Rewilding Scotland: can we see the wood for the trees?

Scotland’s landscape was once a rich tapestry of grasslands, bog, heath, scrub and trees, lots of them.
Tree hugging: Planting more trees and then felling some of them will help Scotland boost biodiversityTree hugging: Planting more trees and then felling some of them will help Scotland boost biodiversity
Tree hugging: Planting more trees and then felling some of them will help Scotland boost biodiversity

Forests covered great swaths of the country, brimming with native species including Scots pine, aspen, birch, oak, rowan, holly, willow and alder.

Wild lynx, wolves, bears, aurochs, elk and beavers roamed, while the air thronged with insects and birdlife and rivers and lochs were jumping with fish.

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But that was a few thousand years ago. Today less than a fifth of Scottish land is covered with trees and wildlife is vanishing at an alarming rate, with more than one in ten species at risk of extinction.

Jo Ellis - Forestry and Land ScotlandJo Ellis - Forestry and Land Scotland
Jo Ellis - Forestry and Land Scotland

Environmentalists warn of twin crises facing the modern world - biodiversity loss and the planet heating up to a point of catastrophe. And now, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, we have a third - economic collapse.

Perhaps trees could hold some of the solutions.

Wanted: dead or alive

A variety of woodland types occur naturally across Scotland with local geology, topography, soils and climate determining which trees thrive in what places.

Clearfelling exotic conifers from a wetland area in Inshriach, InvernessClearfelling exotic conifers from a wetland area in Inshriach, Inverness
Clearfelling exotic conifers from a wetland area in Inshriach, Inverness

Whether it’s the Atlantic rainforests of the west coast or montane scrub on the highest hillsides, woodlands provide habitats for a massive array of other life - from wee beasties, fungi and lichens you can barely see to iconic animals such as pine martens, red squirrels, wildcats and birds of prey.

Trees are also one of the most effective weapons in the battle against climate change due to their ability to suck up and store carbon, preventing its release into the atmosphere to drive further warming. Research suggests forests across the world absorb almost 40 per cent of the 38 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide created by mankind each year.

Trees also hold great value once they have been cut down - timber products are used to make everything from construction materials and musical instruments to medicines, clothes, engine oils and even flexible LCD screens.

Growing our own timber in a sustainable way also cuts impacts on the environment, reducing emissions generated through transportation and helping reduce deforestation in other countries.

And the forestry sector provides much-needed rural jobs, around 25,000, while bringing in £1 billion for the Scottish economy.

So let’s get more trees in the ground

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Today around 18.5 per cent of Scotland is covered in trees. The figure’s not great compared to the European average of 43 per cent, but it’s a massive increase from 100 years ago, when coverage was more like five per cent.

Scotland has set out national targets to increase this to 21 per cent by 2032, with a current planting target of 15 thousand hectares each year but rising to 18 thousand hectares annually from 2024.

Aerial picture of autumn forest. Coniferous tree tops with foliage changing color lit by afternoon sunlight.Aerial picture of autumn forest. Coniferous tree tops with foliage changing color lit by afternoon sunlight.
Aerial picture of autumn forest. Coniferous tree tops with foliage changing color lit by afternoon sunlight.

In recent years four out of five of all new trees in the UK were planted in Scotland - including state-owned forestry and private sector operations. But there is still a way to go, and plenty of challenges ahead.

Planting new forests

Trees for Life (TfL), a conservation charity based near Loch ness in the Highlands, champions rewilding. It is working to restore Scotland’s native Caledonian forests, which have been reduced to a few scattered remnants covering around one per cent of their original extent.

The team believes rewilding the landscape can help tackle “overlapping nature, climate and health crises” by bringing back wildlife, benefiting health and well-being and creating sustainable jobs in rural areas.

Richard Bunting, a spokesman for TfL, said: “Despite Scotland’s dramatic landscapes, the country is an ecological shadow of what it could and should be.

“Issues such as deforestation, overgrazing of woodlands by deer and sheep and the widespread planting of non-native exotic conifers have left Scotland as one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries – its landscapes supporting fewer people than previously as a result.

Richard Bunting at Trees for Life's Dundreggan rewilding estate, Scottish HighlandsRichard Bunting at Trees for Life's Dundreggan rewilding estate, Scottish Highlands
Richard Bunting at Trees for Life's Dundreggan rewilding estate, Scottish Highlands

“Scotland could be a nature-restoration trailblazer. But right now, despite many superb conservation initiatives, it is lagging behind other countries.”

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He maintains that returning large areas to a natural state is both essential and completely achievable. “Scotland has the space and opportunity to take a fresh approach, with people working with nature instead of against it,” he said. “It’s perfectly placed to be a world leader in rewilding.”

