Scotland needs to stop wasting public money on the wrong trees in the wrong places – Professor Ian Wall

Instead of funding the planting of conifers like Sitka spruce, the Scottish Government should be encouraging woodlands with a variety of native trees

Over the last ten years, landowners have been given over a third of a billion pounds by the Scottish Government to plant and maintain trees. In addition, the UK Government gives 100 per cent tax relief on profits and capital gains made by the landowner.

In order to consider if the public are receiving maximum benefit from this public expenditure, the Royal Society of Edinburgh established an inquiry and sought submissions from a wide variety of organisations including the industry, charities, research institutions and communities. Our report has just been published.

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The majority of this tree planting has been Sitka spruce, planted in dense blocks, often covering 75 per cent of the plantable land (this will be reduced to 65 per cent of one species and 10 per cent of another from October this year). The investment of public funds is not required for commercial reasons as forestry production and harvesting is a mature, successful business with national and international owners. Furthermore, these payments distort the land market with values for tree-planting land increasing considerably, and now exceeding agricultural land values in some parts of Scotland.

Forests with a variety of native trees will absorb more carbon emissions than short-lived conifer plantations over their full life-cycle (Picture: Woodland Trust Scotland)Forests with a variety of native trees will absorb more carbon emissions than short-lived conifer plantations over their full life-cycle (Picture: Woodland Trust Scotland)
Forests with a variety of native trees will absorb more carbon emissions than short-lived conifer plantations over their full life-cycle (Picture: Woodland Trust Scotland)

Nor does this tree production (or more of it) reduce damage to forests in countries with poor environmental protection, as the great majority of UK timber imports – 30 per cent of which are for burning as bio fuels – are from North America and Europe. No country outside these areas provides even one per cent of our timber imports, though it is notable that we import our plywood from Brazil, since the last UK producer stopped making it in 2007.

Shavings and sawdust

It is vital that we reduce our carbon emissions as much as possible since this is a major driver of the rapid climate change and extreme weather events. But some carbon will necessarily be released and tree planting is one way of sequestering some of this. However, commercial tree planting is not a very successful method of carbon capture.

It is important not to consider the carbon nominally stored in a growing tree but to consider its whole life cycle. Carbon is lost during the planting process itself, particularly if mechanical means are used; carbon is used in harvesting and transporting timber; most timber grown in Scotland goes to low-value, short-life products, such as paper, fibre board and pallets, that return the carbon to the atmosphere after their short lives, and much of the timber processed in sawmills ends up as shavings and sawdust that are used efficiently but rapidly return their carbon to the atmosphere.

In contrast to non-native conifer plantations, mixed native tree planting is slower in building up its carbon content but, unlike commercial plantings, is not clear-felled after 40 years. They continue to store carbon for hundreds of years, while at the same time they are an essential response to the biodiversity crisis, since such trees support many other species. Anyone who visits commercial plantations can clearly see the relative lack of any other plants and animals growing and thriving within them.

High-value timber for construction

Another advantage of mixed native trees is their attractiveness to the public for joyful recreation. Rural employment generated by forests through tourism is close to that generated by tree planting and harvesting and, unlike that employment, is sustained from year to year. One area where short-term public capital investment could be justified is in supporting the timber-processing industry to invest in expensive machinery to create high-value, long-term construction products, such as glulam beams and cross-laminated timbers. This would use an abundant Scottish resource, support more jobs, boost the economy and ensure that some Sitka can sequester carbon for the long term. This is a role that our Enterprise Agencies should fulfil.

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One of the problems with major tree planting proposals is very often the absence of environmental impact assessments (EIAs). These allow for a sensitive approach, ensuring protection of watercourses, peat bogs, soils and areas of special biological importance; vitally, they ensure proper community consultation. As evidenced in our consultation responses, the latter rarely happens.

Rural communities also expressed concern about the blanket coverage of the landscape, particularly in the south-west. Our report recommends that all planting proposals over 40 hectares (100 acres) be mandated by Scottish Forestry to produce an EIA. This will not only help protect our environment, as these assessments will add to the public fund of knowledge and help to build understanding of best practice across Scotland. We recommend that more staff be employed by Scottish Forestry to help with this and ensure that EIAs are dealt with quickly and efficiently for the benefit of the communities and the landowners.

Not anti-tree

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The report recommends that we stop giving public money to commercial conifer planters and redirect these funds to support mixed native trees planting for the long term, combined with increased support for planting deciduous trees along burns and rivers and increased tree planting in urban environments. These trees are small in number but powerful in their effects. They reduce temperatures and pollution while improving our health physically and mentally. It is quite possible to introduce trees into existing streets but this does cost more, which is why we recommend a special allocation of tree-planting funds for councils to bring the benefits and beauty of more trees to our towns and cities.

Our report is in no sense anti-tree planting but is against misallocation of the public’s money. It is in favour of more tree planting while ensuring that the right tree is planted in the right place. Faced with the climate and biodiversity crises, in a situation of reducing public expenditure, it is vital that we spend our public resources on maximising public gains for the common good.

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