Scotland has a large proportion of the most important, varied and nature-rich native woodland in the UK, such as Caledonian pine forests and Western Atlantic Woodland. However, total woodland cover is only 18 per cent, well below the European average of 40 per cent. The majority of our woodland has been established since the end of the Second World War, largely with non-native commercial tree crops of limited wildlife value.
The Scottish Government has plans to increase woodland cover further, with a target of reaching 21 per cent of our land area by 2032. Such woodland expansion has much to offer society and RSPB Scotland supports it. But what kind of trees we plant and where we plant them are critical considerations if we want to maximise the benefits from them and ensure we don’t damage other land uses or aspects of our environment.
A new Scottish Forestry Strategy is now in the making and will have to grapple with the questions of ‘what trees’ and ‘where’. It should also consider what we want from our existing forests and how these can be managed for the benefit of all. We need a balance between commercial, environmental and social interest in future policy.
The Forestry Commission owns 10 per cent of Scotland’s land, and the establishment and management of most private forestry is supported by money from the public purse. Sitka spruce is the main tree in commercial plantations but its dominance does not always serve the public interest well. Thankfully, forest owners are beginning to recognise that planting a more diverse range of tree species in commercial planting schemes is both desirable and beneficial and mixed species planting is now more common.
Forestry Commission Scotland has helped drive delivery of multi-purpose forestry – that means seeing forests not just as sources of timber but as places, for recreation, as wildlife habitat, and as flood alleviation measures, for example. Significant work has been done to restore some of our most important woodland heritage. However, these native woodlands are still fragmented across their former range. Landscape-scale conservation and restoration of these important habitats can make a significant contribution to Scotland’s woodland expansion targets. The new Forestry Strategy must bring fresh impetus to this. The National Forest Estate should be retained and managed as an exemplar to help meet the commitments of the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy and support native woodland expansion. Any pressure to sell off the best natural heritage assets of the Estate must be resisted.
Whilst progress towards sustainable forest management is being made, many concerns remain. Once again, in parts of Scotland, we are seeing greater emphasis on commercial forestry and the production of monocultures of fast growing trees, using harvesting techniques such as large-scale clear cuts; these damaging methods are no longer practised in other countries. Such regressive practices also take no account of the growing threat from tree diseases, exacerbated by climate change. In the South of Scotland many stands of larch trees are heavily impacted already by a fungal pathogen.
Large areas of land also remain where commercial trees were, in the past, inappropriately planted on peatlands, driving huge carbon release into the atmosphere. These need to be removed to restore these peatland habitats and ensure they can fulfil their role as valuable carbon stores, to help combat climate change.
Countries similar to Scotland have progressive and inclusive forestry strategies. In both Sweden and Norway, forestry strategies take a holistic approach; forest production, climate change mitigation and environmental considerations are given equal weight in forest management, and there is a duty of care to protect sites which are of natural and cultural heritage value. In Norway, much new native woodland is created by natural tree regeneration involving mostly native tree species. In Germany, semi-natural tree species cover 36 per cent of the forest area (increasing to 51 per cent in young forests) and 78 per cent of the woodland cover is made up of mixed stands of tree species. We should seek to learn from these countries and apply those lessons in the next Scottish Forestry Strategy.
A long-term perspective is needed. There is much scope for more woodland planting but it must be done sensitively. Woodland design involving greater mixed stands and native tree species, would be welcomed by, and better serve the interests, of all. A more diversified approach aligns with other public commitments, and is likely to have public support.
Moving to a modern and sustainable woodland landscape in Scotland, reflecting best practice from other countries, must now be Scotland’s ambition.
Anne McCall, Director, RSPB Scotland