Around a third of all Scottish woodlands are part of the national forest estate, managed by Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS). These include native woodlands at iconic sites such as Glen Affric as well as newly planted commercial forests, where trees are harvested for timber.

The organisation plants around 25 million trees each year and fells just over a third of that number.

Jo Ellis, head of planning and environment for FLS, believes the importance of conifer plantations is vastly underestimated. “There is a lot more to commercial forestry and its huge potential than meets the eye, and many people would be surprised to learn just how vital, versatile and valuable Scotland’s conifer forests are,” she said.

With advances in technology being made all the time, Scotland’s home-grown conifers are still to reach their fullest potential.

Ellis said “Everyone knows that conifer trees are felled to produce sawn wood and engineered wood – the timber frames for housing, the ‘I’ beams, and panel board for use in partitions, flooring and kitchen worktops – the applications that lock in carbon for decades.

“And then there are the goods ranging from face-masks to fence posts, from freight pallets to cardboard packaging.

“Some might also know that Sitka spruce, for example, is even used in shipbuilding and has acoustic qualities that make it ideal for making sounding boards in pianos, guitars and other musical instruments. Its bark can even be used to make particle boards and has been used in Europe in absorbent materials to control oil spills.”

Are all trees equal or are some ‘greener’ than others?

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We have a slightly uneasy relationship with commercial forestry in Scotland due to lessons learned from the sort of large-scale plantations that became commonplace in the 1970s - massive dark-green stands of Christmas trees stretching across the countryside as far as the eye could see.

These mono-culture blocks of densely packed non-native conifers were put up in places where it seemed like not much else was going on, but their detrimental effect on local environments has been recognised.

Peatlands became damaged through drying out, wildlife disappeared due to lack of habitat and soils were depleted.

A mixture of native species planted in a way that mimics nature is widely considered to be the best way to restore woodland cover and provide maximum benefits for the environment.

This has resulted in the perception: broadleaves good, conifers bad. However, it’s certainly not that simple.

All trees, evergreen or deciduous, are good for soaking up carbon emissions. Studies show conifers such as Douglas fir and Sitka spruce are more efficient at rapid carbon sequestration than their broad-leaved counterparts.

Ellis said: “Native broadleaves, which are slow-growing, will do this over a long period of time but faster-growing species like Sitka spruce - which can grow as much as 1.5m in height a year in the right conditions - are better for more immediate carbon storage.”.

And if planted correctly, commercial conifer forests are far from ecological deserts, hosting a far greater abundance of other wildlife than was previously thought.

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Studies have identified as many as 2,000 species - some rare and threatened - making their homes in plantations.

“For many people the term ‘biodiversity’ conjures up images of animals such as deer, eagles, wildcats or otters but these perennial public favourites are only the tip of the iceberg – and often the most high-profile - part of Scotland’s biodiversity,” Ellis added

“Get beyond that and you find that Scotland’s conifer forests are an absolute heaven for thousands of species - beetles, hoverflies, bryophytes and fungi and a whole host of other less ‘cuddly species that play a crucial part in keeping habitats healthy.

“Raptors often prefer planted forests as nesting sites, and pine marten - another species that thrives in plantations – has largely had its fortunes revived throughout the 20th century thanks to commercial forestry. In fact, many well-loved species, such as capercaillie, red squirrels and Scottish crossbills, would struggle to survive in Scotland if the plantations were not there.”

The Future Forest Company (FFC), which has three Scottish sites, has set out its mission in no uncertain terms - “unf*cking the future”. All its forests will be permanent features, managed carefully to maximise the amount of carbon dioxide that can be taken out of the atmosphere and provide the biggest benefits to the environment.

“Natural habitat provides a range of essential services and resources that most people are barely aware of,” said Jim Reilly, forestry manager for FFC.

“For example, homes for insect pollinators, without which some crop types would not reproduce.

“Forest biodiversity encompasses not just trees, but a whole host of plants, fungi, animals and microorganisms.

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“Our forests are home to a wide variety of animals from deer, squirrels and badgers to tiny voles. We also think that natural habitats are important to human well-being.

“Each decision we make in planning takes into account the wider impact to the forest’s living inhabitants.”

But he agrees that all forests, even commercial plantations have a role to play if designed well. “It is correct, Sitka spruce plantations are very good at capturing carbon,” he said.

“They grow very fast, they get very big - some of the largest trees on earth are Sitka spruces - and they can reach great ages.

“While they are not very pretty to look at, they do support much more wildlife than supposed. In some cases, equal to or more than some native woodland types.”

