Union fears loss of vital grazing land to forestry

HALF of the land used to produce beef and lamb in Scotland could be lost to forestry if the Scottish Government’s long-term target to have 25 per cent of the land area covered in trees is to be met, NFU Scotland has warned.

Union president Nigel Miller has written to the cabinet secretary for rural affairs, Richard Lochhead, demanding a change to the terms of reference of the Scottish Government’s Woodland Expansion Advisory Group (WEAG) to allow discussion on targets for woodland creation.

Miller is threatening to withdraw from the group, set up by Lochhead in the summer with the remit of identifying the types of land best suited for tree planting, unless the group’s remit is widened to consider the impact of increased forestry on other land uses, food production and rural communities.

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“There is a real conflict which could be a disaster for agriculture unless it is resolved,” said Miller. “It is imperative that the group is allowed to discuss targets as the government has ambitious targets for food production as well as forestry.”

Miller makes the point that future woodland expansion will inevitably be on class 4 and 5 land in the hills and uplands currently used for grazing cattle and sheep.

“This land is the engine room of Scottish livestock production and further loss of these grazing areas could have a significant impact on Scotland’s capability to provide food for current market demands and future generations,” he says. “Such a change in land use has the potential to negatively impact on both rural communities and the wider economy.”

But Miller stresses he is not against forestry and believes both farming and forestry can be accommodated by a more coherent and integrated policy framework.

“Future land use should not be a choice between farming or forestry, renewables or conservation,” he says. “There is an important role for forestry within Scottish farming and woodlands can be integrated into agricultural land use without compromising the ability to produce livestock and crops or the significance these activities to local economies, biodiversity and communities.”

An increase in the forestry area from 17 per cent to 25 per cent of Scotland’s land area over the next 40 to 65 years, as envisaged by the government but considered unrealistic by the forestry industry as well as farmers, would see an additional 650,000 hectares of land planted with trees.

The union’s Jonnie Hall said farming was already losing an estimated 1,200 hectares of the best land – an area the size of Dunfermline – every year to urban development.