Scotland along with the rest of the UK, is one of the least wooded countries in Europe but it was not always the case. Our ancestors cleared much of Scotland’s ancient woods and forests to make way for agriculture and this, along with high numbers of grazing deer today and other demands for land, continue to constrain woodland expansion in one way or another. This is changing; Scotland’s landscapes of tomorrow are likely to have many more trees within them.
Why trees you might ask? Responding to climate change is a big part of the answer. In addition to reducing harmful emissions of greenhouse gases from things like heating and transport, we need to lock up carbon. Plants do this brilliantly and trees, some of which can live for hundreds of years, can do so for the long-term. Along with peatlands and coastal habitats such as saltmarsh, woodlands offer a nature-based solution to climate change.
Such is the role for trees that the Committee on Climate Change - the independent body advising our governments - has suggested recently that we need to plant nearly two million hectares with trees across the UK. The Scottish Government already has ambitious tree planting targets and is allocating funding to it. This means we will see an increase in the amount of woods and forests in future which can only be a good thing, can’t it?
More native woodlands could be fantastic for nature and climate. Oak and birch woods and Caledonian pine can lock up carbon for the long term at the same time as helping wildlife to flourish. It’s what RSPB Scotland is calling for – more native woodland for the nature, carbon and public enjoyment benefits they can provide – and what we’re doing, on some of the land we own and manage, and elsewhere in partnership with others.
Trees are a source of much needed timber and wood products and the forestry sector provides jobs and livelihoods. Producing timber domestically and using as much of the tree as possible for timber in housing and other construction, can help to lock up carbon over longer periods. Avoiding importing timber and wood products from unsustainable sources helps support the positive benefits of tree planting.
Woodland and forest expansion can have its downsides though. A rush for trees is leading to some planting proposals in places that threaten important heath or grassland habitats or iconic birds like curlews. And not all trees are the ‘right’ trees. Large areas of predominantly single-species forestry lack landscape and wildlife diversity and the infrastructure and logging routes associated with commercial timber production are not always welcome by communities.
Today, the scale and pace of tree planting targets means it is critically important we make good choices about the type of woodlands and forests we want and where they should go. These choices must be informed by science and the effects on nature and the climate taken into consideration. Recent RSPB research highlights how planting on certain soils presents risks from a climate perspective and how native Scottish woodlands offer the best returns for both long term carbon storage and nature benefits.
There are real opportunities to grow our woodlands in ways that help nature’s recovery rather than hinder it. There is scope for more woodlands on farms and for trees to bring more life to our towns and cities. Ultimately, scope for more opportunities for all of us to be transformed by our wild woods.
Vicki Swales, Head of Land Use Policy, RSPB Scotland