Stuart Goodall is chief executive of Confor, the trade body for 1,500 forestry and wood-using businesses across the UK. He believes today’s commercial conifer plantations unfairly get a bad rap due to past history and insists there is no need for a trade-off - forests can provide both homes for wildlife and the timber that builds homes for people.

“Planting trees soaks up carbon, making products from wood stores carbon - and using more wood in construction substitutes carbon-heavy materials like steel and concrete,” he said.

“According to the Scottish Government’s own advisers on forestry, newly planted modern productive forests reduce carbon in the atmosphere more than native woodland.

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“The sector is also helping to tackle the nature crisis through modern forestry design – the UK Forest Standard ensures that landscape and deep peat are fully considered alongside measures to promote biodiversity in all modern productive forests.

“Monoculture forestry has not happened in Scotland for a generation and we ask critics to judge the industry fairly, based on what it does now and not what happened a generation ago.”

The right trees in the right places

Although FFC’s goal is to create ‘natural’ woodlands across the UK, including its flagship site on Mul, the team accepts that commercial conifers also have a role.

“The issue with Sitka spruce plantations from a carbon and wildlife perspective is not what they are, more how they are managed,” he said.

“Mono-cultures are not always bad. A field of wheat, for example, is not bad if you want to eat bread. That said, mono-cultures are not always what you want. They can lack visual and habitat diversity and are generally more vulnerable to disease. Our preference is mixed and multi-structured woodland.”

Management and planning of commercial forest has come a long way in the past 50 years.

FLS plans to plant five trees for every person in Scotland this year. That means digging in around 22 million trees - with a 40/60 conifer/broadleaf split.

Every FLS forest – big or small, simple or complex – has a land management plan that details what will happen, where and when, showing long-term development of the forest.

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These plans, drawn up before a single tree is felled or planted, aim to balance the economic benefits of jobs and timber production with the social and environmental benefits of being pleasant, welcoming places that are essential for climate change mitigation and enjoyment for people.

“Planting trees is only one part of our work,” Ellis said. “We also fell trees every year, and in the 30, 40 or more years between planting and felling a commercial crop, we also nurture those woodlands so that they stay robust and healthy and can provide benefits such as food and shelter for plants and animals, carbon capture for climate change mitigation and places for people to walk, cycle and relax.

“This process – the forest cycle – is a long-term commitment and balancing all of the different elements is hugely complicated. That’s why planning is so important.”

She added: “Conifers and plantations have had a pretty rough ride over the years but it’s a view that’s often rooted in memories of plantation forestry from decades ago.

“Modern, sustainable forestry is much more attuned to things like landscape design and visual impact, protecting water courses and important habitats, and recognises the benefits of including a mix of species – including broadleaves.

“This diversification is good for biodiversity and also makes our forests more resilient to pests and diseases - and to a changing climate.

“The many benefits of conifer plantations are often overlooked. Many people won’t appreciate that they are vitally important for biodiversity and provide the setting for some of our best-loved places for recreation.”

And don’t forget the jobs

Scotland is the only part of the UK to have set targets for wood use in construction - with the aim of increasing this from 2.2 million cubic metres in 2018 to three million by 2032.

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With global demand for wood predicted to triple by 2060, all parts of the UK need to produce more wood to avoid putting pressure on forests overseas - the UK currently imports around 80 per cent of the wood it uses, the world's second largest net importer after China.

In Scotland we produce only around a quarter of the wood we need, so growing more would have both environmental and financial gains.

Confor’s Goodall said: “It's not just about carbon, forestry and wood is a major rural industry in Scotland.

“A survey more than five years ago showed it delivers £1 billion annually in added value to the Scottish economy and employs more than 25,000 people. The updated study, due in 2022, is expected to show more jobs and more economic benefit, as the industry is growing.

“This green growth - with economic and environmental benefits going hand in hand - is vital to the green recovery from Covid-19.”

Ellis added: “One hectare of Sitka spruce will provide more than three times the volume of timber twice as quickly than one hectare of native broadleaved woodland. And all of that timber crop will be processed into products that are used in an ever-greater number of industries and applications, often replacing more carbon-intensive materials such as concrete and steel or plastics. And every tonne of timber grown in Scotland is one less tonne that needs to be shipped in from overseas.”

Embrace forests - become a tree-hugger

Scotland is home to the oldest tree in the UK, the Fortingall Yew, which grows in a churchyard near Aberfeldy in Perthshire. The ancient conifer is thought to be around 5,000 years old, perhaps older, and has survived all sorts of adversities and historical happenings. That tenacious tree surely stands as a great symbol of endurance and hope as we battle the current crises facing our world.

Tree-hugger is no longer a pejorative term. It’s probably a compliment. And if you go down to the woods, you could do worse than putting your arms around a spruce.

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