FORESTRY is a Scottish success story, supporting almost 40,000 jobs and contributing nearly £1.7 billion to the economy every year.
It is also a backdrop to Scotland’s tourism industry – many iconic Scottish landscapes and images feature forests, and tourists and locals alike enjoy walking, biking or viewing wildlife in these special areas.
Our forests are unique in that they can combine a working environment with places for recreation and nature. Most are actively managed and produce wood to supply the materials for our everyday lives.
Our ancestors used wood for shelter, fire and hunting. While we no longer need to hunt for food, we still build with wood, and use it for fuel. This sounds wonderful, and indeed Scotland’s forest industry has bucked the economic downturn with continued investment of around £50 million a year. Increased production and expanding exports have had an annual beneficial impact of £1bn on the UK’s balance of payments. But all is not green in the forest garden. The public image of forestry is stuck in the 20th century; think forestry, and many imagine dark, impenetrable blocks of trees where nothing lives. When trees are harvested, it’s assumed they will not be replaced. These misconceptions make it harder to achieve support for new woodland creation, especially those containing a proportion of trees grown to supply future stocks of wood.
If we do not overcome this, we will damage rural employment, undermine carbon reduction targets and, ironically, undermine much of the wildlife that popular perception believes is damaged by forestry. The successful reintroduction of the sea eagle has seen these majestic birds set up home in forests managed to produce wood, alongside other birds of prey and the iconic red squirrel.
Wood production and availability is at a modern-day peak due to high levels of historic planting, but forestry is long-term, with planning horizons stretching 15-25 years – and investment will only continue if Scottish businesses can guarantee a supply of wood.
The problem is the stark fall in softwood planting (the mainstay of the forestry sector) since the early 1990s. In more than 20 years since 1991, only 41,000 hectares (ha) has been planted, compared to 215,000ha in 1981-90 alone – an astonishing drop. Successive Scottish Governments have committed to 6,000ha of new softwood planting annually, which would provide the required confidence in future supply. Scotland is also losing large swathes of softwood forestry to windfarms, conversion to other habitats, and changes to the make-up of existing productive forests to make them more diverse and attractive to wildlife.
This cannot continue. Wood availability will peak around 2025-2030, then fall steeply. This is a long-term problem with short-term consequences; reduced confidence in future raw material supply will lead to a drop in investment, job losses and reduced economic growth.
We have to plant far more trees in the next decade than we are doing now, to secure the future of a successful industry, vital also for our existing forests. If forests are not managed, they do become dark and impenetrable, and unwelcoming to wildlife and people.
Scotland’s wood-using businesses generate the income to pay for management; if these businesses decline, so will our forests.
There are people who want to plant trees and we need to ensure Scotland’s regulatory and grants system for land allows them to do so, to achieve what all of Scotland needs – new, well-managed, multi-benefit forests that provide the wood we need for our everyday lives, while allowing people and wildlife to enjoy the woodland environment. The forestry sector is campaigning on this issue and had a productive meeting recently with forestry minister Paul Wheelhouse and enterprise minister Fergus Ewing, who recognised the significance of softwood forestry and reaffirmed the commitment to plant 10,000ha a year until 2022, with a 60:40 split in favour of productive softwoods.
The ministers also delivered a clear message to the sector to keep planting, stressing that the latest reform to the Common Agricultural Policy should not lead to unnecessary and potentially damaging delays. There was also support from Mr Wheelhouse and Mr Ewing for ensuring that grants do not dissuade landowners from planting productive softwoods.
This is encouraging, but it is important that it leads to real action; the future of a sector that can do great things for Scotland depends upon it.
• Stuart Goodall is chief executive of Confor: promoting forestry and wood (www.confor.org.uk)