What opportunities for expansion does a new Forestry Bill present for Scottish forestry?

A bill to bring the Scottish sector under the control of Scottish ministers is expected to further accentuate the different fates of forestry in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Image: Tony Court (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Image: Tony Court (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Those fates are already diverging. Tree planting in England has fallen to a historic low, with only 525ha of new woodland created in the year to the end of March, according to Forestry Commission figures, while in Wales just 100ha, or around 220,000 trees, were planted last year.

By contrast, the Scottish Government raised its target of new planting earlier this year from 10,000ha to 15,000ha a year by 2024-25 — a jump from 22 million to 33 million trees per year.

Scotland is already home to roughly half of the UK’s £2bn timber industry, yet has less than 10% of England’s population, so an industry employing some 25,000 people clearly carries more political clout north of the border.

Last month at the Royal Highland Show in Edinburgh, Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon said that as well as its economic role, forestry "helps us to meet our climate change targets and contributes to the well-being of communities across the country". She added: "More than three-quarters of new woodlands created in the UK last year were planted here in Scotland. We want to do even more to meet the targets that we have set ourselves, and the new legislation provides a framework which will help us do that."

Launched by cabinet secretary for the rural economy and connectivity Fergus Ewing MSP in May, the bill seeks to ensure that the National Forest Estate in Scotland — covering more than 650,000ha and representing around one-third of all woodland and 9% of all land — will be managed to deliver economic, environmental and social outcomes simultaneously.

It places a duty on ministers to promote "sustainable forest management", which can be delegated to community bodies, and to publish a forestry strategy. It also gives ministers sole responsibility for plant health in Scotland and contains provisions for the acquisition and disposal of public forestry land.

Separate to the bill, the Scottish Government will create a new executive agency, Forestry & Land Scotland, and a dedicated forestry division within government. Current staff from Forestry Commission Scotland and Forest Enterprise Scotland will transfer to these new bodies, while the local Forestry Commission office network, and hence expertise, will be retained.

Woodland Trust Scotland director Carol Evans says the bill is "an opportunity for the official definition of forestry to catch up with 50 years of improved practice on the ground", adding: "Modern forestry is no longer just about timber supply but about sustainable forest management, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, community engagement and tourism."

A Woodland Trust Scotland representative tells Horticulture Week: "We are generally heartened by the Scottish Government's clear enthusiasm for forestry. We had hoped that Forestry Commission Scotland’s regulatory role would be maintained in a stand-alone body, but it is being absorbed into the Scottish Government. We are pleased this will be in a dedicated division, however, and the high priority forestry is being given goes a long way to reassure us."

Are we seeing a 'Treenaissance'?

"These are good times for Scottish forestry. Our public affairs manager Charles Dundas has coined the term ‘Treenaissance’."

Others are more guarded. Stuart Goodall, chief executive at forestry industry body Confor, says political engagement "is vital as we aim to grow our £1bn industry into a sector worth closer to £2bn". But he told the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy & Connectivity (REC) Committee last month that while the previous 1967 Forestry Act included a clear aspiration to expand the country’s forest resource, the current bill "fails to recognise and seek to protect the status of productive woodland on the national forest estate".

Alongside the political impetus for greater planting come efforts to increase demand for home-grown timber. The Scottish Government aims to increase the use of Scottish wood products in construction from its current 2.2 million to 2.6 million cubic metres by 2021-22 and three-million cubic metres by 2031-32. A Confor conference in September, at which Ewing will be the keynote speaker, will tie together the policy context for using more wood in construction with practical issues involved.

A report published in March by forestry company Scottish Woodlands and property services company Savills says the industry now faces "the best potential period for forestry expansion since the 1970s and 1980s", due not only to political support for a sustainable structural timber frame industry and for off-site factory-built homes, but also the "dramatic" increase in demand for wood fuel seen over the past decade, which "is set to continue as the biomass energy markets grow".

New productive forests "will undoubtedly benefit from constrained wood supply in years to come", helped by possible reduction in upland sheep farming as agricultural subsidies are reformulated post-Brexit, it adds, and suggests plantation values "will rise by 32% over the next five years".

The bill, meanwhile, is not being introduced in a hurry. The REC Committee is taking written evidence until 16 August and will hold further evidence sessions on the bill in September, with a draft report then due to be prepared over the October recess.

Viewpoint: Chris Allan, general manager, Alba Trees Nursery

Fergus Ewing MSP visited East Lothian-based Alba Trees, the UK's largest container-grown forest nursery, shortly after launching the bill.

"We were asked to comment on whether forest nurseries in Scotland are able to meet the demand for trees to fulfil planting targets in Scotland. We considered that nurseries would require sound finances and a consistent supply of labour. What Alba and the nursery industry really need is confidence in the market, an efficient grant approval process and consistent Government support.

"Having spoken to the other private nurseries in Scotland, the cumulative potential sales we could achieve total 46 million plants.  At an average stocking density of 2,500 trees per hectare, that means that enough plants could theoretically be produced to cover 18,400ha.

"Given that the Scottish Government’s 15,000ha target does not include some major categories of forestry, it is clear that one or more of the private nurseries will be forced to expand to increase production in order to avoid a plant supply shortfall in the coming years.

"The work carried out by Forest Research and other cross-border agencies is invaluable for all those in the timber trade, not least due to the threat posed by the emergence and spread of various pests and diseases. It is incredibly important to ensure the continuity of research and information sharing following the devolution of these departments and functions.

"Whilst it is important that the Scottish Government does what it can to further the cause of Scottish forestry, the wider picture and a broader scope have to be maintained across the UK in these areas and any restructuring risks upsetting that balance."

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