More trees is an admirable goal, but be careful where you plant them

Trees are great, aren't they? They are an important habitat for wildlife, provide timber for use in our homes and give us wonderful woodlands where we can enjoy nature. Trees are also good at storing carbon, combating air pollution and can be used to manage flooding, helping us to counteract some of the negative effects of climate change.

Sian Williams, Senior Policy Officer at RSPB Scotland.

Scotland’s native woodlands are actually home to more species of wildlife than any other habitat in the country. However, some bird species are not doing as well as they could be and their numbers are dropping. As a conservation charity, RSPB Scotland supports the protection and management of native woodlands across the country, including on many of our own nature reserves, such as Abernethy in the Highlands and Wood of Cree in Dumfries and Galloway. We also have scientists working on understanding the causes of declines in woodland bird populations and studying the effects (both good and bad) of new woodland planting.

If trees are so important, it seems sensible to support as much tree planting as possible, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, things aren’t quite as simple as that. RSPB Scotland has first-hand experience of the damage trees planted in the wrong place can cause. The most well-known example of inappropriate tree planting took place in the 1970s and 1980s on the peatlands of the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland. Tens of thousands of hectares of non-native conifers were planted on the blanket bog habitat, causing significant damage to the wildlife and carbon storage potential of the peat.

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Today, the forestry industry has made significant improvements and planting on deep peat is no longer approved. The vast majority of producers today are compliant with the UK Forestry Standard and many owners go further, meeting the higher standards of sustainable woodland management set out by the UK Woodland Assurance Scheme (UKWAS). However, the threat posed by forestry in the wrong places still exists and there are ongoing examples of new planting which are damaging precious open habitats, such as grasslands, peatlands and heathland, as well as the species that rely on them. Even trees planted for flood management must be carefully located, to ensure wading birds are not adversely affected.

RSPB Scotland is concerned that the Scottish Government’s target to plant 100,000 hectares of new woodland by 2022, whilst well-intentioned, may be driving a new wave of open habitat loss. The risk is particularly great in areas which are already heavily forested, for example Dumfries and Galloway and Argyll. These areas are under intense pressure and are already suffering from the cumulative impact of multiple new planting schemes eroding the open habitat resource. This could threaten populations of bird species such as whinchat, skylark and curlew, which are already declining across the country. Populations of other open habitat species including many butterflies and other invertebrates are also vulnerable to woodland planting.

The Scottish Government has also recently proposed to increase the scale of woodland planting that can be undertaken without formally assessing its potential environmental impact, raising the threshold from 5 to 20ha of new planting on “non-
sensitive” sites. This is deeply concerning, and is driven, at least in part, by a misconception that the environmental impact assessment process is a barrier to forestry. In fact, no environmental impact assessment has resulted in a forestry application being stopped in at least the last five years, suggesting that other factors, such as land availability, are more likely to be slowing woodland creation.

RSPB Scotland believes that there is space in our landscape for more trees and we are supportive of new woodland creation, as well as better management of existing woodlands. The way that land is managed in Scotland is changing and we are moving towards a future where rural land uses are integrated. Brexit and possible changes to the way subsidies are provided offers a potential opportunity to deliver public benefits in a more integrated way.

New approaches to woodland management, such as community management and agro-forestry may offer alternatives to more traditional approaches to forest management, but further research is needed to monitor their effectiveness and potential impact on the environment.

With a renewed commitment to planting new woodland and the input of £40 million of public funding for tree planting, the Scottish Government needs to ensure that public benefits are being delivered. It will not be acceptable for private profit to be the sole objective of new woodland planting, wider social and environmental outcomes must also be achieved. We want high quality woodland across Scotland which provides a home for wildlife and a place where people can connect with nature.

In 2017, the Scottish Government will be consulting on a new Forestry Bill. Hopefully this will offer opportunities for a modern, progressive approach to land management which is integrated with other rural land uses and which delivers benefits for people and wildlife. Time will tell.

Sian Williams is Senior Policy Officer at RSPB Scotland.