Patrick Laurie: Landscape management needs balance to allow room for all interests

The Scottish Government has been pushing to increase our forest coverage for many years, but it has never been easy to plant the trees we need. Planners are under growing pressure to meet targets, but changes to farm subsidies might change that.

Curlews have vanished from certain areas over the past thirty years.
Curlews have vanished from certain areas over the past thirty years.

If rough grazing and traditional hill farms lose their subsidies with the demise of the Common Agricultural Policy, there is a very real prospect that large areas of hill country could soon be heading for commercial softwood forestry. Scottish foresters have identified 1,600 square miles of unimproved grassland and heather moorland for planting, and change will fall hardest on the poorest ground and the least profitable farm businesses.

It’s hard to argue against the foresters’ promise of sustainable economic growth and employment, but there are trade-offs involved when we convert wide-open landscapes into close-packed forests. The Southern Uplands bear scars from softwood plantations established 40 years ago, and we are still learning hard lessons from the first generation of intensive forestry.

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The latest push for more forestry comes at a crucial moment for some of our iconic bird species. The Southern Uplands were once a confirmed stronghold for curlews, and the birds formed an integral part of a region founded upon moorland farming networks and open hill country. Curlew declines are sometimes driven by agricultural intensification, but the most profound collapses have taken place in areas of upland forestry. Open habitats have been fragmented by trees, and along with many upland species like black grouse, hares and lapwings, curlews have totally vanished over the past thirty years.

One factor which has driven curlew declines around forests is an abundance of predators drawn in and sheltered by the trees. RSPB studies demonstrate that curlews can prosper alongside plantations provided that predator control takes place. Management of foxes and crows would mitigate the impact of new plantations and provide a secure habitat for a range of ground nesting birds, but it is ignored by all but a few foresters. The current collapse of the curlew is partly the result of poor communication between farmers, foresters, conservationists and the general public, and with the potential for more forestry, we must not allow history to repeat itself.

This push to plant trees reveals as much about farming as it does about forestry. A 2008 report by the SRUC showed how farming is retreating from the hills, so perhaps it’s no surprise when we hear calls for this “abandoned” land to be planted. I’ve spent the last few years trying to build a herd of traditional galloway cattle, but opportunities to rent even the poorest land are extremely limited for new entrants like me under the current system of grants and payments. There are all sorts of factors at play, but the agricultural status quo in the uplands can feel like an anachronism, ripe for revision.

At the same time, we shouldn’t leap towards planting without considering all the other services which open hill country can deliver. Cattle like mine have been bred over centuries to convert low-value moorland grass into superb quality beef. Cattle complement sheep, and both can work alongside a range of other interests on unplanted hills, from Carbon storage in peatland to biodiversity and renewable energy development. It’s a balancing act and an ambitious portfolio, but well integrated, diverse moorland can provide a wealth of social and economic benefits to match even the most profitable plantation.

Over the past fifty years, the Southern Uplands have been blown to and fro by subsidies and incentives. Now the winds of change look set to blow again, and we should think carefully before we seek and reinvent our hills as a timber powerhouse. There’s no doubt that forestry is an important industry, but the success of future plantations must be judged on how well trees are integrated into a varied upland landscape.

Balance and communication will be vital if we are to save the curlew for future generations, but we must also learn to value our open ground as an asset for the future, not a relic of the past.

Patrick Laurie is a farmer and conservation writer from Dalbeattie