Why we should all be hugging trees

It grows sustainable building materials and provides space for people and wildlife – so why don’t we applaud forestry, asks Stuart Goodall
Scotlands sea eagles like to nest in old commercial conifer forests. Picture: Phil WilkinsonScotlands sea eagles like to nest in old commercial conifer forests. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Scotlands sea eagles like to nest in old commercial conifer forests. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Forestry has an image problem. While those in the industry feel passionate about what they do, and can see the many benefits they provide, society’s view of forestry often seems to be based on a drip feed of outdated comments and caricatures.

Some popular stereotypes include: conifers are “bad trees”; cutting down a tree is environmentally damaging; forests are for wildlife and recreation and should not be managed to produce anything – and heaven forbid, not to provide an income.

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The Scottish Government is currently asking Scots to choose a national tree. What price the Scots Pine – a conifer? Environmental agencies highlight that a lack of management in a forest undermines biodiversity, as harvesting trees brings in light and supports species that need more open space. Without income, how can we afford to manage any of Scotland’s forests?

In the last century, successive governments decided we needed more trees and formed the Forestry Commission, which succeeded in increasing the UK’s forest area from 5 per cent to more than 12 per cent – between its own efforts and grants to private landowners. In the process, a new industry was formed, with Scotland as the UK’s forestry powerhouse. Around 18 per cent of Scotland is now covered by woodland and the industry supports 40,000 jobs and adds £1.7 billion in economic value annually.

Biodiversity and open space

Forestry works with the ultimate renewable product – a tree – and manages forests and woodland to standards independently assessed as sustainable by the environmentalists’ favourite, the Forest Stewardship Council. These standards see an owner giving up typically 25 per cent of the productive capacity of their woodland to create areas for biodiversity and open space and to design woodlands to complement the landscape.

This modern-day reality, however, stubbornly fails to permeate the popular consciousness – and stereotypes and misperceptions remain dominant. Television and radio programmes on rural affairs often perpetuate the popular, negative view of forestry. They rarely discuss the subject without praising the removal of conifers, including the Scots Pine, and never consider that forests may provide mainstream materials for society – timber frames for housing, fencing, decking, pallets and all manner of building materials – and major rural employment in areas where jobs are often very hard to come by.

Forestry is not, of course, just about conifers and it is important to see all Scotland’s forests, of all types, well managed. But, we are failing so much of a unique Scottish asset if the major part of that resource is at best misunderstood, and at worst vilified.

A long process

The forestry sector in the 21st century takes far greater account of the environment and people, and is in the process of adapting the forests of last century to bring them up to modern standards.

This is a long process, but we are already seeing many excellent examples of mixed-use forests where commercial crops are grown and the forest also provides excellent social and recreational opportunities, whether this is bird-watching, dog-walking, mountain biking or myriad other activities.

Do most people stop and think as they cycle or walk through our forests about the type of trees around them? Of course not; they just want good facilities and open aspects. Large, well-managed, productive forests can provide a wide range of amenities, not to mention enormous environmental benefits – soaking up carbon by planting trees in the first place and storing carbon in wood products. Sawn softwood is a great building material, visually and environmentally. A tonne of brick requires four times the energy of sawn softwood to produce, a tonne of concrete, five times more energy and a tonne of steel, 24 times more. Productive forestry, once established, can exist without public subsidy and provide significant rural employment. Yet for some, it is still the rural bogey-man, while farming is viewed as part of the fabric of rural Scotland and a worthwhile, productive business.

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Why can’t forestry be accepted as one too, especially when it delivers so much more for the environment – and when it is much less reliant on public subsidy than farming?

Just ask the iconic sea eagles about forestry. Not long ago, I was told by a wildlife “expert” that planting new forests should be restricted in areas where they roam – and then I saw for myself that sea eagles often choose to nest in old commercial conifer forests.

Clearly, sea eagles don’t have TVs or radios.

• Stuart Goodall is Chief Executive of Confor: promoting forestry and wood, visit www.confor.org.uk