Stuart Goodall: Planting the seed – tree target could give farmers new opportunities

Confor CEO Stuart Goodall (left), SNP MP for Edinburgh North and Leith Deidre Brock and Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy, Fergus Ewing MSP, pledge to plant 36 million trees annually by 2030.
Confor CEO Stuart Goodall (left), SNP MP for Edinburgh North and Leith Deidre Brock and Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy, Fergus Ewing MSP, pledge to plant 36 million trees annually by 2030.
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AS we settle into 2020 and think about taking down the festive decorations, we should pause to reflect that trees are not just for Christmas.

Hopefully, everyone has plans to recycle their real Christmas tree, so it can be turned into compost or chippings. Anything else would just be wrong, as trees are the ­ultimate in sustainability – when you ­harvest them (normally for much ­longer-term uses than Christmas trees), you can plant more in their place and the wood itself is normally reuseable.

Most Christmas trees come from specialist farms, though they can also be from so-called ‘nurse crops’ for new woodland of broadleaf trees.

This is a reflection of the way that forestry in Scotland has changed since the Forestry Commission was established in 1919. Then the focus was maximising production of ­timber for pit props, now more and more people are planting woods and benefiting from them in ­different ways.

I recently came across an enterprising forest owner in Aberdeenshire who produces foliage for wreaths, while an increasing number in the farming community have begun to embrace forestry this year, recognising the opportunity to diversify into an activity that doesn’t rely on ­long-term annual payments from the government.

With the future shape of rural funding uncertain after Brexit, there is an increasing realisation among farmers that trees can provide shelter for sheep in ­winter, improving animal ­welfare and reducing feed costs – as well as offering fuel for the wood burner.

Looking ahead, and with New Year resolutions in mind, I hope that Scottish Government and the forestry sector will do more to grasp the opportunities presented by the hundreds of thousands of broadleaf trees – birch, sycamore, aspen, oak and more – planted in new, mixed-species woodlands.

Traditionally they haven’t been looked after as they grow – if they were, Scotland could produce more high-quality wood for bespoke houses, for flooring, windows and other domestic uses.

These trees would be very valuable alongside the softwoods which ­supply timber to sawmills or wood panel businesses – and provide many domestic wooden products which we all take for granted. While these modern, mixed ­forests are growing, thousands of us will enjoy walking, cycling or bird-watching in the woods.

How many of you have been out for a walk in the woods over the ­Christmas holidays so far? If not, there is still time to walk, run or cycle off some of those extra festive pounds.

In 2019, the Scottish Government surpassed its annual new planting target of 10,000 hectares (about 20 million trees) and just before Christmas, the SNP committed to planting 18,000ha (about 36 ­million trees) annually in Scotland by 2030.

There is cross-party support at Holyrood for more tree planting, given the recognition of the key role these forests can play in the fight against the damaging impacts of ­climate change, as growing trees soak up carbon and wood products store carbon.

When I began my career in the forestry sector in the 1980s, planting and managing trees was for the few, and most of us had little awareness of its wide-ranging benefits – to the woodland owner and to our society, our rural economy and our ­environment. In just under a year’s time, Glasgow will host the major climate change summit COP26 – a great opportunity to realise the wide-ranging benefits of planting more trees and managing the ones we already have much more effectively than we did in the past.

Trees are a vital component of what Scotland can do to face up to climate change, our most ­fundamental ­global challenge – something to reflect on before we take down the Christmas tree.

Stuart Goodall is chief executive of Confor, which represents 1500 forestry and wood-using businesses: www.confor.org.uk