IN my job, I am often asked to defend modern productive forestry. I always refuse; it is an activity that does not require defending.
Instead, I reply that I want to explain what modern forestry is, to provide evidence. All I ask is for the listener to take the time to look at that evidence and not rely on perceptions based on forestry 30 or 40 years ago.
There is a wealth of evidence that modern productive forestry delivers a triple whammy of environmental, social and economic benefit; Michael Gove saw that this week when he visited the UK’s largest new forest in the Ochils.
There are 1.3 million trees of 16 different species growing at Jerah, on the hillside above Menstrie, a village flooded as recently as 2012. The new forest has already helped to reduce flood risks.
Local schoolchildren have created a community woodland on the lower slopes while new forest roads have improved access to higher slopes for walkers, fell-runners and mountain bikers. The site was designed to help restore black grouse populations… and all this before even considering the 183,000 tons of carbon the Jerah trees will soak up.
Mr Gove’s visit to Jerah is the latest positive sign that the wide-ranging benefits of tree planting are having an impact at the highest levels of government. Last month, Theresa May unveiled the UK Government’s 25-year environment plan, with forestry and timber at its heart. The same week, the Committee on Climate Change (which advises governments across the UK how to meet their carbon reduction targets) responded to the UK Government’s 2017 Clean Growth Strategy by calling for a significant increase in tree planting, and identifying carbon capture and storage (CCS) as the means to meet greenhouse gas targets. But, rather than costly, complex undersea CCS solutions, let’s go back to basics. The simplest, most effective way to capture and store carbon is by planting forests. Growing trees soak up carbon, which can then be stored in wood products after a tree is harvested. Simple and proven.
From around 2033, trees from Jerah will begin to supply sawmills and wood processors across Scotland – including Norbord at Cowie, which employs 330 people just eight miles away. Across Scotland, forestry and wood processing is a £1 billion business, providing 25,000 jobs.
While the benefits of new forests are massive, Scotland’s ambitions are modest. Our forest cover of just 18 per cent is about half the European average while global timber demand is predicted to treble by 2050. The UK is the second largest net importer of wood products in the world. We must do better to address this.
The Scottish Government’s policy to plant trees is based on clear environmental, economic and social benefits. New planting schemes don’t happen unless they meet the social and environmental demands of the UK Forestry Standard (UKFS). They must fit into the landscape, provide open space and access, and include an appropriate mixture of species.
It will be decades before modern, multi-purpose forests reach maturity and can be fully appreciated. Perhaps that is why we’re sometimes attacked with the sticks of the past.
Modern forestry is still coming of age, and as it matures, we learn more about how it can interact with, and benefit, people, wildlife and other land-uses. We don’t have to make a stark choice between farming or forestry, sheep or trees. In 2018, we no longer face an either/or option; it’s about balance and sustainability.
Giving over a portion of a farm to tree planting is not failure. It means diversified production and a new income stream, improved shelter for animals and more efficient livestock management. Of course, there are many strongly-held views about what’s right for our countryside and the mixed land-use which characterises Scotland’s rural landscape must remain. But we must have an open and respectful debate about the way forward, particularly once the UK leaves the EU. Confor has contributed positively with its Common Countryside Policy paper, examining how we might support rural areas after Brexit.
We are always open to dialogue and will continue talking with farmers, local communities, environmentalists and landowners to deliver a prosperous, sustainable future for our countryside. But that dialogue must be based on facts and evidence, not historic and outdated perceptions.
Stuart Goodall is chief executive of Confor, which represents 1500 forestry and wood-using businesses.