The area of new woodland being created in Scotland has fallen to its lowest level in five years, a new analysis by The Ferret has found.
According to figures from the Scottish Government’s forestry agency, 8190 hectares of new woodland were created in the past year – a lower total than in each of the four previous years.
The total area of new woodland created has been falling every year from a high of 11210 hectares in 2018/19.
Two years ago, during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow, environment minister Mairi McAllan stated: “Planting more trees, and sustainably managing our forests is one part of the global solution” to global warming. Highlighting Scotland’s record in this area, she invited world leaders to “share our success story so that other nations can grow and protect their own forests and woodlands.”
Since then, the Scottish Government has increased its tree planting targets annually. However, at the same time, the area of woodland actually being created has been falling. In the past year, just 8190 hectares were created against a target of 15,000 hectares – falling short by 45 per cent.
Conservation groups described the missed targets as “disappointing” and called for the government to act with “greater urgency and ambition.”
The Scottish Liberal Democrats accused ministers of “making sweeping climate pledges that are all surface and no substance,” and called on them to “start showing leadership and delivering on their own commitments.”
Scottish Forestry, the government agency responsible for forestry policy, said the equivalent of 102 million trees had been created in five years, despite the challenges of Brexit and Covid, describing progress as a “tremendous achievement”.
The past year also saw the Scottish Government miss its target for creating native woodland, with 2945 hectares planted against an objective of 4000. Peat restoration targets have also been missed for the fifth year running, as reported by The Ferret.
Scotland’s native woodlands include iconic landscapes such as the Caledonian Forest and the temperate rainforests of the west coast, which are particularly important for wildlife and biodiversity as well as fighting global warming.
As a result, conservation groups have called for greater action to restore these fragments of habitat, pointing to Scotland’s status as one of the most nature-degraded countries in the world.
Vicki Swales, head of land use policy at RSPB Scotland said: “We support woodland restoration and expansion, especially of our native woodlands such as our Caledonian Pinewoods and Scotland’s own rainforest – it’s Atlantic Oak woods.
She added: “These wonderful habitats are already fragmented and under pressure – just one reason why Scotland is the 28th most nature degraded country on the planet. We need action to restore them and to create new native woodlands; this will help wildlife and tackle climate change and provide places for people to enjoy. The native woodland target of 4,000 [hectares] is already too low so it’s disappointing to see that progress in meeting it has been slow in recent years.”
Steve Micklewright, CEO of rewilding charity Trees for Life, said: “With Scotland ranking among the most sparsely wooded nations in Europe, and with native woodland able to make a massive contribution to overcoming the nature and climate emergencies, the government now needs to act with greater urgency and ambition if it stands a chance of delivering on these vital commitments to nature, people and climate.”
However, others gave credit to the ambition of Scotland’s woodland targets, and compared its record positively to other parts of the UK. George Anderson, spokesman for the Woodland Trust, said that Scotland has “consistently set the most ambitious woodland creation targets in the UK and is the only part of the UK” that comes anywhere near meeting its targets. He added: “It is important to look at any figures in that context. It is disappointing when targets are not met but we welcome the fact that action is being taken.”
Many in the conservation sector also pointed to the importance of natural regeneration of woodland as opposed to focusing only on tree-planting schemes. Regeneration sees trees being left to re-grow naturally, a process which takes longer and often requires the control of deer, which eat young saplings.
A spokesperson for Scottish Forestry said Scotland has the “most ambitious” woodland creation targets in the UK and — despite multiple challenges over the years, including Covid, Brexit and the “worst storms of the decade” — has created around 51,000 [hectares] of new woodland over the past five years – the equivalent of 102 million trees. “This is a tremendous achievement,” they claimed.
“Last year, Scottish Forestry approved 11,000 of applications however 25 per cent of these projects were either delayed or not taken forward by landowners and this is something government does not have control of but we need to bottom out why that happened. Although we are naturally disappointed that there has been a dip in new planting we are encouraged that there is still strong demand out there to get trees in the ground. Already this year, Scottish Forestry has approved 10,800 ha of new woodland and there’s more in the pipeline to come.”
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