Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Scotland’s place in Europe is under question, but if, as part of the UK, it does leave the EU, will things remain the same? And how will the uncertainty of the next few years impact on key sectors, like forestry, that are heavily influenced by the UK’s membership of the EU?
The Scottish Government was impressive in its quick and strong response to the referendum result, making it clear that action must be taken to protect Scotland’s interests. In the case of forestry, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy, Fergus Ewing, immediately got in touch to discuss the potential impact on a key rural sector.
Early political engagement and support is vital while we try to understand where we are headed and what needs to be done.
Prior to the referendum, Confor produced an analysis of the main issues for the sector and this has been followed up by a more detailed exploration of potential impacts – in areas like timber markets, EU regulations, plant health, availability and movement of labour and the impact of fluctuations in currency markets.
Predicting the future is never easy and in Scotland it is unclear whether the Government will be able retain Scotland’s position within the EU. Nevertheless, it is possible (and worthwhile) to step back, review the fundamentals of the forestry sector and set out what it is important for politicians to keep in mind.
One vital, overarching point is that the growth of Scotland’s forestry and wood manufacturing sector has provided benefits and opportunities beyond its own boundaries.
The 50 per cent growth in employment in forestry in Scotland since 2008 (to more than 25,000) provides skilled jobs in parts of the country where opportunities are often limited. It is a real opportunity for hard-pressed sheep farmers to diversify their activities and reap the benefits of an activity that doesn’t require ongoing subsidy and provides shelter for sheep – helping to improve productivity and animal welfare.
Often, the value of farm forestry, from shelterbelts to small woodlands, is not realised.
Where access to the road is good, trees can be harvested and replanted, or a farmer could utilise them for woodfuel to heat homes and farm buildings.
Many shelterbelts are at the point where trees will die or blow over. This is an opportunity to realise value from them, and replant, ideally bigger to add future value.
The harvesting of 20th century forest plantations provides us with the opportunity to turn them into modern forests which blend into the landscape and provide more places for wildlife.
Our sector contributes £1 billion a year to Scotland’s economy, but simultaneously helps make Scotland a more attractive, biodiverse country.
Creating new, modern forests is a vital plank in delivering Scotland’s ambitious carbon reduction targets. The Government’s climate change advisory committee recently recommended increasing the target for creating new forests to 16,000 hectares a year.
Confor is working with the Scottish Government to deliver a more modest target of 10,000 hectares a year.
This planting is vital if Scotland is to secure the long-term future of the forestry sector. Without it, we will see a reduction in investment and jobs. Confor has also calculated that failing to plant these forests will mean Scotland would miss the opportunity to soak up and store 55 million tonnes of carbon.
Forestry is inter-linked with other land uses, in particular agriculture, but it has developed almost in a silo over the last 50-60 years.
Looking forward, we need to better integrate forestry and farming so the agriculture sector can benefit from planting trees and managing farm woodlands.
We should also strengthen the links between forestry and house- building. Scotland’s forests provide an infinitely renewable supply of a low-carbon, high performance material that can be used to build warm, attractive homes for an expanding population.
It is vital to remember the fundamentals and ensure we maintain a focus on what needs to be done to help a £1bn sector thrive and deliver even more for Scotland.
We need to do that against the backdrop of the likelihood of the UK leaving the EU and an unclear future for Scotland, but we must not be consumed by it.
If we did that, to use everyone’s favourite forestry pun, we would be guilty of not seeing the wood for the trees.
• Stuart Goodall is chief executive of Confor: promoting forestry and wood www.confor.org.uk