Could farming be facing death by 36 million trees? - Brian Henderson

While the old “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” line has been well discredited by historians, could Scottish agriculture be facing a similar level of devastation while our leaders take their time over drafting new policy?

Like one of those earworm songs you hear on the radio and can’t shake off for days on end, this question was planted in my head recently by a leading industry figure who pointed to the current rate of afforestation on this side of the border, which accounts for more than 80 per cent of all new planting in the UK.

And, what’s more, not only is the Scottish Government proud of its record on this front – but, with the current 12,000 hectare annual planting target being more than met, they’re set to up that figure to 18,000 hectares by 2024/25 – equivalent to a planting rate of around 36 million trees a year.

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Currently close to 20 per cent of Scotland’s land is already under trees. A similar area is covered by peatlands – and while huge efforts are under way to restore degraded areas, new guidelines introduced recently will also stop forestry encroaching on to peat soils.

Close to 20 per cent of the country's land is already under trees

With a fair whack of the country’s harshest land unsuitable for tree planting or growing, this means that it’s likely that much of the future expansion of forestry will, as a consequence, take place on the middling sort of land – the sort of permanent grasslands which have traditionally provided the backbone of much of Scotland’s famous livestock industries, acting as the country’s powerhouse of beef and lamb production.

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Any major reduction in the level of livestock production in these heartlands would have fairly dramatic consequences for the whole industry in Scotland – adding considerably to the already considerable challenge to critical mass which is being driven by the current harsh economic climate.

A year or so ago there was a considerable stushie around allegations that leading civil servants working for the Scottish Government viewed a substantial reduction in livestock numbers as a simple and speedy way to meet the ambitious – some might say overly so – targets which have been set by the current administration for greenhouse gas emission reductions.

The claims were hotly denied at official level – but rumours rumbled on that the idea was still being kept alive by some civil servants.

So would it be too wild a piece of speculation to think that by sitting on their hands – and letting farm and wider rural policy and strategy drift – the ever increasing area planted down to trees would quietly but ruthlessly do the job for them without triggering the political inconvenience of having to force such an unpalatable cull upon the industry?

And, rather than suffering death by a thousand cuts – could farming be facing up to death by 36 million trees?

Looked at from another direction, though, the situation calls into question the desire of the current administration to see an independent Scotland take the role it has claimed it wants the country to have as leaders on the world stage as a sustainable, self-sufficient nation which champions not only local food alongside the desire to see exports from the food and drink sector continue to forge ahead.

And while much of the land in question has little in the way of potential to grow crops, the plentiful supply of rain allows Scotland to excel when it comes to the conversion of grass into animal protein through a system which stands amongst the most efficient, effective and sustainable in the world.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that prices of land with planting potential already stand well above what any farmer could afford to pay and the continued scramble for forestry – due to high timber prices and the potential for carbon credit returns – is unlikely to see this trend reversed any time soon.

The recent report from the Scottish Land Commission found that rising prices were due to the growing role of non-farming investors who were influenced by long-term investment potential and corporate environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations.

And during 2021 nearly half of all estates purchased in Scotland were purchased by corporate bodies, investment funds or charitable trusts – motivated by the potential for afforestation, carbon offsetting and natural capital.

But if the current free-for-all sees traditional farming in these areas wither and die, Scotland will face not only massive rural depopulation but also a severe blow to any hopes of food security.

Time to put the fiddle down.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

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