the minister for environment and climate change, announced a new £6m Scottish Land Fund to help communities buy land over the next three years. Imagine if 20 per cent of the Scottish Government’s forestry grants over the next ten to 20 years were to be allocated to communities – that would represent an investment in rural communities of a stunning £100m.

This is money that is committed to tree planting and which is entirely in the gift of the Scottish Government. Others (farmers, landowners, industrial interests, etc) could also be allocated a share.

With this kind of ambition and vision, just as many trees would be planted, but instead of absentee investors and corporations seeing all the benefits, community landownership could be extended on an epic scale.

With the right kind of business and infrastructure support and another 20 per cent allocation to small-scale landowners and farmers, Scotland could, in 20 to 30 years’ time begin to emulate companies like Finland’s Metsäliitto – Europe’s largest co-operative owned by 130,000 forest owners and Europe’s largest wood producer, with an annual turnover of ¤8.4 billion (£7.1bn) and employing 30,000 people in dozens of countries around the world. A Scottish equivalent would not be quite on this scale, of course – Finland is five times larger than Scotland – but a comparable venture is perfectly feasible if (and only if) we think about who should control this new economic opportunity.

Alternatively, of course, we could proceed with business as usual, with elite financial and corporate interests snapping up the land and monopolising the public funds to further their own financial interests. Like I say, it’s a choice.

Nowhere in any of the governments’ land use strategies is there even the hint of any ambition on who should own these 650,000 hectares of new forest.

Is Scotland simply a resource colony for distant corporate industrial and financial interests, for wealthy Surrey businessmen and for ever more complex financial investment vehicles? Or is it to be a country developed not only for the benefit of the communities and people who live in rural Scotland but also for those who want to move there and create livelihoods? «

• Andy Wightman is a writer and researcher on land rights in Scotland. His latest book, The Poor Had No Lawyers, was published by Birlinn in 2010

Tree facts

• Scotland has 45 per cent of the UK’s woodland.

• Scotland’s tallest tree (also the UK’s tallest tree) is a Douglas fir in Argyll which is 63.79 metres tall.

• The Isle of Arran is home to two species of tree that do not occur anywhere else in the world: the Arran whitebeam (Sorbus arranensis) and the Arran cut-leaved whitebeam (Sorbus pseudofennica).

• The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire is 5,000 years old and believed to be the most ancient tree in the UK, and perhaps the oldest living thing in Europe.

• The Rannoch Rowan is visible on a rock beside the A82 Bridge of Orchy to Glencoe road and is probably the loneliest tree in the UK.

• Scotland has 1.1 million hectares of conifers and 309,000 hectares of broadleaf trees.