Why Scotland and the UK has so many fewer trees than the rest of Europe - and what can be done about it

If you want to save the world, plant a tree – or in fact millions of them.

Planting new forests is one of the simplest, quickest and cheapest ways to massively increase capacity to gobble up greenhouse gas emissions and help curb climate breakdown.

Healthy woodlands also host a wide variety of wildlife, help combat flooding and landslips, purify the air, improve soils and provide outdoor recreation opportunities for people.

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On top of all that, they can generate jobs and produce valuable timber supplies.

Yet the UK is much more barren of trees than at almost any time in history, with forests covering just 13 per cent of the land area. The figure is higher in Scotland, at around 19 per cent, but this compares to an average of almost 40 per cent coverage across continental Europe.

So why don’t we get as many saplings into the ground as we can – and as quickly as possible?

There are a number of challenges, according to forestry business leaders.

Government planting targets for expanding woodlands aim for 21 per cent coverage by 2032 in Scotland and 17 per cent by 2050 across the UK.

Productive forests can make a significant contribution to environmental targets, simultaneously soaking up greenhouse gas emissions and supporting biodiversity

However, the process of design, rules, regulations and approvals means the creation of new forests can be a long process, while the availability of forestry workers, land and stocks of suitable young trees limit capacity for planting.

But another part of the problem is that not all trees are considered equal, with native broadleaf species seen as good and commercial plantations bad.

Stuart Goodall, chief executive of forestry and wood industry membership body Confor, says this attitude needs to change to take account of the “evidence”.

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People have this perspective that if you want to produce timber and you want to get a financial return then you use conifers, and If you want to help the biodiversity and climate crises you plant broadleaves,” he said.

Conditions in Scotland and the UK are ideal for growing wood. Picture: Robert C Brady/Forestry and Land Scotland

“Our concern is that polarisation is still prevalent, and because it’s prevalent it’s making it harder for us, whether that’s in Scotland or the wider UK, to deliver our climate change targets, our biodiversity targets, how we can support our green economy, how we can have vibrant rural areas. And until we can get away from perception and focus on evidence then we’re still going to handicap ourselves in that kind of debate.”

Research has shown plantations of fast-growing conifers can play a big role in tackling climate change and loss of nature, as well as producing wood for construction, he says. But today’s forestry sector is still struggling to shake off a bad reputation from decades gone by – the idea of vast monoculture blocks of densely planted spruce trees blanketing hillsides, which when felled leave the landscape ugly and environmentally degraded.

Modern planting techniques include a mix of harvestable softwood trees and native broadleaf species and measures to boost biodiversity. Meanwhile, environmentally important features such as peatlands, which have historically suffered devastating damage as a result of commercial crops, are also protected.

Goodall stresses the importance of wood for green construction, but highlights the dramatic shortfall of home-grown supplies. Around 80 per cent of the UK’s timber is shipped in from abroad, at a cost of £7.5 billion annually, with the country second only to China for imports worldwide.

Biodiversity benefits that can be provided by planting mixed woodland are often overlooked -- Scotland's endangered native red squirrels can thrive in conifer plantations

And Confor has calculated that wood consumption will increase by 79 per cent by 2050 if demand continues to rise at the rate it has been increasing over the past ten years.

Brendan Callaghan, head of delivery at regulator Scottish Forestry, agrees the industry needs to evolve to up production and cites the UK’s departure from the EU as a stifling factor for progress.

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He says: “Years ago in Scotland we recognised there was work to do to reduce the burdens of red tape around woodland creation applications and a great body of work was undertaken over a year to streamline this.

“That work has certainly improved the process and helped to make it more accessible, but we don’t rest on our laurels and look to work with stakeholders to improve the system where we can on an ongoing basis.

“There’s no denying that Brexit has had an impact on forestry labour forces in Scotland. The forestry sector is a very innovative and adaptable industry and this is a live issue, which we are working to address.”

Another great thing about trees, Confor chairman Ian Duncan, Lord Springbank, says, is not only do they capture carbon dioxide while they are alive, they keep it locked up in wood products for as long as they exist.

Well-managed conifer forests provide habitats for mammals such as pine martens and red squirrels, raptors and other birds, bats, reptiles, insects, mosses, lichens and fungi

“Wood that is used in building sequesters the carbon pretty much for ever,” he says. “So if you look at the beams in Westminster Hall, for example, those oaks are 1,000 years old and the carbon is still retained within them.

“So the ability of softwood, or wood in general, to retain carbon far beyond its life is extraordinary, and that contributes significantly – both in terms of carbon sequestration in the first step, but also in offsetting cement and other carbon-intensive products which are prevalent right now in our building industry – when it comes to meeting our climate targets.”

But he warns urgent action must be taken to dramatically increase the number of trees in the ground.

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“We are not able to provide enough wood for our domestic industry, most of it comes from abroad,” he says.

“Bearing in mind that trees planted here today cannot be harvested tomorrow, it will take a generation – 20, 30, 40 years – before you can create a successful industry that can provide domestic needs, and even then you would still need a lot of land to do that very thing.”

Duncan says high demand and prices for land is a major barrier to expansion.

He addd: “A lot of people’s perception of softwood plantations was born of a very different era, when policy was about maximising production. We’ve moved on from that.

“You want to make sure you’re using your landscape well for a mix of broadleaf and conifers in the right balance, so you can create a living landscape that will survive after felling and you’re not just looking at a barren hillside, but rather a forest in flux.

“Now there is far greater recognition of the mix that’s required, both for the end user and what’s good for the environment. When you look at the landscape, you actually begin to recognise that it looks more diverse than it would have done in the 1980s, when you literally had uniform trees all of the same species marching up hillsides.”

Research has shown faster-growing, coniferous species, which make up the majority of productive woodlands, sequester carbon much more quickly in the early to medium term than broadleaf species. Broadleaf trees can accumulate more carbon reserves over the longer term, after 50 to 100 years. But far more carbon is absorbed in mature conifers of 40 to 50 years old than in slower-growing broadleaf tree species of the same age.

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A Confor report suggests coniferous species such as Sitka spruce and Douglas fir, commonly planted for productive forestry, can be an important component of conservation management in a wide range of woodland types.

Well-managed conifer forests with plenty of light and structure provide habitats for mammals such as pine martens and red squirrels, raptors and other birds, bats, reptiles, insects, mosses, lichens and fungi. At the last count, Scottish conifer forests were home to 42 species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened animals.

Goodall adds: “Too many discussions around the future of UK woodlands have pitted native broadleaf species against productive species as competing alternatives.

“We need a properly balanced, progressive and ecologically considered forestry solution, which protects and improves the UK’s biodiversity and meets the country’s need for wood production. It should no longer be a case of ‘broadleaf trees good’ and ‘productive species bad’.”

Confor has recommended a 50-50 split between broadleaf and conifer planting, estimating if the 2025 Scottish target of 18,000 hectares were planted every year, these trees would sequester 2.04 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030 – with more than 1.7 million tonnes stored in conifers alone.

Scotland continues to lead the way in creation of new woodlands, planting three-quarters of the UK total last year.

“We are punching above our weight in those terms,” Callaghan says. “Our overriding principle is that we need the right trees in the right place, and for the right reason. A balance of species is necessary as each species provides different benefits.

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“Conifers are quicker at sequestering carbon. They provide jobs and generate for the economy and the products derived from the timber lock up carbon for their lifetime. Broadleaves on the other hand are vital for the environment, nature and also can be just as good as conifers for carbon storage, but in a much longer timeframe.”

Stuart Goodall, chief executive of forestry and wood industry body Confor

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