I have the privilege of travelling across the UK and seeing how Government attitudes to forestry are developing and playing out – and it is clear to me that Scotland is well ahead. Scotland leads in its understanding of how important forestry and wood processing is to the economy and to the environment and it leads in implementing policies to deliver more forestry and the greater use of wood.
The Scottish Government is now developing a new forestry strategy, the first in over a decade, and that provides the perfect opportunity to set a future direction to build on the progress made so far. In doing so, there are a few recent events it should bear in mind.
The sector continues to attract considerable investment, with the £90 million-plus recently committed by Norbord at Inverness continuing a trend that has seen hundreds of millions of pounds invested in the wood processing sector in Scotland over the last decade.
It is worth remembering that the wood processing sector is dominated by family-owned businesses, businesses that are committed to investing in Scotland, with long-term secure employment.
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the UK and Scottish Governments’ independent adviser on tackling climate change, has just identified, again, that tree planting is an increasingly vital part of meeting our ambitious climate change targets. It now recognises that using wood from our forests will play a key part in that as well – growing trees lock up carbon and using wood in our houses, kitchens, bedrooms, decks and gardens, locks that carbon up while new trees are grown to replace those that have been harvested.
I spoke with a special adviser to a UK Government minister recently who had read the CCC report and who described increased tree planting as a ‘no-brainer’.
Those who know me, will have heard me evangelise about how trees and timber can be the economic activity and premier building material of the 21st century – infinitely renewable, versatile, designed for a low-carbon economy and embracing environmental benefits at every stage from forest to home. Let’s embed that for future generations with a forestry strategy that we can all be proud of.
The current Scottish Forestry strategy dates from 2006 – when the Scottish Government was known as the Scottish Executive, Labour’s Jack McConnell was First Minister, Ruth Davidson was working for the BBC and England lost to Portugal in the World Cup quarter finals – so there has been progress….
Since 2006, of course, we have had both the Scottish independence referendum and the Brexit vote. The decision to leave the European Union has huge implications for countryside policy, in Scotland and the wider UK.
While the EU has many advantages for business and Scotland clearly voted to remain, the consensus among the countryside lobby is that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has not always been good for Scotland – and if Brexit means anything, it gives an opportunity to redesign how we support Scotland’s rural industries in future.
With demand for timber and wood products at an all-time high (and growing) and with the UK the second biggest net importer of timber products in the world (after China), it’s time to look again at how much forestry and woodland Scotland needs in future.
It’s clear that forestry can generate sustainable rural employment, from the Highlands to the Borders, thanks in large part to the significant investment by Norbord, BSW, James Jones & Sons, EGGER, Glennon Brothers and other wood processors. The benefits of growing more of what we need at home rather than relying on expensive importers are self-evident.
A new Forestry Strategy is an opportunity to look at the wider benefits of forestry and how Scotland compares with other European countries where forest cover is around one-third of the countryside.
France, Germany, Spain and Italy all combine much greater level of woodland cover with thriving agricultural sectors. Why can’t we do the same?
Projects like the Forestry Commission’s Sheep and Trees and Confor’s own Farm Forestry publication show how tree planting can benefit our hill farmers by providing shelter for livestock (and healthier animals as a result) and a diversified long-term income.
We have the opportunity to set the direction of travel for Scottish forestry, perhaps for 50 years or more.
It is vital that we grasp that opportunity with both hands and leave a meaningful legacy for future generations. They will thank us for that.
Stuart Goodall is chief executive of Confor: promoting forestry and wood.