Forests in Scottish Highlands being sold off ‘like the family jewels’

Timber harvesting in the Cloich Forest in the Borders. Picture: Neil Hanna
Timber harvesting in the Cloich Forest in the Borders. Picture: Neil Hanna
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The Scottish Government has been accused of “selling off Scotland” and continuing a Thatcher era privatisation of publicly owned forests.

Former forester Duncan Cameron, who lives in the northwest Highlands, believes the national forest estate could be an important income generator as well as offering health and environmental benefits.

But he claims the current national strategy “does not stand up to moral or economic scrutiny”.

He says the Scottish people are being “short-changed by a policy that mainly suits the privileged”.

He wants a moratorium on sales of large tracts of land suitable for commercial plantations.

“If private forestry makes economic sense, so must public forestry,” he said.

”Publicly owned forestry was established as an economic and strategic necessity. The focus should firstly be on timber production and thereafter on outdoor leisure and environmental stewardship.

“Imports of timber to the UK in 2017 totalled £7.8 billion. Forestry in Scotland has huge economic potential.”

Official figures show forestry contributes £1bn per year to the Scottish economy and supports more than 25,000 jobs.

Management of Scotland’s forest estate is undergoing transition as it becomes fully devolved from the UK, set to be completed by April.

Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) is responsible for strategy and policy while Forest Enterprise Scotland (FES) manages the estate.

Since 2005, FES has operated the Woodland Investment Programme, in which land contributing the least public benefit is sold and the proceeds used to buy land for woodland creation or starter farms.

According to FES, 48,282 hectares have been sold, with 30,480 hectares acquired. This equates to a net reduction of 2.7 per cent of the national forest estate.

However, figures show sales of plantations brought in more than £112 million, while under £10m was spent on acquisitions since 2005.

Scotland has repeatedly missed planting targets to create 10,000 hectares of new trees each year – a goal that is set to rise to 15,000 hectares annually by 2025.

Highlands and Islands MSP Edward Mountain, rural affairs spokesman for the Conservatives, has backed Cameron’s claims.

He said: “Parliament agreed to selling of land provided it was reinvested in the estate. People thought that was buying new land, but they have used it to offset the running costs of the estate so it hasn’t gone back in and the size of the estate has been reduced. It’s like selling off the family jewels.”

Scottish Labour’s Rhoda Grant, MSP for the Highlands and Islands, has also criticised the lack of reinvestment in new land.

“Since the SNP came into government they have sold off 48,652 hectares and bought a mere 19,628. That means they have a balance of £63,798,349,” she said.

“They need urgently to invest the money they have made from the sale in buying land for new forestry. This is crucial not only for the environment but also for our wood processing industry.”

An FES spokesman said: “Since the investment programme started, there has been a net reduction of about 2.7 per cent of the national forest estate. This won’t compromise our work. We continue to seek appropriate sites to purchase to add to the estate.”