WE are living in a period of uncertainty, where forecasts are torn up faster than ever. Elections go against polls, the economy defies predictions, and major political and economic shocks lurk in the shadows. And then you throw Donald Trump into the mix.
Forestry can seem relatively certain and stable in comparison. Trees grow quietly in the background, taking 40 years or more to mature. Without fuss, they lock up carbon and provide homes for wildlife and places for people to walk or cycle. But those working in the sector have been shouting for some time that uncertainty over future supplies of wood threatens this rural industry.
In recent years, politicians have begun to listen, and to act, and a cross-party consensus may be emerging about the need to think long-term about forestry to match the natural cycle of the trees we grow.
In Scotland, interest in tree planting has been increasing as a result of positive changes to the grant scheme proposed by Confor (Confederation of Forest Industries), supported by a climate of confidence created by Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing’s commitment to tackle delays in approving applications to plant.
There is broad support amongst environmental and conservation groups for more tree planting, as long as it targets ‘the right tree in the right place’. Thankfully, there are detailed standards for establishing new forests and a consultation process that gives people a voice. However, decisions need to be made timeously on the basis of evidence and relevant comment. Proposals to plant larger woodlands have often become bogged down unnecessarily, and that has to change.
An excellent and pragmatic report by former Scottish Government Chief Planner Jim Mackinnon into how the process should work was recently prepared for Mr Ewing. If properly implemented, it should deliver significant improvements.
The report was referred to by a number of MSPs as they debated forestry on 24 January, led by Mr Ewing but with a range of positive contributions from across the parties. Watching the debate, I was heartened by the positive tone as much as the common ground that emerged.
Peter Chapman, rural affairs spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, summed this up when he noted that there was a great deal of consensus at Holyrood on the goals and priorities for forestry.
The debate came hard on the heels of the announcement by Roseanna Cunningham that forestry had a big part to play in her plans to meet Scotland’s ambitious climate change targets – the current tree planting target of 10,000 hectares a year (about 22 million trees) would rise to 15,000 hectares (33 million trees) by 2024-25.
However, Scotland has not hit its current targets, so things must change. Part of the process is the sector doing more to explain what modern forestry means. It is not the monoculture blocks of Sitka spruce planted in the 70s and 80s. Modern forestry is designed to sit well in its setting and benefit people and wildlife, with buffer zones, open spaces, mixed species, access paths and more – as well as productive trees for the things we all need.
Much of the opposition to planting trees is based on outdated views of forestry and a lack of appreciation of the benefits to society. There is also a big opportunity to explain to sheep farmers why they could benefit from planting trees on part of their land – something made more difficult by the Common Agricultural Policy.
It is ironic that leaving the EU may just provide the opportunity for farmers to enter into a practice – farm forestry – that is common on the Continent.
The forestry sector is not immune from the climate of uncertainty and the impact of changing political and economic circumstances, but it will weather those better if it can look ahead knowing that successive Scottish Governments understand its needs.
Planting more trees benefits our environment, economy and communities – and that’s a certainty.
Stuart Goodall is chief executive of Confor: promoting forestry and wood.