Carla Gray: Barking up the wrong tree?

FORESTS once covered almost the entire landscape of Scotland. Today, it is a different story, as one look at most of the countryside around Edinburgh will tell you.

All this might change, though, if the Scottish Government achieves its aim of covering a quarter of the country with woodland.

It might seem ambitious, until you realise that 80 per cent of the country was this way a millennium ago – before our need for shelter, fuel and land led us to chop the majority down.

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Since that mass deforestation in the Middle Ages, Scotland's landscape has in remained relatively unchanged.

The Industrial Revolution may have seen more trees chopped down but a shortage of timber in the First Wold War prompted reforestation efforts, meaning today Scotland has more trees than at any time for 700 years.

The Scottish Government says it is committed to going even further, raising from 17 per cent to a full quarter the amount of the country covered by woods. Environment minister Roseanna Cunningham said this week that she expected this goal to be achieved by planting an extra 134 million hectares of trees.

Despite the talk, debate is raging among the forestry industry over whether enough is being done to encourage planting and meet the targets. Figures from the Forestry Commission show a drop in new forest plantings in Scotland since 2007-8, with 37 per cent fewer plantings expected this year.

This lack of interest does not surprise James Hepburne Scott, a local advisor to the Confederation of Forestry Industries. He thinks the difference in the grants offered for native woodland planting compared with conifer planting, which can be more than 1,000 per hectare, is a turn-off for investors.

"Unfortunately, many of us are influenced by the amount we'll get from the grant in the short term rather than the longer-term incentives that timber production has," he said. "It might be 30 or 40 years before the financial returns are made, and at that point the land might be in someone else's hands."

Mr Hepburne Scott said although there were opportunities within Scotland for private landowners to plant more trees, there is a perception that there are too many regulatory barriers.

"It seems local authorities are more likely to give permission to projects where native forests are being planted."

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A number of initiatives have been launched in a bid to encourage woodland areas and preserve natural habitats for threatened species.

One such project, launched in 2008, involves creating so-called "green corridors" across Edinburgh and the Lothians, by encouraging landowners and community groups to apply for grants, carry out new planting and improve existing woodlands. So far no planting has taken place, although the partnership's project officer Ian Whitehead said feasibility studies needed for future development work were going ahead.

The project is expected to span 40 years, but Mr Whitehead admitted the recession had affected it. He said: "A lot of new proposals haven't been happening. Farmers and landowners have been hit by the economic conditions and people are unwilling to move from farming into trees."

Other revenue streams that would have helped the scheme's planning work, such as contributions from housing and infrastructure projects, have simply not materialised.

"In the south-east of Edinburgh there's no work going on at all, as the planned work that would have funded the greening initiatives is not happening," Mr Whitehead said.

It would be easier, argued Mr Hepburne Scott, if the EU, which sets the rules and targets for climate change, allowed carbon emissions to be offset by tree planting.

What has happened instead is moves towards voluntary carbon offsetting, where businesses can opt into paying for trees to be planted in exchange for the ability to market their corporate responsibility.

One such local business is the tourism operator Rabbie's Trail Burners. It calculates how much CO2 is emitted from its tours and self-imposes a tax of 10 per tonne of carbon dioxide, with the proceeds being donated to Scottish charities with a focus on sustainability.

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Mr Hepburne Scott thinks this is one area that could offer some hope to private investors and help kick-start efforts to get more trees in the ground.

He said: "The Forestry Commission is currently working on establishing a quality assurance scheme for planting that would give corporations confidence the money they want directed into carbon offsetting is being well spent."

Some corporate heavyweights have already signalled their interest in this scheme, including Marks & Spencer. Its head of environment, Rowland Hill, said the company wanted to find a way to invest in climate change mitigation techniques that the public could recognise.

"We like the fact that our customers can visit the site rather than us telling them about an activity we're investing in in another country."

That is the sort of thing private investors such as Mr Hepburne Scott want to hear. "The current rules and incentives have created a negative climate for investment," he said. "So negative that it's not happening."

If the government wants to ensure the green shoots of its forestry plan do not wither and die, it seems it will need to do more to ensure the funding and support – as well as the promises – are properly tended to.